Lebanon: slices of life

Mai Ghoussoub
31 October 2006

The war shook the Lebanese inside out. Now – at rallies and parties, in art and life, with white anger and black humour - they are trying to make sense of it all. Mai Ghoussoub shares her journey into hearts and minds.

Driving with Rida

Rida is a character that only Martin Scorsese or John Updike could have created. But Rida is not a fictional creation, he is a Lebanese driver and he is very real. As he takes me through the messy roads of Beirut, Rida complains. He scorns the other drivers and those who allow them to carry a driving licence, he protests about the cost of living, he curses the government. His diatribes always end with the same conclusion: "Our politicians are thieves and if we were in a civilised country, they would all have been hanged by now".

Rida is from the south of Lebanon and lives in the dahiya (southern suburbs) of Beirut. For me, he is a great source to catch the mood in Lebanon, and despite the repetitions, whenever I sit in his car, I do my best to trigger a conversation by asking: "what do you think will happen to us in this country?"

I know that before elaborating, he will confirm to me that nothing good is to be expected. This time I ask Rida where he escaped with his family during the Israeli invasion and what he thinks about the resistance movement. Tales of heroism start to pour from the driver's seat. "We taught Israel a lesson", every person was ready to sacrifice their life fida Sayyid Nasrallah (fida means "giving one's life for").

But Rida, I ask, what happened to your home? As the traffic thickens and the halts multiply (another by-product of the disappearance of bridges in the country), Rida's frustration rises to a crescendo: "I don't know what all this was for. When you have a criminal neighbour like Israel, you should think a hundred times before provoking it. (Hizbollah) should have known better - what heroism is there in creating a million refugees? Believe me sitna (dear lady), if they had not distributed compensation money to the people who had their homes destroyed, they would have been spat upon by all the Shi'a population".

I did not tell Rida that this was an exaggeration, for Rida always exaggerates. I did not tell him that within five minutes he had confidently expressed two directly opposite positions. I did not tell him that because, after a few days in Lebanon, I had realised that many people proclaim completely contradictory views within a short conversation. People's identifications and convictions are dual if not multiple and after the war, they all speak and behave as if they had survived an earthquake or some traumatic natural disaster.

Rida's wife has decided to wear the veil, he says with a slightly proud smile, even though he has never asked her to do so. He also tells me a joke that is circulating in Lebanon: he displays the V sign using his index and his middle finger and asks: "What does this mean?" He immediately answers: "There are only two buildings left." After successive destructive wars, the Lebanese are masters in black humour.

The second day I asked Rida to drive me to the mountains in the Metn, a Maronite (Christian) area north of Beirut. It was Saturday 14 October, and General Michel Aoun, the Christian ally of Hizbollah, had called for a big rally the next day. His aim was to display his capacity at mobilising the masses, both Christian and Shi'a, and ultimately to become the president of the republic (in the event, heavy rainfall forced the rally's abandonment).

Again, jokes are running fast among Lebanese Christians, which reflect the political atmosphere better than any analysis. One goes like this. General Aoun calls his aide and asks him to prepare 200 sandwiches for the people at the rally. His aide says: but general, we are expecting 200,000 demonstrators - why only 200 sandwiches? Because all the others are fasting for Ramadan, says the general (meaning that the masses Aoun can mobilise are actually the masses Hizbollah will mobilise for him).

Mai Ghoussoub is an artist, writer and publisher. She was born and brought up in Beirut, and has lived in London since 1979. She has written numerous articles on culture, aesthetics and middle-eastern issues for international journals. She is the author of Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within
(Saqi, 2001), co-editor (with Emma Sinclair-Webb) of Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East
(Saqi, 2006), and a contributor to Anna Wilson, ed., Lebanon, Lebanon (Saqi, 2006)

Also by Mai Ghoussoub in openDemocracy:

"Abu Ghraib: I do not know where to look for hope" (10 May 2004)

"Who is serious?"
(9 June 2004)

When we reach Antelias, we see in this Christian enclave next to General Aoun a sea of orange flags and a huge Hizbollah banner hanging in the middle of the place. I look at Rida's face and see it beaming with pleasure. When I ask him why he is so pleased, he replies: it is nice to see us featured in this area. "Us?", I asked. You have been complaining about Hizbollah and its adventurous attack and its responsibility for all the misery of the Shi'a population all through the trip from Beirut to Antelias! I don't understand. Well, he says: who would have dreamed of seeing a Shi'a party celebrated in this area!

