Archive | February, 2011

At Home in Beirut

25 Feb


Artistic Worlds

23 Feb
Paul Cezanne's Leda and the Swan, now in the B...

Image via Wikipedia

To give you a bizarre anecdote of what Lebanon surprise me with today – well, lots, as usual. A university class on two of my favourite poems (Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Donne’s The Sun Rising) began proceedings nicely. Having studied both before I had an unfair advantage over my classmates and decided to keep schtum; I was really interested to see what their initial responses would be. Not only are the subjects of these poems complex, but also their structure and linguistic styles. Leda is saturated in mythological imagery; Donne’s English comes out of the convoluted grandeur of the seventeenth-century. Even for literature students, Donne and Yeats are hardly simple. And these students did not have English as their first language. I can’t imagine reading modernist or Renaissance French poetry and finding it a piece of cake.

How did everybody react? Well, one possible cultural difference between the English and the Lebanese is the latter’s tendency to take part in everything, regardless of whether it bores or excites them. Actually it isn’t so much a tendency as an insistence. It seems to be to do with pride; it’s a matter of honour to at least look like you are involved in what you’re doing and especially to look as though you know what you are talking about. (Image is very, very important.) And so various students tossed in their interpretations, in general with an assured, almost bored air, as though the answer was unambiguously, obviously evident. And half the point of poetry is that that isn’t the case. Those who didn’t voice opinions chatted to their neighbours instead. The class has only about twenty people so the buzz of background chatterings was clearly audible, but bizarrely no one seemed put off by it, even really aware of it.

The strongest impression I got was of the students as convinced either that they were right (sure that ‘this means this’ without worrying about providing evidence) or that there was one unmistakeable right answer (and they wanted the professor to tell them what it was). Overall, an utterly different experience from any university class I’ve been in. It’s surely in part due to the fact that ‘art’ is still widely seen as a soft option when it comes to study. Many of the kids – both girls and boys – are simply taking the class to fill a gap in their credits. A far cry from England’s university system, which is all about getting you to discover your specialism. In today’s class, giving a perspective was a multitude of things but one thing it was not was a result of engaging with the poems. A way to stave off boredom, a way of interacting with the teacher (who is, after all, responsible for grade assignment) and also a symptom of the assumption that there was one simple correct answer. Perhaps because poetry is largely seen as wishy-washy (and especially if you’re a business student who doesn’t want to be reading seventeenth-century English sonnets) the focus of most of the students was on finding out the “message” of each poem so they could learn it for the exam.

This sounds like a string of generalisations, but really it is one of observations. Naturally not every student thinks in this way; those in my class, did. One striking thing, though, about the Lebanese – this is a generalisation, and one I wholeheartedly stick to – is that they are far from self-conscious.

Here’s another example from today of this self-possession. I had (rather indulgently) booked a pedicure at 5 and wasn’t seen until … 6.30. Even by Lebanese standards (and Lebanese lateness is one cultural cliché that is absolutely true) this was shonky. Luckily I was reviewing a book so I had lots to do. But as a writer it was very amusing to see how little the staff were ruffled by my waiting. Eventually the cleaner offered me Nescafe; at around 6 the receptionist came to whisper sorries – I think the enormous notebook on my lap, pen in hand and thoughtful look on my face was making them wary – and offer me a voucher. The best part of it all was that she looked down at my feet, nakedly awaiting their pampering, and immediately freaked out. Thanks to terrible circulation my feet are always blue; all the staff members (previously so busy I had had to wait 90 minutes) came to stare at my poor blue swollen toes and conjecture what my ailments might be. Nice and loudly. And nice and embarrassing for me. Still, if they weren’t bothered about excitedly decrying the sorry state of my feet with shrieks and points, I was ready to mimic their self-assurance and to at least strain for a sense of poise. Ah! The Lebanese teach me something every day.

Meanwhile hundreds have died in Libya and I hadn’t heard a word about it. The taboo for talking of things political seems to extend beyond borders.

February 14

22 Feb
Hariri memorial shrine.

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been here almost a month now and it’s amazing both how much has changed and how little.  The government has collapsed; the Middle East in general is experiencing an enormous time of change; last Monday marked six years since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; the UN Special Tribunal is to release its verdict on Hariri’s death and is likely to accuse Hezbollah – the group who put the current PM in power.  Pretty big stuff going on.  The landscape has changed too – since I’ve been away, bridges have sprung up, blocked roads have been freed, buildings have been restored.  Even old choice nightclubs, like L-Bar, which last summer was one of Monot’s most popular clubs, have magically transformed into something new.  There’s the Lebanese love for the cutting-edge and contempt for stasis.  Anything that’s been too samey for too long becomes dull and uncool.  In the world of clubbing at least, tradition is a killer.

