Power, plankton & a petrol station

Gas station Mansourieh

Enter Anis Hajj, a man in his late 40s who owns the station together with his brother Ziad, both known and respected in the village; the Hajj family is well-known here. Enter his wife Olga, a strong and imposing woman who plays a not insignificant role in keeping this business on its feet and functioning. Enter the four or five Sri Lankan or Indian men who do the real work; who wash the cars, fill the tanks, and get their hands dirty so that no one else needs to. Enter myself. I had been driving my mother’s car around Beirut all day and, noticing that it was quite dirty, I decided to quickly pass by our regular petrol station (which, when translated, carries our family name) to get it washed — as a gesture of appreciation towards my mother.

A ‘quick’ car wash soon turned into a two-hour endeavour because the man who moved my car into the car-wash area had managed to lock the car while the keys were still inside. The scene that I then found myself in illustrated well that “landscape is to be found … in the rhythm and tare of the ordinary” and that “that ordinariness precisely works to mask the processes by which it is sustained and in fact made ordinary.” I viewed the scene through Foucault’s statement that “power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.”

The Hajj Petrol Station in Mansourieh is one of the countless areas of our landscape in which power, through “a multitude of small, local, specific practices,” invades and permeates — almost unnoticeably — all areas of our daily lives. Through very ordinary, seemingly insignificant acts by seemingly insignificant individuals, larger-scale social, economic, and political patterns and structures are woven, sustained, and reproduced.

The most blatant manifestation of power — yet also one of the most normalised ones — is the relationship of the migrant workers to the owner and his wife. When Anis discovered that — we’ll call him Mr. Indian Guy #1 — had locked my car with the keys still inside, he was furious.

Kiss ikht…! Min hal 7ayawan…?! Min hal 7mar…?!” (Damn it! Who is this animal? Who is this ass?) and so on, and so forth. He stomped around the gas station looking for Mr. Indian Guy #1 and when he found him, he smacked him across the face and called him all sorts of colourful names.

Kam marra baddeh illak inno btshiil el mefte7 min essiyara bas tghassilah?! Kam marra baddeh illak ya 7ayawan, ya 7mar, ya kalb!” (How many times have I told you to take the keys from the car when you wash it? How many times, you animal, you donkey, you dog?)

Anis then walked out and as he passed by a fellow customer waiting for her car to be washed — a young, well-dressed lady in her mid-20s — he said: “Shou bt3amleh…? Bti2tliyon?! Shou bt3amleh…? 3ayesh ma3 j7ash ana! 3ayesh ma3 j7ash!” (What would you do if you were me? Tell them? What would you do? I am living with jackasses! I am living with jackasses!)

And, turning to Mr. Indian Guy #2 and #3, he yelled: “An-nabeh [Prophet] taba3kon, kiss IKHTO bi 2ayreh…! Kiss IKHTO!” (Your Prophet, damn him. DAMN HIM!)

Who says they believe in a prophet, I thought to myself. And who says that these five workers all believe in the same thing? By addressing them all as a collective whole, and by talking about ‘them’ (as an ‘other’) to his ‘fellow’ Lebanese customer, Anis was unconsciously but powerfully underlining and reproducing the social and economic structural divisions between the Lebanese “us” and the migrant “them”.

What happened here in fact happened on various levels — and had different ramifications on each level. On the one hand, this was probably ‘just another one’ of Anis’ outbursts. Everyone but Anis seemed to be taking the situation quite lightly, and I think it’s safe to assume that neither the migrant workers, nor Olga, nor the customers took any of this to heart. There was an almost comically innocent, amusing element to the whole incident.

On the other hand, however, these “small, local, specific practices” cannot be viewed, as Foucault points out, as entirely “personal matters, standing somehow outside history and society.” It is precisely through such apparently ‘meaningless’, ordinary incidents that structural divisions and inequalities are created, sustained, and reproduced. It is precisely at the level of the ordinary that the ‘structural’ begins to take shape.

At this point, Olga took the leading role and made sure the other cars were still being cleaned and filled with petrol. While Anis tried to wedge the door open with a re-shaped metal clothes-hanger, Olga asked if I could somehow get a spare key. She managed to restore some sort of calm and order and keep things going. Clearly, gender roles were at play here — and it was interesting to see this sudden, if temporary, shift in the balance of rationality and authority. It is also interesting to note that the owner, as many men do, was constantly referring to the cars as women. While talking to one particularly friendly customer, he said, with a huge smirk on his face and pointing to the Porsches, Jaguars, and Mercedes waiting to be washed “Eh, 3andi ktiir niswan hon baddon ghasiil!” (Yes, I have lots of women who need cleaning!

