Monday, October 01, 2007

Justified Paranoia?

I live in one of the many colorful neighborhoods of Montreal. From on my tiny balcony overlooking the street, I can witness a whole palette of ethnicities meander by the lenses of my camera.
Despite the fact that every Sunday the neighborhood transforms into little Manila, I think that the Jewish community is still predominant in the area.

Every year the JCC (Jewish Community Center) undergoes some sort of renovation or innovation even; and this year is no different; they will be working on adding an extra building to their school. They will remove parking space and relocate kid’s playground, to make way for new architecture.

It just so happens that the firm I work for, got the commission to work on this ambitious project. Out of convenience (since I live close to the site), my boss approached me and asked if I could pass by the JCC and take photos of the existing condition; a normal and habitual procedure before embarking on the design, so we know our way around the site.
- _z, would you be able to pass by the JCC tomorrow to take some pictures?
[a moment of silence]
- I would… except you don’t want that; I am Lebanese. (I said with a smile)
- So What?
- You don’t seem to understand. The JCC is under surveillance most of the time, and there are police cars patrolling the area around the clock.
- It’s true I didn’t think that way.
- It’s just that they are going to ask so many questions, and being Lebanese will most probably complicate things.
- Give them your business card, and you’ll be fine!
- Hahahaha, you think?
- Okay! I’ll ask M-E to go.
A few minutes after this conversation was over, I felt like shit. This wasn’t like me. I never thought this way before. I have always tried to evade prejudice and classification, and more so, I never was afraid of anyone. Something stung me that day, and made me decide to see race and religion.

Nothing will ever be right, as long as humanity is still plunged in this mechanism of hypnotic paranoia. I also fell in her trap. I am stupid.

A day goes by, M-E comes back from photo day, her face black with anger. A. had gone with her. He is going to be working on the project also, and might as well visit the grounds; his tagging along had proven to be an excellent move. Upon arrival, the guard intercepted their work. He forbade them to take further pictures.
He never addressed a single glance at M-E.
She spoke; he pretended she is not in his realm.

When they told the story, we all laughed, and started picturing what would have happened, if I had accepted the task.

The first layer of the story details, how my Paranoia was justified, and how I had the right to have been skeptical and hesitant.

The second layer tells a different story: Any “center” or institution, would have asked questions if approached with a camera lens.
It is even imperative in times like this.
So why am I telling the story to begin with. Why am I writing this?
Forget about the part of the guard not looking at M-E… that’s fanaticism. I despise fanaticism in any shape and form, so that’s not the issue.

Why am I telling the story this way? Why am I presenting it like that?

Here’s what I think about differences:
At first level, there is no fear.
We have personal friendships.
When it groups to a big number, it gets a bit weird.
At the level of communities, the “malaise” occurs.

So it’s all a matter of scale really.
And maybe, just maybe… my paranoia was justified after all.

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At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Super Dude said...


This is not to make you feel better, its just a comment.

I have been living in your city for a long time, I have a name that is not very inconspicuous but I don't have the looks that go with it. It confuses the hell out of people. Oh yeah, I was born in the same country as you.

Although I have never been harassed, my policy has always been to avoid situations like you describe. It has nothing to do with prejudice, or racism, it is about understanding the dynamics of the current society, the time we live in, and adapting accordingly.

You want to call it paranoia, go ahead. I would have done exactly the same thing without a second thought. For me it would be the right thing to do, according to the realities of our time.

At the level of communities, the “malaise” occurs.

Why is it a malaise? Here is the definition of community:

A community is a social group of organisms sharing an environment, normally with shared interests. In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

So you see, it is a group of people, assembled together by a comfort zone if you will. If that comfort zone excludes certain elements, groups or individuals, it is normal for the community to have a certain reaction when those excluded are introduced to the community.

Conclusion? You can't blame humans for being humans.

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Red said...

Wow, Super Dude has said it all in a more articulate manner than I could ever have hoped for...

It's a sad state of affairs, sure, but it's the way things are, and we have to accept that.

One thing I'm not clear on: was the guard being awkward towards ME because she is a woman?

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Mar said...

It's Just Justified :p interestingly funny story

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Maya@NYC said...

i don't agree with you... your paranoia doesn't seem to be justified exactly because the treatment you feared to receive being lebanese was given to someone else although they were not lebanese/arab.
i think, like you mentionned, that the prejudice was against the camera lens more than against whoever was actually holding it.
i could be naive... but it makes life more bearable...

At 2:43 PM, Blogger _z. said...

Super dude_

As red said, your comment is spot on, and it does actually make me feel a bit better.

