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Friday, August 21, 2009

Bewildering (or Is It Delirious?) Lebanon

Lebanon seduces. That’s what every smitten foreigner—and they are many—will tell you. There is a sultry feel to the place, they say; seedy, perhaps, yes, and intoxicating all because of it. It could very well be Lebanon’s blithe openness to life’s best and worst possibilities that gives it this special glow even though it actually makes it stink. The taste of the West flirting shamelessly with that irresistible whiff of the East, the covered heads and bared bottoms that promenade in the same neighborhoods, the frills of modernity that obscure the chaotic rhythms of backwardness. A smart people, a dumb country. Botox and Bombs, the grimy glitter of Beirut, the fierceness of the mountains, the drums of war that play as background music to the mindless, never-ending political chatter. Sky Bar on the waterfront, vistas of beards and resistance barely ten minutes south. An Alzheimer stricken country that stubbornly latches on to age-old nasty habits but is amnesiac about yesterday’s horrors…

And then, of course, there are the goons who preside over this Lebanon: warlords and feudal masters, pimps and carpet baggers, small-time thieves and big-time crooks, crazy generals and turbaned warriors--this one with the fine English, that one with the fine wine cellar, another a devotee of Hegel, his nemesis a sucker for Sartre --mixing it up or bringing the house down, as it were, in the closest thing to a democracy in the Arab East.

For a particular type of Westerner there is even more to Lebanon than this delicious array of contradictions. Beirut itself is for lost souls, spooks in training, adventurers looking for a home, a name, an identity, knowledge to buy or sell. You run into them everywhere: in the capital’s sleazy joints, in its still brooding, ponytailed, chin-scratching leftist hangouts, in Tripoli’s burning Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp, in Hezbollah’s southern suburbs, on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, in CounterPunch… Wannabes on the make, they come to Lebanon knowing nothing, and a nice, quick three months later they come out knowing it all. The expertise of choice nowadays is, of course, Hezbollah, but a sojourn here can deliver as well expertise on, say, the psycho-dynamics of Lebanese-Syrian relations, or even on how you can commit a 17-year-long civil murder and claim that the butler did it. And these out-of-towners can be all this, do all that, without much interference or obstruction, for no other Arab hideout, however thrilling, offers the-live-and- let-live mayhem and flesh that Beirut does.

It makes life suddenly worth living, this place, us.

But real as this Lebanon might be for these naifs and floaters with a mission, for little, old Lebanese me (and, no doubt, for other natives), this corner of the Levant is the stuff of fiction, realities donning the many garbs of make believe and performing for a mock nation. In this marvel of a country, so-called multiculturalism can, at the flutter of an eyelash, turn into something hideously sectarian, and warring men by day can, when night’s curtains fall, swing together, drunk and genuinely happy, to the spine-tingling voice of Cesaria Evora. Youth, talent, brains, the future are in flight from this dead-end, and yet, when it comes to blood and gore, to bosoms and lips, Lebanon is way happening. The silliness and cruelty of this dump is not in the speed and ease with which it allows truths and lies and love and hate to exchange places, but in the people’s indifference to the sickening back and forth between them.

For me, the Lebanon I am living in could have become, in time, a mirror of its best yarns but instead decided to settle for its worst illusions. It is the Lebanon where the harassed, tree-rich mountains of yore peer over a filthy, ecoli- infested sea; where gorgeous parties float on thinly roofed lakes of your and my feces; where electricity still comes in dribs and drabs to entire communities; where rampant poverty is tempered and masked by a web of sectarian and feudal patronages; where food poisoning, skin diseases from toxic swimming pools, car pollution and day-long waits in traffic jams during the summer months are brandished as proof of tourism’s love of this haunt; where public works celebrate almost quarterly anniversaries on the same sites year after year after year.

This is the Lebanon that glides, haggard, stateless and broken, through life as if it’s waltzing its evenings away on marble; that thinks its sexy, beautiful, sophisticated, “with it”, when in actual fact it is over the hill, ugly, passé, money grubbing, uncouth, farts all day long, has BO and is downright moronic to boot.

