Shalom and Salaam in Syria (What Some Philosophers Say)

Tammam azzam bon voyageby Leanne Ogasawara

I can't recall now where I originally found this, but several years ago I stumbled on an interesting Japanese translation for the words shalom and salaam.

1) 平和 (対国、対神、対人) ・・・和平、和解 Peace (no conflict; no fighting)

2) 平安 (個人的)・・・平穏、無事、安心、安全 Inner peace and calm; no inner trouble
3) 繁栄 (商業的) Flourishing (business)
4) 健康 (肉体的、精神的) ・・・健全、成熟 Physical health
5) 充足 (生命的) ・・・満足、生きる意欲 Satisfaction, fullness, sufficiency
6) 知恵 (学問的) ・・・悟り、霊的開眼 Enlightenment, wisdom
7) 救い (宗教的) ・・・暗闇から愛の支配へ To be saved (by Love)
8) 勝利 (究極的) ・・・罪と世に対する勝利 Triumph (over evil)

Does shalom and salaam really embody all that the Japanese translator was suggesting above? I have no idea, but the proposed translation really struck me, I felt it captured the wonderfully generous spirit of hospitality that I experienced in the Middle East.

Like the Pax in the Catholic liturgy

Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always)

It is a sign of goodwill for the other. But it is also, I am told, a reminder that we cannot flourish in the eyes of God unless we recognize him in the people around us. This greeting dates to very early times in the Christian church and is an ancient practice informed by the hospitality codes that have such deep roots in the cultures of the Middle East (among other places).

And best of all, it is traditionally delivered with a kiss on the cheek.


Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote here in these pages about what I considered to be the delusional liberal response to the crisis in Syria.

It was at that time that I became utterly fascinated by Derrida and Levinas' “ethic of hospitality.”

Derrida's work on this subject is rooted firmly in the work of the Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. But Levinas himself was responding to –who else?– Heidegger.

(All roads lead to Heidegger).

Ah, herr Heidegger–he was so brilliant and yet how could a philosophical system that great have gone that awry? Levinas, who was Jewish, had a particularly strong complaint on this count.

Where did Heidegger go wrong? It is one of the great problems of modern Continental philosophy.

According to Levinas, Heidegger's philosophy was too rooted in notions of time and place vis-a-vis the caring subject. For Heidegger, this “dwelling” describes the embedded nature of our human existence. It was, however according to Levinas, too much ontology at the expense of ethics. Hence the problems.

Specifically, Levinas, with his grounding in Talmudic scholarship, found Heidegger's focus on particularist traditions and places to be problematic–since, as in Heidegger's case, it easily led to nationalism and tyranny. He, therefore, proposed a different moral imperative which focused on the inter-dependent nature of human existence. Rather than seeing modern human beings as being displaced persons needing of of a return to the homeland, Levinas called for an other-oriented act of “hospitality.” Levinas believed that a self can only have an authentic relationship to self and place when it welcomes the other. With a focus on genuine alterity and self-sacrifice (the inter-subjective nature of human existence), Levinas (and Derrida) considered this commitment to the Other to be our ultimate human obligation. And this welcoming must take place not just in the private space of the home but also in the public space of the homeland.

UCubedHospitality: the ultimate challenge?

I write a lot in these pages about all the many changes I experienced when I moved back to the U.S. after twenty years overseas. One of the most saddening ones I experienced was the seemingly complete disappearance and collapse of neighborliness and hospitality. The death of social capital? It has been really unnerving to see–compared to Japan or compared to my childhood in California, people here seem to have lost the ability to be hospitable. (I miss Japan every day).

Whether into their homes or into their nation, other-oriented behaviors seem to be on the great decline. Indeed, this is a time of victim narratives and the great blame game—Why?

Right now, I am reading an interesting book by Andrew Shepherd, called The Gift of the Other: Levinas, Derrida and the Theology of Hospitality, in which the author sees the collapse of hospitality and neighborliness as a by-product of global capitalism. I think he would heartily agree with Zizek in his recent article on the refugee crisis, when he says that

The true threat to our communal ways of life are not foreigners but the dynamic of global capitalism: In the United States alone, the economic changes of the last several decades did more to destroy communal life in small cities than all the immigrants together.

Like with any system there are winners and losers. And global capitalism is no different. The system of global inclusion is itself built, Shepherd suggests, on what is a persistent practice of exclusion. This occurs in three ways: by assimilation and elimination (through neo-liberal markets), by domination (through foreign policy) and by abandonment. Being the only economic game in town, you are either with the system or you are against the system and those who are not successfully engaged in production and consumption in the global village can find themselves in the very precarious role of migrant, refugee or what Shepherd describes as abandonment.

