London Review of Books, Vol. 7 No. 12 - 4 July 1985


I never thought that Beirut was the Middle Eastern Paris, nor that Lebanon was like Switzerland. This does not make the country’s present agonies any less horrible, or Beirut’s relentlessly detailed self-dismantling – much of it performed on prime-time television – any less unprecedented, and interminably, senselessly miserable to witness. The whole process has by now become a large-scale version of the Laurel and Hardy film of two men who vengefully destroy each other’s car and house piece by piece, tit-for-tat, and while they glower and puff through many ‘take thats’ the world around them gets wiped out. As the struggle for power and territory continues in Beirut, very little will be left of either when, and if, a final victor emerges. A close friend of mine who has lived through the entire ordeal told me last week over the phone from Beirut that quite apart from the bombing and mayhem, reading the epidemic of local newspapers would certainly drive anyone crazy: no two of them say the same thing, and trying to figure out what is happening or who is fighting whom for what reason is like catching clouds.
Members of my immediate family still live in Beirut, as does the largest part of my wife’s family, which is Lebanese. These incomprehensibly brave people are too stubborn, too unwilling to start lives over again, too anchored in the city to leave. As a Palestinian I haven’t thought it prudent to visit Lebanon since the spring of 1982, although my wife Mariam and two young children have made a couple of visits since the Israeli invasion. My widowed mother valiantly hangs on all alone in her West Beirut house, quite sensibly focused on the problems of her health, the failures of electricity and telephone service, the difficulties of getting help, the collapsing Lebanese pound. I see her and our other relatives intermittently when they emerge for short spells in places like London and New York; they are fortunate in still having the means to travel. After 1983 or thereabouts Mariam and I stopped trying to note the changes in their faces or manners after a particularly trying ‘round’ (as the bouts of killing are called). Their mere survival, in ways we can neither trace nor reconstruct, seems miraculous. We find ourselves avoiding consideration of the inner damage they must have sustained. Most of our younger cousins, nieces and nephews who have grown up in ten years of unremitting war tend to speak interchangeably of computer games, football scores and massacres, and their easy way of pointing out differences between Grads, RPGs and Katyushas is chilling: nevertheless their parents persist in giving them ‘normal’ lives. Ordinary, everyday vocabulary, for the most part, has hardly changed. Politics are, eerily, ‘out there’, as are most of the militias, leaders and rival parties, even though of course the war is simply everywhere.
For the past two weeks, Sabra, Shatila and Bourj el Barajneh – the ugly, sprawling Palestinian refugee camps lying just south of Beirut – have been beseiged, bombed and periodically ravaged by the Amal Shi’ite militia, originally armed and trained by the Palestinians. In spite of immense odds and numerous announcements of victory by Shi’ite spokesmen, Palestinian resistance to Amal continues unabated. In 1982, Sabra and Shatila were the sites of massacres by the Maronite Phalanges acting under the aegis of the Israeli Army. A different season now, but the same victims. Only yesterday, Nabih Berri, Amal’s leader (who holds an American ‘green card’, the permanent resident’s badge), threatened Israel with an alliance between Amal and the very Palestinians his men were killing, unless Israel withdrew completely from South Lebanon.
I have almost given up trying to plot the changes and the turns, each of them denser and more complicated than the preceding, each of them reminding me of Lebanon’s astounding capacity for money-making, conspiracy, and individual as well as mass murder. Yet the so-called traditional leaders and their variously mediocre progeny remain unchanged, as they forge and almost immediately betray alliances with each other, as well as with the Syrians, Palestinians, Iranians, Americans, Israelis, and Saudis (who seem to be bankrolling everyone). There is literally no one to admire or trust in this too long and too sordid spectacle of idiotic violence and limitless corruption. Even the innocent civilians who have gone on and on, with their brave routines, their ability to rebuild and restart their lives a dozen times, their courage under fire, must have secretly connived, one feels, with the leaders who have kept the war going. Otherwise, how could it have continued for such a long time?
This is Beirut, and not some deviation from a Parisian or a Swiss model. I knew the city first as a child during the early Forties when we would pass through Beirut’s outskirts en route to a dreary mountain village, Dhour el Shweir, inexplicably loved by my father. Coming from or going to Palestine and Egypt were the main routes in my life then: Lebanon’s mountains symbolised for me an unrelieved tedium I have experienced nowhere else. During the long mountain summers we would go to Beirut only once, except for the two passages through it on the way in and out of the country. In the morning we visited a bank where my father changed some money; then we would spend the rest of the day at a beach where the swimming was sheer beauty. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of the Lebanese members of my mother’s family (her mother was Lebanese, her father Palestinian), some of whom were involved in the American University, formerly the Syrian Protestant College, an offshoot of the American Evangelical Presbyterian Mission to Lebanon. Years later I discovered that my great-grandfather Youssef Badr (according to Henry Jessup in his Fifty-Three Years in Syria) was the Protestant Mission’s first ‘native’ pastor, and that along with the Badrs the missionaries had converted other ‘native’ Christians (having failed with both the Jews and the Muslims) to several varieties of Protestantism. A similar pattern was repeated in Palestine: my father’s family turned Anglican, my mother’s Baptist and Presbyterian.