You and I are very much alike it seems… the name, and the looks that don’t go with it, and the fact that I too have never been harassed (except when traveling to the US), and to my conscious knowledge, I don’t think I’ve been subject to prejudice and/or discrimination. However, what differs my behavior from yours is that I never try to avoid situations like that. I never think I should. Quite the opposite rather, I more than often plunge into those scenes as if trying to prove a point of some sort; trying to prove that relationships are still healthy, as I imagine them to be in my head… in my own cocoon.

It is absolutely crucial, like you said, to understand the dynamics of the world and how societies are structured, and then act upon that, I totally agree. This should actually be applied to everything and anything, but at the level of community (as I say), there should be more (it should be more “utopic” and “humane”).
Your definition for “a community” is a bit incomplete for my taste. To be called a “community” I think that a group of organisms should be sharing a little bit more than environments and interests. They should have something resembling relationships and exchange (symbiosis if you like)… and relationships require tolerance and therefore acceptance; which is hard to find in our days.

In the end, my fears and my paranoia were proven wrong, since others (non-Lebanese) were also questioned. If I had gone, would I have gotten the same treatment, would I have been on the 11 o’clock news, or would I have been welcomed with open arms? Because you know, the “other” might feel the same “malaise” I talk about, and may want to compensate, or prove my speculation wrong.

Maybe he has the same paranoia (or cautiousness) I speak of.

"It is normal for the community to have a certain reaction when those excluded are introduced to the community".

What do you mean by excluded. There is indeed a certain reaction, when anything new is introduced to a community. There will be a period of investigation, familiarization, and then eventually acceptance. But the word “excluded” seems a bit strong, especially with globalization and the world becoming so small. And who/what decides the identity of a cosmopolitan community? Number, age / time of stay, power, riches, race?

Why am I the excluded one?

Thnx for dropping by and please come more often...

At 3:00 PM, Blogger _z. said...

The world is sad indeed, but it is upon the "illuminate" to make it homier.

Yes the guard did not consider M-E, only because she is a woman... sad but true.
As I was saying in my text, fanaticism and extremism (in all religions and races) should be disdained.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger _z. said...

really you think? my paranoia was justified? even if others were stopped also?

maya @ NYC doesn't seem to think so.

I am not sure anymore. One could argue that if it was me, I would have had a far worse treatment, but who knows. that's adding accusation to paranoia... and that's not healthy really.

At 6:10 AM, Blogger an OTHER human being.. said...

"Deadly Identities", Amin Maalouf - 1998.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger _z. said...

since my good friend, another human being listed the book "Deadly Identities" without providing an excerpt or a summary of what the book deals with, I took the liberty of pasting this, for whoever is interested, and will not buy and read the book:

"Deadly Identities - By Amin Maalouf.

Since I left Lebanon in 1976 to establish myself in France, I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese. I always give the same answer: "Both." Not in an attempt to be fair or balanced but because if I gave another answer I would be lying. This is why I am myself and not another, at the edge of two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. This is precisely what determines my identity. Would I be more authentic if I cut off a part of myself?

To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and "Gulliver's Travels" in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.

Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.

Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: "You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?"

This question made me smile for a long time. Today, it no longer does. It reveals to me a dangerous and common attitude men have. When I am asked who I am "deep inside of myself," it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one "belonging" that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our "essence" that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes. As for the rest, all of the rest -- the path of a free man, the beliefs he acquires, his preferences, his own sensitivity, his affinities, his life -- all these things do not count. And when we push our contemporaries to state their identity, which we do very often these days, we are asking them to search deep inside of themselves for this so-called fundamental belonging, that is often religious, nationalistic, racial or ethnic and to boast it, even to a point of provocation.

Whoever claims a more complex identity becomes marginalized. A young man born in France of Algerian parents is obviously part of two cultures and should be able to assume both. I said both to be clear, but the components of his personality are numerous. The language, the beliefs, the lifestyle, the relation with the family, the artistic and culinary taste, the influences -- French, European, Occidental -- blend in him with other influences -- Arabic, Berber, African, Muslim. This could be an enriching and fertile experience if the young man feels free to live it fully, if he is encouraged to take upon himself his diversity; on the other side, his route can be traumatic if each time he claims he is French, some look at him as a traitor or a renegade, and also if each time he emphasizes his links with Algeria, its history, its culture, he feels a lack of understanding, mistrust or hostility.

The situation is even more delicate on the other side of the Rhine. Thinking about a Turk born almost 30 years ago near Frankfurt, and who has always lived in Germany, and who speaks and writes the German language better than the language of his Fathers. To his adopted society, he is not German, to his society of birth, he is no longer really Turkish. Common sense dictates that he could claim to belong to both cultures. But nothing in the law or in the mentality of either allows him to assume in harmony his combined identity.

I mentioned the two first examples that come to my mind. I could have mentioned many others. The case of a person born in Belgrade from a Serb mother and a Croatian father. Or a Hutu woman married to a Tutsi. Or an American that has a black father and a Jewish mother.

