Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Being Lebanese

In this Arab Spring

If you have any hope in you, you would throw back your head in ecstasy as you read this description by James Wood of the role of Pat, VS Naipaul’s late wife, in Peter French’s The World Is What It Is:

Her presence in this biography is a hush around Vidia’s noise; her job is merely to hold the big drum of his ego in the right position, the better for him to strike the vital life rhythm.

Every once in a while, you come across a thread of words, a thought, or an image that thieve from a whole archive of wisdom to lay before you an epic of a tale. Very few approach Wood's absurdly beautiful turn of the pen, but they don’t need to in rendering suddenly stark clear and simple the tortuous tangibles of the act of living.

Even a passing comment can stop you in your tracks. Years ago, sometime in the late 1980s, a very famous Lebanese basketball player went to Jordan to attend the wedding of a friend. He was gracious enough, star that he was, to play in a show game with Jordanian players. As he entered the hall, he started chatting with an official who asked him if he is Arab. “Lebanese,” the famous one answered, prompting the usual, “Well, we’re all Arab, right?” from the official. The honored guest quickly shot back, “Yes, but we’re a bit faster.”

There, in a split second of a comeback, crowed that Lebanese specialness vis-√†-vis the rest of the Arab crowd: to the hip, more with it and quicker; to the journalist, the standard for which all other Arabs pine; to the deal maker, more nimble and canny--to boot, way more suave; to the politician, more lightweight and all the better for that…

On and on, this story has played itself out, part real, part stereotype, part truth, part bluff, in every other drawing room in this city. The implicit identity here, of course, is Beiruti, the sense of belonging at once very particular and incessantly unattached.

Through turmoil and war, bedlam and breakup, debauchery and grime, the many precious years during which every special bit about this assaulted country gave in and then up, the impression has been that when other Arabs look ahead, they are sure to find us Lebanese, however roughed up we are. That is until this Arab Spring gave all this the lie, and we finally had to admit that we are very far behind.

All too predictably the laments have started. The novelist Elias Khoury let out a bizarre cry last week, “Why does Beirut commit suicide through silence?” as if Beirut’s children had not hushed it into stillness decades back. That was, after all, the point of the war, wasn’t it? Discovered only when the debris had finally settled and the profundity of the destruction was revealed to all. Silence! Silence to all the pretence--or hope for those who dared believe—that there was special meaning in being Lebanese.

But Khoury should be forgiven his wishful thinking, for never have a people been this rich with individual talent and this starved of collective enterprise. Never has a leadership been less aware of the destructiveness of political genius if not tempered by a sense of ethics and decency. Never has a country been this susceptible to success and this bent on failure.

Lubnan al Rissalah, Lebanon the Example! You can’t Google it, but it’s the clich√© that our politicians always use to spin the ugliness. It’s the idea that our thinkers fall back on when they desperately want something to look forward to. It’s certainly the name by which other Arabs like to hail us when they want to lull our demons to sleep. And we have, indeed, become the example for Arab tyrants in their fight against an Arab people rising. Beware, the message says: with change, chaos; with chaos, anarchy; with anarchy, sectarian strife; with strife, disintegration. “Lebanonization” (labnant), then, is a short heaving moment away. Or to put it more simply, as dictators are want to do: “Is that what you want? Another Lebanon!”

A cautionary tale, that’s who we are: this is not the kind of nation you want to be, not the kind of state you want to have, not the kind of hate you want to feel, not the kind of politics you want to play, not the kind of business you want to do… Sure, Beirut is fun enough, especially after dark, but why be one when you can have your way with it and then fly back home to safety?

If the whole idea was for us to lead by example, we certainly have.

And so, we wait out this Arab Spring with barely anything on offer or anything to add. Or we react, each brood, of course, for its own sake. We wait for the Saudis to decide which way they want to play the Sunni card. We wait for bloodshed here should the Assads fail there. We wait for Iran to figure out how it might adapt. We wait to see how Hezbollah will mind its kneecaps. We wait for Israel to pounce. We wait for governments to form, and then we wait for them to fall. We wait for the summer to get hotter, for the mountains of garbage to rise higher, for the lights to go out, for the sea to get murkier, for our youth to pack up and leave, for the trees to become even lonelier…

But I’ve already written this so many times in so many different ways. Better wrap it up with somebody else’s words. Here’s Khaled Saggieyh’s for the road: ”Never has Lebanon been more washed out, more hobbled, more devoid of any meaning than it appears now.” (Akhbar Newspaper, June 6, 2011).