August is a mother, ain’t it?

No, really, on a serious note, the other day, I was leafing through Phillips de Pury & Company’s catalogue for the May 16, 2009, auction and came across two photographs. One, titled Saida, is a shot by Elger Esser of the sea-planted citadel facing the city of Sidon. In life, it is decrepit and swimming in ink blue waters. Through Esser’s lens, it is poetry; for me, if not for him, a visualization of Lebanon as it should be: its damaged beauty still obvious to the eye, still loved, its mood melodic, even serene, its present mature and not allergic to introspection. The other photograph, by Fouad el Khoury, is of Beirut’s corniche on a very stormy day, blurred, perturbed and unbearably sensual. This imagined Lebanon is like a great idea that lives in its lazy author’s head refusing to dart out and become a full-grown story. Of my country’s many tragedies this one tugs most at the heart—at least mine.

















11 comments:

Natalia said...

Hi. I really, really liked this. Such a stunning portrait of a complicated place (haven't been to Beirut yet, now would especially like to go). Could you contact me at my work e-mail when you've the chance? I've got a question for you.

It's natalia [at] arabcomment [dot] com

qifanabki said...

Lovely.

Thinking Fits said...

work e-mail? Humm...And that would be this one?

What's the question, Natalia?

Thinking Fits said...

Natalia,
Apologies, I just saw your work e-mail address. Difficult to communicate with you though thru my own personal e-mail since I am supposed to be anonymous.

But glad to answer any questions you might have...

hoda said...

hi , living in beirut for the last 15 years i cant but reluctantly agree with you..you described it so poignantly. how do we continue to fool ourselves that this is a good life....i have yet to find out.

Reader said...

Well in spite of yourself you may just drive up tourism...it might be the photographs but no, its the words, lolling about our heads, pulling us to this most improbable, impossible place. We too want to play make-believe in the land of "seduction".

Thinking Fits said...

Ahlan wasahlan, then. Listen, I smiled when I read your and Natalia's comments. It would seem even at its most jarring this place is still compelling.

Carole said...

At first I thought this was just another well written article on all the cliches foreigners love about Lebanon. But then you made a 180 degree turn and stuck our face in a reality we try so much to overlook. This is what Leb's really about. The stuff we don t or can t tackle because as much as we love our country - it's a retarded country, with an antiquitated system that must be put in the trash.
Sure, we might be in many ways less retarded than our neighbors, but hey, if we were frank with ourselves, they're not exactly examples to follow.
Funny too, my sister works for Philips de Pury and she's the one who chose those pix to be included in the catalogue.
all this to say, bravo, great article.

Carole said...

At first I thought this was just another well written article on all the cliches foreigners love about Lebanon. But then you made a 180 degree turn and stuck our face in a reality we try so much to overlook. This is what Leb's really about. The stuff we don t or can t tackle because as much as we love our country - it's a retarded country, with an antiquitated system that must be put in the trash.
Sure, we might be in many ways less retarded than our neighbors, but hey, if we were frank with ourselves, they're not exactly examples to follow.
Funny too, my sister works for Philips de Pury and she's the one who chose those pix to be included in the catalogue.
all this to say, bravo, great article.

Carole said...

At first I thought this was just another well written article on all the cliches foreigners love about Lebanon. But then you made a 180 degree turn and stuck our face in a reality we try so much to overlook. This is what Leb's really about. The stuff we don t or can t tackle because as much as we love our country - it's a retarded country, with an antiquitated system that must be put in the trash.
Sure, we might be in many ways less retarded than our neighbors, but hey, if we were frank with ourselves, they're not exactly examples to follow.
Funny too, my sister works for Philips de Pury and she's the one who chose those pix to be included in the catalogue.
all this to say, bravo, great article.

Thinking Fits said...

Isn't that something! Well, your sister chose very well.