Apart from all of that excitement though, life goes on.  The most telling instance was last Monday.  It might have been Valentine’s Day for most but for supporters of Hariri it was a day of commemoration for a martyred hero.  Since 2005, February 14th has been the day for a mass show of support for the Hariri family’s political allies, otherwise known as the March 14 coalition.  Each year thousands of people gather at Martyr’s square, lament Hariri’s loss, proclaim their support for Saad and generally demonstrate enormous patriotism.   (Hariri is credited as the man who ‘rebuilt’ Lebanon and called for its independence.  His death, which many believe to have been carried out by Syria or by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, resulted directly in the expulsion of the Syrian forces in Lebanon – some feat, considering that Syrian forces had been around since the start of the Civil War in 1975.)  This year, although there was a ceremony on Martyr’s Square to mark the precise moment of the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others, the major event was a political rally in BIEL.

And what an event it was.  This year the anniversary was particularly tense because Saad is no longer PM and because the power of Hezbollah is more explicit and more legitimate than it has ever been before.  The impact of Hariri’s death, which has always seemed to have at least resulted in good – The Cedar Revolution, combined with the fact that Lebanon has gone from strength to strength over the last 5 years – can now be said to have lessened.  It is doubtful that the March 14 coalition will be a part of Mikati’s new government.  And for the first time since 2005, the PM is a March 8 candidate.

For these reasons then, the BIEL rally was bound to be fraught.  But it was not only fraught; it was emotionally seething.  In spite of the fact that most of the attendees were ardent supporters of both March 14 and Hariri, initially the atmosphere was filled with tension.  Simply getting in was a hassle.  There was pushing and bumping all the way through security.  Queuing is generally considered pointless in Lebanon so jostling is normal, but this was a whole new level.  The chamber was blocked off by doormen who insisted on keeping the glass doors shut.  Imagine, if you please, eight thousand people surging and shoving against firmly shut doors, all of whom are already feeling excitable and are not so much spoiling for a fight as bound to punch the first person who gets in their way as a point of honour (for who, after all, would dare to barricade you out of the room where soon will be speaking the son of the man you admire and mourn most?) Regardless of whether you are man or woman, suited or sporting the hijab, you too are smacked against those glass doors and left gasping for breath.  I met two Egyptian press photographers who had just left Cairo to cover the event.  They described it – and I quote – as “worse than Egypt!”; some claim, considering what was going on over there at the same time.

The doors were opened in sudden and short bursts, each burst allowing only about twenty people through, so the whole process took a long time.  Everyone rushed through at such speed that there was still an atmosphere of aggression when you toppled suddenly into the room.  But eventually we were in.  And at that point all of the tension and the trouble vanished.  The talk, of course, had by now already begun.  As you have probably gathered, organisation is not Lebanon’s strong point.  Heavily emotionalising something though, is.  ‘Talk’ is not really a sufficient word to capture what occurred over the next two and a half hours.  Each figure (speakers were Phalange leader Amin Gemayel, Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, ex-Minister Mohamamad Abdel-Hamid Beydoun and of course Saad Hariri) was introduced as though a legendary rock star and welcomed with raucous applause, the applause that might greet home-coming war heroes.  The appearance of Saad was hyped to an almost unbelievable extent.  Video footage of his murdered father was actually interrupted so that the screen could display his own zoomed-in image, shaky and teary.  Each time his name was mentioned a violent clapping, complete with shrill whistles and screams, took over the room, and the audience would rush to their feet.  Men repeated Saad Saad in ritual-like chants.  During Saad’s speech (which of course came last) most of the people around me were crying.  In fact, two bulky men who had earlier fought over a chair and raised their fists at one another clasped hands; one lent the other tissues.