That is why it is great to speak to Rida, he is symptomatic of all the contradictory identities of the Lebanese, their variegated belonging to their nation, community and individuality. Rida complains about all his affiliations, but "affiliated" he nonetheless is.

On the terrace

It is still hot in Beirut in early October. When I visit Nada and Samir, I ask to have our drink on the balcony. They live in west Beirut, in a traditionally Sunni area that is now Shi'a as well. It is Ramadan, but the supermarket down the road still sells me a bottle of wine that we intend to enjoy on their terrace.

Other friends join us. The Husseiniya (Shi'a mosque) next door has a powerful loudspeaker and the sheikh starts his prayers. My host complains: "Each evening during Ramadan we have to endure listening to this monotonous chanting for two or three hours! This should not be permitted". His wife says that at least they could have selected a sheikh with a better voice.

The other guests start to tell stories about how it is becoming impossible to complain about the zealots who are over-extending the prayers and overusing the capacity of the loudspeakers. Samir goes inside and puts some tarab (Arabic blues) in his CD player. We end up discussing politics, the "terrible situation" and exchanging the latest jokes in the midst of a musical cacophony.

My friends are secular and all complain about the ascending power of the religious groups in the country. Mohammad, a university teacher, disagrees with them all. He says: "I was against Hizbollah and his attack, but once Israel attacked, I supported the resistance. Now I am happy the international forces are here, for what would happen to us secular Muslims if we were left with a triumphant and omnipresent Hizbollah?"

I listen quietly for once and remind them that they can still drink their whisky quite comfortably in the middle of Ramadan and that this is possible because Lebanon is still holding as a country.

Another terrace, in east Beirut this time. A beautiful view of the city can be seen from the terrace of Zeina, a fashion designer. She receives her customers in her home, and always invites them to enjoy the sight from her terrace before displaying her latest designs. Her customers are always seduced by the panoramic view of Beirut; but today Zeina is not smiling back with pride when we compliment her on her location.

"I can't sleep any longer", she says. "A new nightclub opened a few weeks ago, and even if I close all the windows, the pop music and the synthesizers assault my eardrums till 4am every night. I have been complaining every day to the owner and to the gendarmerie, but to no avail. They are not going to kick me out of my flat."

We all sympathised, but know quite well that she has no chance of winning her battle. The nightclub owners are very generous towards the police and heads of the local gendarmeries. Even though she runs a successful business and even if she was willing to corrupt a policeman, she would never be able to compete with the most successful businesses in Lebanon: restaurants and nightclubs.

I look at her designs and remember my evening at Nada and Samir. From west to east Beirut, people are complaining about noises on their balcony. Does it matter if the source is religious or secular? Does it matter if the source of the noise is the throat of a sheikh or the strings of an electric guitar? In Lebanon, sadly, it sometimes matters!

Cultural scenes

An art gallery that was not deterred by the dangers of war. Two young women defy the depressive mood of the Lebanese intelligentsia and curators and organise an exhibition of art created during the war. It is small, simple but very touching.

Installations, collages, sculptures and video art speak of the war between Hizbollah and Israel, or more accurately of the artists' concerns during the war. I spent more than an hour browsing through the gallery, always returning and stopping, intrigued, in front of an installation called: "A House That Anne Frank Did Not Live In, And Books She Did Not Write."

The artist is from the south and he has piled all the remains of his torn and burned books; an Israeli bomb had fallen on his home, turning it into rubble. Why this title? Is he saying that the Israelis are doing to us what the Nazis did to the Jews? Is he complaining that we are suffering like Anne Frank, but that our suffering is not recognised? The books he had in his home speak of the latest exhibitions and artistic tendencies exhibited in museums all over the world. The artist is obviously connected, so is Lebanon after all. Will it still be true?

This time, I felt a sort of tiredness among the Lebanese, a deep sense of desperation. Don't tell us that we Lebanese always get back on our feet. We don't want to have always to rebuild, we are fed up of having initiative, said Najwa to a journalist who was trying to be supportive.