Beirut grew tremendously during the Fifties and Sixties, decades when all around Lebanon revolutions and coups brought into the country a sizeable number of dissident or dispossessed classes, intellectual, political and commercial. The Palestinians constituted by far the largest and most influential of these groups. Lebanon and Palestine had always been linked by trade, by the connections between families, and by history. It was natural that the Palestinians dispersed by the establishment of Israel would flee to Lebanon, where they were almost a whole society, not just a layer at the top of one. The intensity of these assorted influxes was very great, however, and, it now seems in retrospect, too much for Lebanon to have borne. One could see it in Beirut’s physical appearance, which changed from that of a city constructed around a central casbah with various outlying (for the most part ethnically and religiously composed) districts, to a city resembling nothing so much as a series of immense heaps, some very fancy, some very poor. A few districts – Ashrafiyé, for example, which remained Christian and middle to upper-class – retained their substructure of sectarian identity; others simply expanded into whatever was profitable or expedient. Nightclubs, restaurants, boutiques and banks were the preferred growth industries of this period.
Beirut’s real heyday, when it became the great world-centre of services, was the result of the oil boom, which had the effect of accelerating and exaggerating all the processes already at work in Lebanon generally, and Beirut in particular. After almost thirty years of unsatisfying transits through it, I spent my first complete year in Beirut during 1972-3, and my recollection of that year is marked by a sense of how everything seemed possible in Beirut then – every kind of person, every idea and identity, every extreme of wealth and poverty – and how the incoherence of the whole seemed to abate and even disappear in the pleasures or agonies of the moment, a scintillating seminar discussion or a horrendously cruel Israeli raid on South Lebanon. That year was crucial for me, in that Beirut allowed me to re-educate myself in Arabic language and literature; for twenty years I had exclusively studied the literatures of the West – now I would experience the riches of my own tradition. As this was also the period of the Palestinian renaissance in politics and culture, my year in Beirut, followed by a string of summers there, became a very important period for me.
Two epiphanies from those days in the early Seventies provided disquieting indications of what troubles were to come. The first occurred in a remark made to me by Mariam’s mother, a remarkable woman in late middle age. Wadad Cortas was for three decades the headmistress of the only programmatically non-sectarian private school in Lebanon. She was a great orator and a well-known writer and feminist, who had struggled against the French occupation, espoused Arab nationalism and the cause of Palestine with unusual sincerity and conviction. After 1948, for example, she opened her school – gratis – to Palestinian refugee children. But she was Lebanese through and through: she knew her country and its people in an extraordinarily intimate way, and because of her fame and social rank, she participated in a wide spectrum of Lebanese activities. What she told me – I think it was in 1973 – took me completely by surprise. ‘Have you noticed,’ she said, ‘how X and Y politicians are beginning to talk about “the Lebanese cause” [al-qaddiyah al Libnanyah]? This is sheer nonsense. There is a Palestinian cause, there is an Arab cause, but there is no Lebanese cause. I love Lebanon, but our meaning is what we derive from others, not what we are on our own, which is so modest and even trivial as to be nonexistent.’ Lebanon was at its best, in other words, when it was not itself – a self either meanly confessional and sectarian or, in the language of its pompous Francophone Maronite philosophers, un projet culturel, i.e. Western and Christian in total defiance of its actual setting. How defiant and how sectarian Lebanon’s population would become no one, I believe, had any idea.
The other revelation occurred when my father died in the early Seventies. We planned to bury him according to his wishes in the mountain village to which he had been faithfully attached since 1942. He was well-known there, had been a benefactor of Dhour el Shweir in many ways, and most of the friends he had in Lebanon after he moved there in 1963 were men and women he had met in the village. Yet when it came to buying a tiny bit of land in one of the local graveyards we had a grotesque time, the still angry memory of which prevents me from recounting it in detail. Suffice it to say that we were unable to conclude an agreement with any of the Christian churches in Dhour, except one, and when that one accepted our offer we got so many telephoned bomb-threats as to end our plan completely. I realised that my father was an outsider, a Palestinian, and no matter how jolly they were when he was alive, the residents wouldn’t tolerate his long-term presence even after he had died.
