August 5, 2021

In praise of the white plastic chair in the Middle East

LETTER FROM THE MIDDLE EAST

She is the faithful friend of journalists in the Middle East. Between the banks of the Nile and those of the Tigris, few reporters do without his services. She is never credited, but on these often clashed grounds, her contribution is crucial. This little-known heroine of the profession is the white plastic chair.

Four legs, a seat and a back, molded from the same coarse material, sometimes green, but more often white. A standard model, without charm or frills, that we find from Gaza to Kerbala, from Hama to Aqaba, used as well in the center of the cities as in the refugee camps, at the foot of the buildings as on their roofs, along from the sea than on the front line. This poor man’s armchair, resistant to all soils and all climates, considered a simple garden accessory in the West, is a key component of the Arab urban landscape.

For the foreign journalist, in search of contacts and references, this is therefore a precious ally, an unparalleled socialization agent, an unparalleled interview facilitator. The author of these lines, in twenty-two years of work on the Middle East – including eighteen during which he lived there, in Cairo, Ramallah and Beirut – has spent countless hours sitting on these simulated folding seats, to observe, discuss and fill in notebooks. As this period comes to an end, as the resettlement on the banks of the Seine looms, the time has come to look back and tell what the white plastic chair says about the Middle East.

The sidewalk, an extension of the living room

The omnipresence of this apparently innocuous article testifies to the entanglement of public and private spaces in Arab cities. Pulling out a plastic chair on the porch of your home, as so many residents of this region are used to doing, is like extending it on the asphalt.

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Because the home is cramped, unsanitary or overheated, the sidewalk becomes an extension of the living room. Because the apartment was damaged in a recent bombing, the street becomes an ersatz dining room. In the Gaza Strip, as in the Idlib pocket, the ultimate stronghold of the rebellion in northwestern Syria, to plant a white plastic chair in front of the rubble of your house is to defend your title as property and proclaim its desire to rebuild.

Whoever sits on this makeshift sofa acquires a pair of binoculars and headphones. This informal observation post allows him to monitor the comings and goings of neighbors, to watch their reactions to the news, to comment, to gossip, to gather a wealth of information on the life of his neighborhood. The white plastic chair is the natural working tool of the bawwab (concierge) and his double, the call sign moukhabarat (intelligence services). It is the revealer of the culture of social control, inquisitive, overwhelmingly male, which permeates Arab societies.

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