Beirut, Alive but Dead

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“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

In Our Orbit: What Was Lost

Frederick Deknatel | May 12, 2010 This article appeared in the May 31, 2010 edition of The Nation.

One day in the fall of 1970, as he was studying Arabic in a mountain village overlooking Beirut, Kai Bird heard on the BBC that a plane hijacked by a group of young Arab men, “secular Marxists and Palestinian nationalists,” had landed at Beirut’s international airport. From his perch in the mountains the 19-year-old Bird had a view of the plane on the tarmac; he did not know that his girlfriend was one of its passengers. She was a hostage of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, which violently thrust the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood into international view and ended with three empty airliners exploding at a former RAF airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Bird’s girlfriend survived the ordeal, and her story is a window onto Bird’s uncommon, personal and privileged perspective on the Middle East. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner; $30), Bird, a Nation contributing editor, sifts through his memories as the son of an American diplomat stationed in Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo and sets them against the region’s history over three busy decades. The book’s title refers to the barbed-wired checkpoint that demarcated the 1949 armistice line between Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, and through which Bird and his father drove daily en route to the Anglican Mission School in West Jerusalem from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. Minus his father, Bird and his younger sister and mother evacuated Jerusalem for Beirut in 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser and seize the Suez Canal—a conflict that did not end until the following year, when David Ben-Gurion, under threat of economic sanctions from President Eisenhower, ordered Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. A decade later, again without his father, Bird’s family fled Cairo for Athens before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In the early 1960s the Birds lived in a dusty consular compound in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when the kingdom was comparatively open and not nearly as rich. Most expat families in the adjacent oil compound survived the desert with bathtub gin; Bird’s father smuggled in Scotch. During a second stint there in the 1970s, his parents counted among their friends Salem bin Laden, an urbane brother of Osama who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”

Bird’s memoir is about understanding but rejecting borders as they were being redrawn and reinforced in the postwar Middle East, which he had the liberty to do as an American expatriate growing up “out of place.” Bird uses the phrase deliberately: it’s a nod to Edward Said’s description of statelessness, though Bird never likens his own wanderings to those of a refugee. The politics of Bird’s parents were a product of the bygone era of empathic Arabists in the Foreign Service; their son shared their support of the Palestinians. As a university student in Beirut he saw the Palestinian resistance grow armed and stout in a city that was the region’s cultural capital on the eve of civil war. The wholeness of Bird’s Middle Eastern story is really a longing for the Jerusalem of his childhood, before Israel’s victory over Nasser and the Arabs in 1967, when Mandelbaum Gate was demolished and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. “The Israelis proclaimed the city unified,” he writes. “It was not—and it is not.”

Bird was an earnest antiwar college student in the United States in the early 1970s when he met Susan Goldmark (whom he would later marry), and learned another lesson about dislocation. Goldmark is the daughter of Austrian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and stories of her parents’ escape to the Balkans and Italy and eventually to New York City came to serve as a foil for Bird’s view of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli aggression. Bird doesn’t equate their suffering but rather contemplates the collective failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile their histories of loss and victimhood. Among his parents’ friends in Jerusalem was an Armenian family with long ties to the city. They fled in 1948 and returned two years later, but their property had been expropriated. “The Kalbians identified themselves as Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenians whose home was Palestine,” Bird writes. The nascent Jewish state “regarded them as non-Jews and therefore Arabs.” Eventually they immigrated to America. Bird links their displacement with the plight of Susan’s parents. In 1959 she and her mother returned to Graz to knock on the door of their old house, stolen during the war by a neighbor, “to see what she had lost.”

Bird admits that he has long avoided writing about the Middle East because “I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah.” With its conviction and range, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate avoids that futility. Bird’s honest book recalls a remark of the historian Albert Hourani about the Six-Day War: “Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat.”

Link at The Nation (but behind the subscriber firewall).

Can conservationists save Oscar Niemeyer’s fairground in Lebanon?

