The price of Arab resilience

The price of Arab resilience
Comment: Too often, narratives of resilience are told in place of critique, letting those responsible for crony politics, corruption and human rights abuses off the hook, writes Nadine Talaat.
5 min read
11 Dec, 2020
'Many across the region are tired of being touted as resilient' writes Talaat [Getty]
For most Lebanese, the "resilience" adage is one they've heard one too many times, while digging through the rubble of civil war and occupation, taking to the streets to protest a corrupt government, or most recently when one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history ripped through downtown Beirut, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more.

With a reputation earned from surviving in the face of endless disasters and injustices, there is no doubt that Lebanon's much celebrated resilience has helped its people stay steadfast in the face of such immense hardship.

In the days and weeks after the explosion of 4 August, international news and social media were 
flooded with declarations of Lebanese resilience from all over the world, celebrating the fact that despite an economy devastated by the pandemic, a neglectful and corrupt government, and 2,750 tonnes of exploded ammonium nitrate, the Lebanese people will be alright. But the Lebanese rejection of this response soon emerged.

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story across the region. Like the Lebanese, the Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and others are often lauded as resilient for their ability to "bounce back" against the challenges they face, be they decades of occupation and apartheid, a tyrannical despot, or foreign invasion. And just like the Lebanese, many across the region are tired of being touted as resilient.

But by praising and celebrating resilience, we inadvertently romanticise and obscure all the suffering and injustice occurring behind it

By its very definition, resilience occurs in a context of facing adversity. And in a region rampant with hardship, stories of collective resilience often become a familiar catchphrase used to paint an inspiring "feel-good" picture out of the pain and suffering. But by praising and celebrating resilience, we inadvertently romanticise and obscure all the suffering and injustice occurring behind it. And in doing so, we become desensitised to the injustice, instead normalising it and establishing it as the de facto state of being - the rule rather than the exception. By glorifying and expecting resilience, we embed trauma into the very fabric of a community's existence.

The media loves a good story of resilience, perseverance, and stoicism in the face of hardship, reassuring us that those suffering will inevitably overcome their difficulties, as they always have. We become desensitised and complacent about violence in these communities, partly reminded by the media that even if the international community stands by and does nothing, they will be okay - that this is a familiar cycle that has played out many times before.

Read more: Lebanon's oligarchs crashed the economy, now they're making the people pay

Popular tropes of Lebanese "part(ying) straight through a civil war" and "rising from the ashes", Palestinians fighting drones and rockets with stones, and Syrians celebrating weddings and birthdays "amid the rubble" are apparently intended to showcase strength and perseverance. Yet this "feel-good" rhetoric often lacks the political context and systemic critique that is necessary to hold those responsible accountable. 

When we speak of resilience, we focus on the individuals who have suffered, telling their personal stories but often leaving their suffering devoid of thorough critique of the systemic failures that caused it. Rather than demanding accountability from corrupt governments, occupying powers, and invading forces for the devastating violence they enact, the rhetoric of resilience places the burden on those who are suffering to cope with their circumstances.

But perhaps what explains the media's focus on resilience most of all is how it makes us feel, as individual witnesses, in the face of tragedy and suffering. As our news channels and social media feeds are bombarded with images and videos of explosions, war, destruction of homes and livelihoods, the rhetoric of resilience provides an assurance that the people on our screens will naturally and inevitably recover.

Stories that should elicit outrage and indignation over failure to respect basic human rights are sanitised with a comforting reminder that these people are seasoned to hardship. Their plight is sugar-coated, turned into inspiring tales of individualised strength and determination to adapt and overcome. To lose our sense of outrage at injustice is dangerous because change does not come from a place of comfort. It is discomfort, anger, and an unwillingness to be swayed by resilience narratives that will bring justice.

The rhetoric of resilience places the burden on those who are suffering to cope with their circumstances

Since the Beirut blast, the economic conditions in Lebanon have continued to deteriorate, with half of the population expected to fall into poverty by 2021. In the West Bank, another innocent child has been murdered by Israeli forces in the latest state-sponsored killing. Israel continues to bomb Gaza, already crippled by a relentless blockade, with no accountability.

Is it possible that if we didn't see a community as so resilient, we would feel more of an urgency to alleviate their suffering? Is this the price of resilience?

Rather than blindly celebrate this adaptive capacity to persevere against adversity, we must force ourselves to ask why such chronic resilience has become necessary.

Communities forced to endure endless traumas are so resilient because it is a necessary skill for survival. There is no question that the stories of community strength, unity, and perseverance are awe-inspiring and courageous. But behind each story of resilience is an un-interrogated system of crony politics, human rights abuses, and an international community willing to sit by and let it all happen. Their resilience is the ultimate indictment of our abandonment.


Nadine Talaat is a research analyst and freelance writer based in London. Her interests include Middle East politics, US foreign policy, and media studies.

Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.