Power is woven into and through this petrol station in countless other ways. This specific station is a tiny, microscopic, though not insignificant, part of the worldwide petroleum industry which is quite literally fuelling the global economy, but also a number of wars, and the destruction of our planet. In this specific station, various social and political phenomena are being played out and are ‘becoming real’ as they affect people’s daily lives in very simple, powerful ways. The gas prices speak volumes about the Lebanese political situation; the cars’ license plates are signs of (attempted) public administration, legislation, and control; the big blue Mobil sign links this station to a global network of multinational companies and reminds us that decisions in London or New York are affecting the lives of people in Mansourieh perhaps more than the decisions of the neighbours next door.

Clearly, this petrol station is more than ‘just’ a petrol station (and also not a just petrol station).

With litres and litres of mighty plankton flowing through its veins, Hajj Petrol Station is both local and global; rooted in the ‘here and now’ as much as it is a part of Earth’s ancient ‘then and there’. It is an arena in which power and landscape are silently, almost unnoticeably, weaving their webs. Situated somewhere in between the seemingly insignificant “personal matters” and the totalising “ciphers of ideological power,” this petrol station is a meaningfull and powerfull place where significant things happen in the context of the everyday. With the authors of Patterned Ground, I think it is necessary for us to “backtrack from familiar and obvious ways of seeing patterns in the world, and to attempt to discover the world anew”; always aware that we are but “flawed witnesses”. Clearly, “landscapes are not self-evident,” nor innocent, and “common-sense ways of thinking about landscape patterns need to be unsettled” to make room for a new and deeper awareness of all the ways in which nature and culture, self and other, us and them, are entangled into this wonderfully mysterious, confusingly creative, ancient and contemporary phenomenon that we call, for lack of better words, Life.

This text was originally written for an “Anthropology of Landscapes” class. Picture by Anna Pelgrim, proofreading by Katie Jackson

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2 thoughts on “Power, plankton & a petrol station

  1. Dear Richard,

    Hello:)!! I am one of the owners’ daughters (Ziad), and I happened to stumble upon this article..It brought a huge smile to my face and I was glad to come across it. As I read, I loved how you linked deep anthropology theories to mere every day incidents, that yes, do not simply reflect personal attributes. I even noticed how you indirectly emphasized gender roles and I was impressed. Nonetheless, the article has some facts wrong (it is completely fine I understand you were’t going to ask people of their relationships:P)…Anis AL Hajj is the father of both Imad (elder son) and Ziad Al Hajj, who now are partners in owning the station. Olga Al Hajj is their sister. If you could describe their roles, Ziad (my father) normally sits on his chair and does all the accounting or would be in his truck distributing diesel, while Imad on the other hand is more of the public relations man. Both Imad and Ziad, when necessary, also get their hands polluted with filling up tanks and so forth,they are quite humble (not washing cars though..except mine sometimes because dad is a perfectionist:P)- These 5 workers are family to us, because they have been there ever since my father took over the station. They never leave although opportunities come their way..two of them are seniors now and they still do not want to go…my father built them a small house directly above the station. Imad talks the way he talks to everyone, he is usually full of life and when angry, an extremist..be it with his wife, children, cousins, and even clients…but because everyone knows him, including the workers, his way is not offensive anymore. I once heard him cuss to his sons the same way and worst. (I don’t think it’s right, but he usually compensates when in a good mood, which is most of the times) – Nonetheless, the article was very amusing, and had a touch of truth in it no one could deny. The most specific being how “decisions in London or New York” affect our lives, how globalized inter-dependency causes a domino effect that we cannot control..for now after decisions of the grand petrol companies of directly selling oil to people, gas stations (which were the liaisons between people and big oil companies) have lost a major amount of their career base..in that case, even the Sri- Lankan workers were also affected. I always preferred the station the way it was at my grandfather’s time…small, local, very cozy, and has direct affiliations to the people of the village only..maybe everything was nicer back then.. In all cases, the article was very amusing and well backed with intellect and great analysis! Keep the great work up, and when you come back to Lebanon, do contact me for a better tour of Mansourieh:)!

  2. I also forgot to mention that 3 of the workers are Christians, and when they fault or cause a big mishap in the station, Imad also cusses “their Christ” and their cross (which is our religion too)…The reason his bold actions when tempered are quite tolerated, is due to the fact that he does this everyone, specially the dearest to his heart, and we tend to let past these outbursts because the majority of the time, he is the jolly, tender, and caring employer and family member. After the temper misfit, he always apologizes sincerely, explains calmly, and often compensates with a symbolic “gift” or treat…Although my father does not agree with his ways, specially that one time he smacked the worker on his face, I can’t deny that the workers are like sons to Imad, and they know that..and this is why his relationship with them is not formal, and mimic his exact reactions with his actual two sons.

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