Migrants and refugees is much on everyone's mind and the numbers for migrants are rising (230 million in 2013). The other day Teju Cole uploaded a really thought-provoking post about migrants and refugees, in which he quotes later Derrida:

“…because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other comparable inequities, that same 'society' puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts only for a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children…without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the other to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only does such a society participate in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it.”

I think it is absolutely undeniable that the stakes have become very high even for those in the privileged centers. And we see people hunkering down behind gates or in their McMansions. In the US, I would argue that we have never been more risk-averse either (and as Derrida points out, hospitality is a very risky business).

Economists and scientists forecast the further shutting down of borders and the building of border fences as the centers of privilege erect barriers of all kinds, living in fortified cities like in the middle ages, economist Jacques Attali predicts.


Tammam Azzam_Syrian EidLast week on the Union of Concerned Scientist's blog, wrote a really moving post about Syria and climate change here. Comparing her son's relative good fortune to that of the drowned Syrian boy who washed ashore on the beach in Turkey–the picture that broke the world's heart— she says

About a decade ago, a group of scientists published work on scenarios of our future, and one of them—fortress world—has stuck in my mind, in part because signs of it crop up all the time. In this scenario, as global crises worsen, elites of the world hunker down in comfortable enclaves while the vast global majority suffers. Since then, post-apocalyptic fiction and film has fed versions of this scenario to us repeatedly, perhaps because we see its origins and are morbidly curious about where this ends. It ends badly, that’s where, so someone grab the wheel.

She doesn't draw conclusions ~~except maybe that we must not turn away– for, when it comes to climate, we are all in this together, she says.

According to Levinas and Derrida's ethic of hospitality, there is an infinite and unconditional obligation to not look away from the Other. And it is this which is our basic moral obligation. While for Kant, this was a universalist claim (his Golden Rule), for Derrida, it was much more personal and particular–but with the focus always on the other (or the relation between the self and other). Derrida liked a story he heard from Maurice Blanchot:

The Messiah was at the gates of Rome unrecognized, dressed in rags. But one man who recognized that this was the Messiah went up to him and asked him, ‘When will you come?’

Derrida did not believe any messiah would ever come. And yet he insisted that this messianic structure was what opened human beings up to ethical goodness.

Bedouin Hospitality

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently writes of CHAINS OF RECIPROCITY:

Someone has done me favors in the past, when I needed them, say got me out of trouble. I naturally feel indebted to *that* person. But the ethical reaction should not be to pay the same person back since his generosity, if genuine, should be unconditional. My debt should be to the system (something called “society”), or, less abstract, someone else, preferably a stranger…

This is similar to the mechanism of bedouin hospitality. And it becomes multiplicative.

Likewise, like anyone who isn't a saint, I have done things in my past for which I have remorse. But, to clear my conscience, I do not have to rectify the *exact* situation. I just need a large action that does not benefit me but helps the largest number of people, say, take risks by going after evil such as Monsanto, debunk BS vendors, prevent Hilary Clinton from getting close to the White House, etc.

Yes, yes and yes!

Two years ago, I wrote that it was unconscionable for the world to turn their collective backs on Syria and that Europe (and in particular the French) should lead an effort to end the war. Now, two years later, Europe is faced with a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. And, there is still no real choice. Hunkering down in a fortress is not an option if one wants to be able to look oneself in the mirror–and anyway the blame game (the new American pastime) can only go so far–since we all share a degree of responsibility. It is just not possible to look away anyway after the pictures.

Zizek in his latest article in the Guardian is spot on that the refugees are the product of the global economy. We simply cannot allow new forms of apartheid and slavery to emerge as large migrations become more and more part of our future. A stress on global cooperation and the creation of new international organizations and systems that are themselves not dependent to the neo-liberal economic system that is wrecking such havoc on our planet will serve us well in the decades to come. And Zizek is interesting because he urges us to do this without abandoning the idea of traditional culture and place. I would say both Heidegger and Derrida would be pleased. In the end, the focus must turn toward other-oriented behaviors and collectivism. After all, a virus that kills its host needs a new host to infect. But being that we have no real plan for outer space habitats (I suggested this last year), I don't think we have any choice but to re-think the current economic model, including the regulation of commons.

And if you don't believe me, why not listen to the Pope?


Images by Tammam Azzam

The World's Most Humble President Opens His House

Also see Obama's Syrian Achievement in the Washington Post