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor, following up on a visit to a modernist fairground relic in northern Lebanon.

By Frederick Deknatel, Contributor / April 20, 2010

Tripoli, Lebanon

An abandoned international fairground in Tripoli, Lebanon, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – the architect behind Brasília and the United Nations Secretariat in New York, among other buildings – faces an uncertain future.

Nearly complete when Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, the modernist international fairground was mostly abandoned throughout the fighting and the following two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction. A theater housed in an oversized concrete dome was reportedly used as a weapons dump by Syrian soldiers, who reinforced it with unsightly steel rods, still visible.

Named after Rashid Karami, a Tripoli native and 10-time prime minister who was assassinated in the last years of the civil war, the site is a forgotten, sprawling artifact of architectural modernism.

It tells part of the development story of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of political disruption and ambitious building projects.

Mr. Niemeyer had just completed his signature government buildings for Brasília, Brazil’s capital built on a savanna, when he accepted the commission from Lebanon’s government in the early 1960s. His 15 pavilions set amid an oval park expressed his commitment to reinforced concrete, from the ceremonial arch to the pyramid to the amphitheater, helipad, and curving exhibition hall.

Today the cracked, empty buildings get less attention than the grounds; a conservation group has restored the park’s flora and is now fighting for its architecture.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites, in response to a failed plan to replace it with a tourist village based on Disneyland. For now, the maarad, or exhibition, as Niemeyer’s park is known locally, sits near the sea on the edge of the city, its only occupants curious visitors and residents out for a walk.

Beneath the remains in northern Lebanon – The National

I have an essay in this weekend’s Review section of Abu Dhabi’s The National based on a trip to an abandoned Oscar Niemeyer designed fairground in Tripoli late last fall. It’s great to share space in the always excellent Review — be sure to read Rajah Shehadeh’s review of Hillel Cohen’s Good Arabs and Robert Vitalis (author of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier) on the slow improvement in writing histories of Saudi Arabia.

My piece begins:

The abandoned fairground in Tripoli is only semi-public and we had to badger the guard to let us in. He suggested we visit the newer, smaller, and bland public park across the street, built by the Saudis. But that park hadn’t been designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the decade before Lebanon’s civil war, so two friends and I insisted, answering questions about our nationalities and motivation. “We just want to look,” I said “and take some pictures. We’re interested in the architecture.”

This sufficed and we entered a vast concrete expanse, like an unmarked car park, that led to the ramped entry pavilion of Niemeyer’s unfinished Rashid Karami International Fair Complex.

Commissioned by the Lebanese government in the 1960s shortly after the completion of Brasilia, whose buildings were designed by Niemeyer, the planned permanent exhibition centre in Tripoli is an artefact of Lebanon’s pre-war prosperity, a reminder of a place once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

A bright Los Angeles Times dispatch in 1964 from the “plush playground of the Arab world” reads like it was written from Dubai two years ago: “Real estate values have soared as one glass-walled skyscraper after another has risen on the coveted coast in and around Beirut.” It closes with a nod to Niemeyer.

While the capital saw “oil-rich traders” in “air-conditioned Cadillacs” and billions of dollars of Kuwaiti and Saudi investments pour into its “stable banks”, industrial Tripoli in the north staked its development on a world-class international fairground.

Read the rest at The National. Or see it in PDF form as it appeared in print. Photos from my visit; should be added to my dormant Flickr page soon.

Don’t Let It Sink

A recent Huff Post of mine.

They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me. I shall make my coffee now. I will drink the coffee now. Right now, I will be sated with the aroma of coffee, that I may at least distinguish myself from a sheep and live one more day, or die, with the aroma of coffee all around me.

So begins a passage from Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. Under the terror of jets and shelling, the Israeli siege of Beirut, Darwish is making coffee. He takes it seriously, a refuge from the war and a brew to other thoughts. “Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry,” he writes. “It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, the sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul.”

Read the rest here.

