Long life lines

Jim Gabour
5 October 2006

I was directing four days of high-definition television broadcasts at the National Association of Broadcasters annual show in Las Vegas last spring when I suddenly encountered more Lebanese nationals than I had ever met before.

Apart, that is, from one of my father's family reunions.

In spite of three days' journey, missed planes and sweaty bus rides, the twenty student interns from the American University of Beirut (it is known as AUB) television-studies programme were excited and ready to work. They started calling me by what I took to be an Arabic pronunciation of my surname and, when they asked its origins, were delighted to discover my lineage. Even the announcement of my seriously Irish mother did not seem to deter their tagging me "the Lebanese director".

I didn't mind. Actually I found it rather charming and romantic, being identified with a city that just forty years ago was a renowned traditional Mediterranean destination for vacation and commerce, a place dubbed in financial circles as the "Geneva of the east". In spite of the intervening devastation of political violence, I was told that the city had finally come again into its own long-held course of peace and prosperity, and that in 2006 AUB itself was actually celebrating the 140th year of its founding, with 7,000 students coming to Beirut from over sixty countries.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director living in New Orleans. His website is here

Also by Jim Gabour in openDemocracy:

"A New Orleans diary" (February 2006)

"New Orleans ode to carnival"
(February 2006)

"Out of order"
(March 2006)

"The deliveryman's story" (March 2006)

"An electoral storm in New Orleans"
(April 2006)

"The choice is not choice" (May 2006)

"Frozen assets: letter from New Orleans" (June 2006)

"Urban renewal"
(June 2006)

"The big heat"
(July 2006)

(August 2006)

(August 2006)

"Hell hath on fury"
(29 August 2006)

"Life as a remainder" (14 September 2006)

The kids' descriptions of their people, school and homes seem to indicate that the heydays were indeed possibly returning, and from my distant vantage-point of an over-decorated Nevada hotel room in April 2006, their city sounded to be thriving again.

Unlike my own.

They knew about the storm, and each of the kids repeatedly demanded such detailed descriptions of the devastation of New Orleans that I finally had to insist that they not ask me anything further. It was all too painful and raw. They apologised and invariably said they empathised with my hometown, thinking it, like Beirut, a similar anomaly in its own country - both cities considered by their brethren talented but unmannered outcasts. New Orleans and Beirut both just had too much fun for the stiff suits and politicians, they told me, and that is why they choose to ignore our plight, the government hoping we'll just go away.

They were young and from the other side of the world, but they were damned close to the heart of the problem.

I spent some time during the week I worked with those students reflecting on my own typically diverse American lineage, my mother's people arriving from western Europe some two centuries ago, and my father's mother and father disembarking at Ellis Island in New York harbour just over a century later, after visa waits in southern France and Havana.

My generation has been thoroughly Americanised, and I do not really know much about my parents' peoples. Though, besides the exuberant youth I witnessed in Vegas, I have found that longevity seems a defining trait of the Lebanese I have known. My father - who still goes to work daily in his print shop as he approaches his 93d birthday - has long told the tale, corroborated by my grandmother, of his own great-grandfather. After almost a century, the family still mourned a vital man cut down in his prime, a dedicated worker, and a moderately talented recreational dancer, forced into an early and permanent retirement when a crate fell on him as he went about his job as harbour-master of Beirut.

At the time of the accident, great-great-grandpapa was 102 years old, still drawing a weekly paycheque. My grandmother could not remember if the family received a workman's compensation settlement, but thought that, somewhere, she still had the gold watch the harbor authority awarded in lieu of the old man's continued existence.

I found this propensity for a long active life a comforting legacy from my father, and enjoyed this accidental reawakening of interest in his family's place of origin. Through the following summer, I watched the places the students had mentioned to me on the internet, watched via live webcams as the arts scene and sidewalk cafe neighborhoods of Beirut expanded. I was even considering entering my new film in the DocuDays film festival at the American University, as an excuse to visit the country, the students and teachers I had met in Vegas for the first time. Yet another rootless American's fascination with roots.

Then came Beirut's own hurricane.

Tanks and bombs and rockets rained down on the city from 12 July until 14 August, and again the suits, the people in charge of the killing, ignored the devastation and deaths of thousands of innocent individuals, people whose politics were never deeper than which fish-market they would visit for the evening meal. My new acquaintances from AUB were caught in a bloody vise. Their existence was threatened by strangers' distorted sense of national pride.

I tried unsuccessfully to get in communication with the university. I watched the news for familiar faces. I saw the webcams go down. I saw two of the student cafes I had been told were near the university completely demolished. I began to remember their sincere condolences on the damage done to my city's heart, and now reflected on their own losses.

It was all too familiar.

But they are long-lived, these Lebanese. I suspect they will outlive the hatred and discord and misguided nationalists on all sides. This past week, on 26 September, 1,900 new enrollees signed up to join the students already in place, and the school reopened at very close to its pre-hostilities strength.

The webcams are coming back online. The cafes putting up new doors.

Welcome back, my friends.

As a newly-minted survivor myself, I can only offer the family adage.

If after a century of life my grizzled ancestor could leave this world on his own terms, working happily and dancing about the docks of Beirut without a worry as to the outside world, then I absolutely know for a fact that fun is still possible, in both our towns.

And joy certainly does aggravate those suits.

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