The occasion was all about eliciting an emotional response.  Each speech was interspersed with video footage of assassinated political figures.  The footage consisted largely of a photo collage (of the figures and of the scenes of their deaths) accompanied by voice-overs describing the victims’ personalities.  Their loved ones were interviewed and their achievements listed.   As for the speeches, they too were highly emotionalised, thriving on their own rhetoric.  The names of other assassinated political figures were repeated as if magical – Pierre Gemayel, Gibran Tueni, Bashir Gemayel – and later became more intimate: Pierre, Gibran, Bashir.  It was expertly done.  Enormous portraits of the late Hariri and other slain officials were hung along the wall next to the screen magnifying the faces of the speakers.  At either end of the chamber was a gigantic cedar tree (Lebanon’s national symbol) which, upon looking closer, revealed thousands of photos of the crowds who gathered on March 14 2005 and led to the creation of the coalition.  There was a tremendous sense of the day as quite sacred.

Nicely mixed in with this was the typical Lebanese casualness towards all such events.  Once everybody was settled, the ceremony became an entertainment.  Snacks were produced; everybody sat back comfortably in their chairs and prepared to watch proceedings like a movie that one takes part in.  A row of women in front of me presented the stereotyped picture of girlish high spirits, each of them giggling throughout the speeches and at times having to hide their faces in one another’s coverings so as to muffle the sound of their laughter.  Their amusement was not insulting.  The day was far more about togetherness than grieving.  Above all, it was an opportunity to show solidarity – and that meant the mentality of the crowd in all its conceptions.  The man who earlier had had to borrow a tissue managed to interrupt a speech by yawning so loudly that everybody around him turned and laughed.  One woman shrieked joyously across to him to ask if he was tired.  People enjoyed booing Syria and Michel Aoun as much as they enjoyed displaying their adoration for Saad.

And at the end? Once Saad stopped speaking, people surged towards the exit with as much energy as they had earlier invested in getting in – despite the fact that a final video was being shown.  Cigarettes were lit and cigarette butts dropped.  Papers with the program were left dishevelled on the floor.  Had the two and a half hour rally made anyone think differently about the future? About the way Lebanon is governed? About the existence of coalitions like March 8 and March 14? My impression was that, for most, February 14 had been a day of entertainment.  As I said, life goes on.  And besides, by now it was time for the Valentine celebration.’s-6th-assassination-anniversary

For a translation of Hariri’s speech see here

Back in Lebanon – and life goes on

21 Feb

So.  The Middle East.  What’s it like actually on the ground? What’s going on here, in real time, from the place itself? Here I am in Lebanon, slap bang in the capital of a country whose (non) government has spent much of the last month occupying news headlines and panicking residents and life is as it was when I was last here.  Life goes on.  It is not so much that Lebanon’s political situation has changed but that the static and fractious nature of its government has become more obvious.   For the last few weeks tensions have been rising over the price of fuel.  This is largely because of disagreements and deliberate dawdling from Energy Minister Jibran Bassil and Finance Minister Raya Hassan, both of whom have criticised the other for being so slow.  And why? There seems to be the idea that to credit the one automatically discredits the other.  Neither wants the other to have the glory of a successful action and each has the ability to prevent the decisions of the other from going forward.  It’s bizarre: the Lebanese, who love so much to socialise and to debate, are governing in the same way they host their famous – and fabulous – lunch and dinner parties.  It is lots of talk and lots of wrangling, all of which stems from and is deeply steeped in political, personal or religious affiliations and then phut! little more is done.  Ideas, finding neither enthusiasm nor constructive criticism, simply fizzle out.

That all sounds fairly depressing, though; and one thing that is certain about life in Lebanon is that it is far from depressing.  However ironic it is, a political deadlock has been going on for so long that an all-out government collapse makes little tangible difference.  It is when things directly alter the daily lives of the people – like the price of fuel – that the state of affairs becomes explicit.  Otherwise it continues comfortably in the background.  So the time that Mikati is taking now to form his government sounds far more exciting than it really is.  What! Lebanon without a government! How will it go on? Unfortunately, the simple answer is: quite easily – just as it ever does.

Meanwhile Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic movement and an ally of Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition, is insisting that his bloc gets most of the Christian cabinet seats in Mikati’s government, thereby preventing President Michel Suleiman from his share.  So proceedings have been held up considerably.  Aoun has done this before.  When Saad Hariri was forming his government in 2009, Aoun insisted that Jibran Bassil – the very same Bassil featured above – retain his post in the government, despite having lost the election in his home district of Batroun.  With a helping hand from Hezbollah, Aoun won.  It is likely that his current demands will be met too.  It seems that no one can stop anyone from the magnificent power of the veto.  When will the new government be formed? You can’t help but begin to wonder – does it matter?