All this was well before ‘the events’ actually began in 1975, but already the number of compartments in which Lebanese life was led, and through which one passed in the course of a day, had become dizzying. Suddenly, in the mid-Seventies, one realised that the compartments were there, but the corridor between them was not. Nor did they all stand on one continuous piece of ground. Beirut was transformed into a collection of overlapping territories with extensions in the Arab world, Europe, America and Israel: extensions and interests that would easily overcome the imperfectly-maintained balance within Lebanon’s actual geographical boundaries. The first street barricades appeared in the summer of 1975, and I can remember the shock of fear and uncertainty I experienced one Sunday in August as I drove through East Beirut en route to Brummana, a pleasant mountain resort. At the end of a street I had routinely traversed over a period of weeks was a barbed-wire-and-log obstruction, manned by young men brandishing automatic rifles. This was also the first time I experienced the most common of all feelings in the disintegration of Beirut: that as a civilian one was entirely at the mercy of armed men whose guiding authority was somewhere else. You could be killed here and now, at the direction of people who were sitting in a distant Syrian palace, a Swiss villa, an American embassy, an Israeli office or a Lebanese chalet.
A plausible theory constructed by the Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf has it that Ras Beirut, a promontory jutting out of West Beirut into the sea, and the area where the American University is located, contained within it until the Civil War a non-sectarian, pluralistic and open community of scholars, political activists, business people and artists unlike anything else in the Arab world. Khalaf is right, I think, although in the understandable anguish of his lament over Ras Beirut’s passing (it is now parcelled out between Druze and Shi’ite factions) he doesn’t acknowledge strongly enough the latent religious or sectarian feelings that were being temporarily held at bay. The fact is that in Ras Beirut, as in Greater Beirut, everyone knew what everyone else’s religion and sect and ethnic origin were. They were acknowledged almost subliminally, it’s true, but they were noted. You registered and heard it registered that Vahé was an Armenian from Smyrna active in Maronite politics, or that Monah was a Sunni intellectual much attracted to Sartre and Abdel Nasser, or that Violette was a Palestinian Christian who had thrown in her lot with the Arab Nationalist Movement, later to become the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
There are two or three things that will continue to haunt me about Beirut, and about its stunningly depressing contemporary fate as a major city. One is its marginality, the marginality of a densely-populated metropolis whose people tear each other apart without much perceptible reference to any one central antagonism, even as – also without any specifiable reason for doing so – the world looks on with fascination. Beirut was a free place (for those who could afford it), it had a free press, it furnished the Arab world with the most cosmopolitan of entertainments and loisirs. Little of this seems to have lasted, although paradoxically Lebanese books, newspapers and magazines are still easily the liveliest in the region.
The second thing about Beirut’s unhappy fate is the insidious role played by religious and sectarian conviction. I’m ashamed to admit that a great many of my early memories of friends and family expressing religious opinions are harsh and unpleasant. ‘Moslems,’ I was told in 1954 by a great friend of my father’s, ‘are dust. They should be blown away.’ Another wise man, a prominent philosopher and former Lebanese foreign minister, frequently denounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to me, using such words as ‘lechery’, ‘hypocrisy’, ‘corruption’ and ‘degeneracy’. These, I later discovered, were not isolated opinions: as anyone who has followed the discourse of Christian militancy in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region will know, they have come to constitute the core of minority expression, which in turn furnished the majority Muslim community with a permanently resident provocation. Such compliments tend to be, and have been, reciprocated. The result is a consolidated animosity, what Hazlitt calls ‘the pleasure of hating’: a feature of this pleasure, Hazlitt said, is that it ‘eats into the heart of religion, and turns it into rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.’ The relevance of these words to that nasty mix of religious zeal and nationalism sweeping through Lebanon, Israel and Iran – and the US, which has a history of involvement in all three countries – is perfectly evident.
Still, there is no denying the terrible sadness and anger one feels about Beirut’s ruination: I’m certain both are plain in what I’ve written here. I can’t fully grasp what Beirut’s citizens must be going through (although Mariam occasionally gives me glimpses of a sorrow that is very deep indeed), but I can in a general way venture a response on behalf of exiles like myself for whom Beirut provided a substitute home. However much we blather on about Lebanese corruption and superficiality and violence, we feel ourselves now to be sadly out in the cold. Beirut’s genius was that it responded immediately to our needs as Arabs in an Arab world gone prison-like, drab and insufferably mediocre. For some years one could, in Beirut, burn with a hard gemlike flame; even the city’s vice and profligacy had a brilliance you could not see elsewhere. The only thing contemporary Beirut did not give us was staying-power, or enough feelings of concern for the rather fragile foundations that its dazzling hospitality covered. The main consolation of these dark times is the feeling that since Beirut once rose from obscurity it might rise again out of its catastrophic destruction. But there seem to be few Lebanese who believe in such wonders.