Many art works are ironic, black humour again. On the way out of the gallery, I feel better, somehow stronger. But art always does this to me.

Al- Wilaya is Hizbollah's official group of singers and musicians. They are performing everywhere and were it not for piracy (according to the studio owner in the southern suburb) they would have sold millions of records of their latest CD, instead of just half a million.

Listen to their lead singer speaking: "We use drums, synthesizers, trumpets, clarinets but not tambourines or derboukas (drums). These encourage dance. They [meaning "the west", I guess] think we are ignorant and backward but we are cultured. We love life, music and art. We don't just live for martyrdom and death. But we want to live with dignity and pride."

The problem is that synthesizers are not exactly authentic Arab or Islamic musical instruments, while the derbouka is. But in any case, I believe that Islamic movements nowadays are an expression of post-modernity and not at all a recurrence of an old age. The word fundamentalist is misleading.

When I am ready to face it, Hassan takes me to the southern suburbs. They are lively again. Many young people are walking back from school, avoiding the piles of rubble and the holes left by the Israeli bombs. Not all the women are veiled, many are wearing tight jeans and showing their stylish coiffure. Anger and sadness, both feelings compete inside me to the point of nausea. How could anybody do this a heavily populated area?

I had seen the pictures on TV, but none of them had shown the dresses or the blouses or the toys still caught in the piles of concrete that were people's homes. Hassan had his home bombed and is living in it, now avoiding the hole in the middle of his son's bedroom. Why are you living in your home now, you can rent a flat away from the dahiya until you renovate your flat, I ask him. "I want to be home, I am used to it here, this is my neighbourhood."

Hassan came to the dahiya after being evicted from the flat he had occupied downtown (which he had moved into when he lost his home during an earlier war). I remembered the Palestinians, who felt nostalgic for their camps when they were obliged to leave Lebanon. Home is where you have built habits; old traditions are often quite recent.

One building is cut in half, revealing a display of white wedding-dresses. The shop is trying to do business, as if to prove that life is made of celebrations and funerals. A hairdressing salon has an advertising sign made of a Fernando Botero painting next to a shop selling clothes for the muhajjabat (veiled women). At every corner, there is a large poster celebrating the "divine victory". I had a feeling I was walking through a Salvador Dali painting, a sad, bizarre painting.

Also on Lebanon in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

Fred Halliday,
"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah" (20 July 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity"
(8 August 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "How the European left supports Lebanon"
(14 August 2006)

Jihad N Fakhreddine, "The Lebanese enigma: strength in weakness" (16 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

To the south, but food first...

Before heading south, I visit Souk al-Tayib. It is Saturday and Kamal is still refusing to be defeated by the war. Kamal is a sweet, elegant and generous person who loves slow food and work in the culinary domain. When I meet him in Souk al-Tayeb, the organic heaven he has created, he kisses me and says: "Don't leave this country, look at all these displays of wonderful food that people have brought here."

I look around, and see an enormous variety of homemade products being cooked or sold in this picturesque souk in the middle of the Solidere area. Kamal is also trying to celebrate Lebanese apples because the agricultural sector has suffered huge losses (from chemical-damage to crops, and the cluster-bombs that have killed more than twenty children since the war ended and left farmers afraid to pick their crops).

The Lebanese are obsessive about good cuisine. They discuss and taste dishes endlessly. Within half an hour in the souk, I tasted two delicious sweets that I had never previously encounteredor even heard of. I learn that Kamal had also organised Souk al-Tuffah (a souk of apples) and a competition of new recipes using apples. The winner had invented a wonderful dish of vine leaves stuffed with apples.

One thing is sure, the glorious food tradition of the Lebanese have not been beaten by this bloody war, it is still kicking and feverishly alive.

Nabil and Samia pick me up for the journey to the south of Lebanon. The road will be long, much longer than usual, as there are no bridges left thanks to the Israelis' hateful attack. I am furious at the sight and scale of the destruction. Nabil cheers me up with another input of black humour. During the war, he hired a taxi to take him to Sidon to bring his mother to Beirut. Approaching a bridge, the taxi-driver (who already had charged Nabil ten times the true price of the ride) asks: "Sir, would you rather die under the bridge or over it?"


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