The resistance option

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Robin Yassin-Kassab writes on EI:

Hamas isn’t Hizballah and Gaza isn’t Lebanon. The resistance in Gaza — which includes leftist and nationalist as well as Islamist forces — doesn’t have mountains to fight in. It has no strategic depth. It doesn’t have Syria behind it to keep supply lines open; instead it has Israel’s wall and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s goons. Lebanese civilians can flee north and east, while Gaza’s repeat-refugees have no escape. The Lebanese have their farms, and supplies from outside; Gaza has been under total siege for years. Hizballah has remarkable discipline and is surely the best-trained, most disciplined force in the region. Although it has made great strides, Hamas is still undisciplined. Crucially, Hizballah has air-tight intelligence control in Lebanon, while Gaza contains collaborators like maggots in a corpse.

But Hamas is still standing. On the rare occasions when Israel actually fought — rather than just called in air strikes — its soldiers reported “ferocious” resistance. Hamas withstood 22 days of the most barbaric bombing Zionism has yet stooped to, and did not surrender. Rocket fire continued from Gaza after Israel declared its unilateral ceasefire.

Let’s put this in context. In 1947-48 Zionist militias drove out more than 700,000 Palestinians without too much trouble. In 1967 it took Israel six days to destroy the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies, and to capture the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. Zionism’s last “victory” was the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut in 1982 — if it was a victory.

The long and bloody occupation of Lebanon gave birth to new forms of resistance. Where Arab states and armies had failed, popular resistance removed American and French forces from Beirut, and then steadily rolled back the Israelis. The first suicide bomber of the conflict was a Marxist woman of Christian background.

To and from West Beirut

Driving across the Biqa’ Valley:

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As we reentered Syria from Lebanon yesterday, a friend had his copy of al-Hayat, the Lebanese daily, seized by a border guard. “Not allowed,” he said simply as he snatched it out of his lap, reaching into our taxi’s back seat. 

A few days earlier we had left Damascus in the early morning, trying to beat the Eid al-Adha holiday traffic. We were only half successful, still having to sit in lines of cab and car traffic at the mountain border between the two countries, the line between the dry desert hills that drop down to the former oasis of Damascus on one side, and the fertile Biqa’ Valley on the other, which you cross in 10 minutes of fast driving before climbing into the craggy mountains and fog and under-construction bridges that eventually drop you down to the Mediterranean and the concrete cityscape of Beirut, which was mostly caked in smog last weekend, before sea breeze and a bit of rain cleared things up. 

The disconnect between the two cities is startling and it goes far beyond the prevalence of French, English and Western cafes in Beirut. West Beirut, save for the “incidents” in May — how many Lebanese referred to Hizballah and Amal’s take-over of the city last spring — is in many ways student neighborhood now, the posh kids from AUB going to Starbucks or eating sandwiches across from campus talking in English mostly, with the errant Arabic exclamation. It’s hard to imagine the city’s past amid this, but perhaps this is the truth of Beirut: the disconnect from it dusty neighbor, Damascus; the always looking across the Mediterranean, at least in certain parts of town; and the absurdity of Italian coffees and French newspapers in section of the city that Yasser Arafat vowed to turn into a “the graveyard of the invader and the Stalingrad of the Arabs” when the Israelis invaded in 1982. 

I bought Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 on Rue Hamra in West Beirut. He writes in the opening pages:

The dawn made of lead is still advancing from the direction of the sea, riding on sounds I haven’t heard before. The sea has been entirely packed into stray shells. It is changing its marine nature and turning into metal. Does death have all these names? We said we’d leave. Why then does this red-black-grey rain keep pouring over those leaving or staying, be they people, trees, or stones? We said we’d leave. “By sea?” they asked. “By sea,” we answered. Why then are they arming the foam and waves with this heavy artillery? Is it to hasten our steps to the sea? But first they must break the siege of the sea. They must clear the last path for the last threat of our blood. But they won’t do, so we won’t be leaving. I’ll go ahead then and make the coffee.”

West Beirut:

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