Some people could think these examples unique. To be honest, I don't think so. These few cases are not the only ones to have a complex identity. Multiple opposed "belongings" meet in each man and push him to deal with heartbreaking choices. For some, this is simply obvious at first sight; for others, one must look more closely.

Who does not perceive a personal friction in Europe today that will certainly increase between being part of an old European nation -- France , Spain , Denmark , Great Britain -- and at the same time being part of an emerging continental identity? And how many Europeans from the Basque Country to Scotland still feel a profound and powerful attachment to a region, its people, its history, and its language? Who in America today can consider his place in society without any reference to his old ties: African, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish or other?

That being said, I must admit that my first examples do possess something distinctive. All of them are about people who belong to different components of society that are violently opposing one another today; people at the border in a way, crossed by lines of ethnic, religious or other fractures. Because of this situation, that I do not dare call "privileged," these people have a special role to play: building bonds, resolving misunderstandings, reasoning with some, moderating others, smoothing and mending conflicts. Their inherent vocation is to be links, bridges, mediators between different communities and different cultures. This is why their dilemma is full of significance. If these people cannot live their multiple belongings, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions.

"Have to choose," "ordered to get back," I was saying. By whom? Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us. Precisely, because these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.
I feel like screaming aloud: This is how you "manufacture" slaughterers! I admit it is an abrupt affirmation but I will be explaining it in this book.

This article is excerpted from Amin Maalouf’s “Les identité meurtriè [Deadly Identities] (Grasset, 1998),

Translated for Al Jadid from the French by Brigitte Caland

This excerpt appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 25 (Fall 1998). "

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Coco said...

".., would I have been on the 11 o’clock news, or would I have been welcomed with open arms?"
Why are you going to extremes? :)

I wish you had gone and see what happens. Domage!

I think that the first reaction would have been towards the lense, as it happened to your coworker. Bass had you been asked to stay on the project and been back on the grounds on a regular basis... not sure if the identity question would've or would've not popped up... Interesting...

I work with a few Jewish people, two of which born and raised south of our borders, and during the July 06 War, they were the first to show concern about the safety of my family back home.. Then again, these are individuals and not a community.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger _z. said...


if I had gone, nothing would have happened. They would have asked me questions, and probably let me take a couple of pictures and that's it. But that's not the point.
My point from this text is to question that "weird situation" which as super dude describes as "avoidable". It really isn't specifically about the Jewish community.
I want to try and touch and explain this uncomfortable feel at the level of communities, when it totally doesn't exist at the personal level, just like you said.

I think it has to do with numbers... as simple as that. the bigger the number, more the paranoia...

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Super Dude said...


First of all thank you for the warm welcome.

Second I would like to apologize in advance if some of my comments are abrasive. I can be blunt sometimes.

In your second paragraph, you said: "To be called a “community” I think that a group of organisms should be sharing a little bit more than environments and interests."

Yes, it is good to have Utopian aspirations, but do not confuse them with reality as you unconsciously try to project them on actuality. You can believe in something, but only facts make the truth.

As for excluded, I used the wrong word. It should have been not part of.

How soon, or how fast, or how easy it is for the community to approve of outsiders depends on it's ability for acceptance of elements outside their common conditions.

As this discussion went on, the posters concluded with a high degree of certainty that the lens was not welcome. The rest was just projections of individual consciousness on the direction of the outcome. A mental exercise in social behavior.

Te real question in all of this is, which community are you part of? A Montréalais? By default you are labeling the individuals with the properties of their community. Which way should it be?

For me, adaptation and reality are the key words, the rest is academic. Proof? Well it is an anonymous discussion on Blogspot.

Thank you for the excerpt from Les Identités meurtrières.

At 11:22 PM, Blogger _z. said...

super dude_

I wasn't aware that I was alluding to Utopian aspirations. I was merely adding, or rewarding to your definition of communities.

I think, you and I also agree with fellow posters, that yes, the camera was not welcome, and just as you so eloquently stated, "he rest was just projections of individual consciousness on the direction of the outcome. A mental exercise in social behavior". Which in the end was the purpose of this whole post to begin with...

As for to which community do I belong? my friend I don't have the answer to that question.

Do you know?

(Don’t worry about being direct and blunt - fire at will)

At 6:40 PM, Blogger Lirun said...


i have a hard time getting into synagogue and im as jewish as it gets.. i get questioned and sometimes i give up and others i persist..

synagogues and jewish schools around the world are regularly subject to attack.. many get burned down and its sad but i wish it was only paranoia.. its actually a fact of life..

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Liliane said...

Well, I personally would avoid situations like this, but sometimes it is really not related to race or nationality anymore, sometimes you just get bugged because you're gonna get bugged...

At 3:12 AM, Blogger _z. said...

it's a strange and complex world we know that already.


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