Letters from Beirut: Of Paradigms and Cockroaches

by thiszine


In Beirut, August is the cruellest month. As Ramadan begins and strings of bright paper cut-out lamps light up the city, anyone who possibly can leave town, does – social lives and business meetings are put on hold, and those who remain (such as hapless journalists, for example) can only try and stay sane in 40 plus degrees Celsius and 60 per cent humidity – we lurch from air conditioning unit to air conditioning unit, mimicking the movement of the drugged cockroaches we share our apartments with. This is all very well until the 3-12 hour power cuts kick in and people start burning car tires on the roads in protest. The country’s civil war ended twenty years ago, but corruption, Israeli bombs and Syrian occupation have kept the infrastructure in a third-world state, and 2 million or so tourists in town this year only make more ridiculous the incapacitated service system.


But one thing that Beirutis have always been good at is carrying on regardless. Restaurants open, bougainvillea blooms expansively, books are launched, film festivals abound, and hapless journalists go about their business. Despite a friend telling me that Mein Kampf is on the Downtown Virgin Megastore’s bestseller list (It could be innocent. Could it?), the city is full of bright and beautiful ideas. Estella and I (my 1991 Kawasaki Estrella – she lost the ‘r’ in homage to the anti-heroine of Great Expectations) have had plenty to do sounding out bookish thoughts all over the city.

Just last month, local sweetheart Maya Zankoul launched her second volume of “sherbet lemon” cartoons on all things Beirut – sweet on the outside, with a sharp kick if you care to get any closer. And one sunny Sunday, Estella and I climbed up into the mountains above Beirut to Broumanna, to get a sneak peek at a Feminist writer’s retreat. The program grew out of the work being done to create a feminist webspace for the Middle East, with the aim of bypassing the agendas of mainstream news and comment, much as indynews and True/Slant have done elsewhere, though with a different focus. The workshop was a pilot for longer future programs aiming to cultivate stronger writing for the website, which has big plans to also become a print publication. Postcolonial literature and Arabic poetry was on the agenda – man-hating was not.

From the mountains to the dingy Beirut streets, and from feminists to transsexuals – paradigm-busting seems to be the order of the day. I met with the completely delightful Randa, fiercely brave author of Mouzakarat Randa al Trans, or The Memoirs of Randa the Trans. She fled Algeria last year under a death threat, finding some sort of security and possibility of progress in Lebanon. As we spoke, her voice was gentle and hesitant, but her sentiments strong and brave. For her, identity is a personal decision in which no state or religion has the right to interfere, and she is still fighting for that right against some of the world’s most repressive ideologies.

Another day, another trip, this time to Dar al-Saqi, Beirut branch of Saqi Books, where they surprised me with an interview with co-founder André Gaspard, childhood friend and publishing partner of Mai Ghoussoub. Chatty to the point of rambling, he was immensely positive about moving from publishing books in London to Beirut. Sales targets and e-readers leave him cold, and the Arab market is full of surprises and possibilities, like Joumana Haddad’s new book, I Killed Scheherazade, which is causing a stir before it’s even out. A rave (p)review in the Guardian sparked a long response from local “queer arab magazine” Bekhsoos. I’m looking forward to reviewing it, though not without the feeling that whatever I say will be wrong.

Finally, August commemorated the assassination of Naji al-Ali 23 years ago in London. The Palestinian cartoonist and creator of the “Handala” character was shot in the face by an unidentified youth outside the offices of a Kuwaiti newspaper and eventually died from his wounds, without regaining consciousness. A statue of him put up after his death at the entrance to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon was twice damaged before finally disappearing – and so it goes. RIP.

Some of Ellen Hardy’s articles are available on www.timeoutbeirut.com.


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