Letter from Beirut : Lebanon Loses What War Did Not Destroy

By Etel Adnan

Dear Elie,

I promised you a letter from Beirut and it is a letter from Paris that I'm sending, but about Beirut, where I spent lately a few months. Last night, at the Institute du Monde Arabe, I saw a movie which opened the Fourth Bienale of Arab Cinema, a movie in Arabic and with an American title: "West Beirut," made by Ziyad Doueiri, who spent 15 years of study and training in the U.S. and returned to Lebanon where he filmed his first movie. It is about the war in Beirut seen by two adolescents, probably one of the two or three "good" movies ever produced by the Lebanese. (I think of "Kafr Kassem" which is already an old movie and until now, in my eyes at least, the only other film which can make us speak of a "Lebanese cinema").

There was before the war and even during the war years a special character to Beirut that made us, and visitors too, love Beirut. There was a sense that life was diverse, unpredictable, good and bad all at the same time, in the same person; a sense that it was worth living even under tragic circumstances....

"West Beirut," amazingly, made me see all the "good" things that we lost in Lebanon, things that survived the war but not the "after war" as I saw it in my recent stay. There was before the war and even during the war years a special character to Beirut that made us, and visitors too, love Beirut. There was a sense that life was diverse, unpredictable, good and bad all at the same time, in the same person; a sense that it was worth living even under tragic circumstances. To put it otherwise, there was a certain innocence even among fighters or torturers, and today you couldn't say that -- all you can do is witness Innocence Lost in the reconstruction which is so propagandized in government circles and in the newspapers of the world.

Something is terribly wrong about Lebanon nowadays, something, or rather many things are wrong, and the accumulation of all these wrongs and wrongdoings is quite alarming. New problems are being created whose consequences will be felt later and probably in terrible ways.

All complaints lead inevitably to the government that rules Lebanon, complaints which are justified although they do not include, as they should, the behavior of the people in areas that the government doesn't control. The archaic and anarchistic behavior of the average citizen in Lebanon is in itself a major problem that no government can address; to put it mildly there is such a lack of a sense of personal responsibility in the average citizen that things look hopeless. For example, people drive recklessly, killing and maiming other drivers who are innocent or pedestrians who can barely cross a street without endangering their lives.

No formality involving any institution can be achieved without a substantial bakhshish, and there is such a consumerism that people will sell anything, their honor before anything else, to buy any gadget, and this because material wealth has become the sole image of one's value so that the greatest humiliation seems the one of being poor, or poorer than one's neighbors.

Many will be surprised to read that I consider Lebanon an archaic society, given its apparent modernization, and the fact that it counts among its population a good number of excellent doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. But behind these technical achievements the values of this society have not changed because of the war, they have rather been reinforced: these values are of excessive pride, disdain for manual work, disdain for those who work with their hands, i.e. the workers, servants.... and indifference for the well-being of anybody who is not the self or a blood relation to the self. Before the war, one was getting along with these negative values because there were also to life some good, positive elements: the country was still beautiful, the mountains still largely non-inhabited, social ties strong and intimate, and old "moral" values still actively pursued, like respect for the people who were old and retired, a strong love of culture, a curiosity for the arts, a desire for a coherent world where each one can make a place for himself or herself. There were also genuine political parties which expressed themselves through a free press.

Disenchantment with the war and, mainly, with the fact of having lost the war, the feeling of a great defeat felt by every group who participated in that war (nobody felt victorious in that mess), made people apathetic to anything daring and creative. The only activity therefore which kept any interest is the endeavor of making money.

Money is the new lord of Lebanon (not only of Lebanon, but that's not our subject, here). Money at any cost. Money as the only expression of the self. Money, and quick money, as the only reason to be. All this means that money has become the only goal of people who otherwise may have become professors, or actors, or craftsmen, professions that bring limited money to those who chose them. This trend means that Lebanese society lacks, and will lack, a whole class of people who make life colorful, beautiful, varied, and, in the long run, efficient. It is as if Lebanon is becoming a country of gamblers, not to say gangsters, a few thousand people making huge amounts of money and the others dreaming to have the same luck and in the meantime adding to the population of the poor.

Things are being done that would have looked irrational if the craze for money wasn't so prevalent. Many, many beautiful buildings have been destroyed that the war had spared, and are still being destroyed for speculation purposes. Thus, we see a world "upside-down." Usually people wished to become rich in order to enjoy a better life, like buying a beautiful house. Now the reverse has become true. Rich people, in order to become richer, destroy the very things they have and that they should have wanted; they give up an architectural treasure and dwell in sterile and badly designed apartments, all this to accumulate a money that becomes at a certain point an abstraction in a bank account!

No formality involving any institution can be achieved without a substantial bakhshish, and there is such a consumerism that people will sell anything, their honor before anything else, to buy any gadget, and this because material wealth has become the sole image of one's value so that the greatest humiliation seems the one of being poor, or poorer than one's neighbors.

This race towards making money at any price and for its own sake is killing the new Beirut. As the greater good for the country is out of their calculations, the rich, those who made money abroad during the war or are coming back home from Africa or elsewhere, invest only in real estate; they must think that this is the easiest way of making a quick benefit, without running the risks of creating factories or agricultural ventures, or industrial plants. So, with cheap labor coming mostly from Syria, the army of entrepreneurs is frenetically building apartment complexes rising to 17 or 20 stories without enlarging the existing streets! They are creating a city where every building is choking its neighboring building, an inferno of cement which is eradicating the charm of old Beirut and turning the city into a rich slum. Some 80,000 apartments are unsold and empty, and they are continuing to build new ones. These apartments each have surfaces between 5,000 to 10,000 square feet! They start at $1 million dollars a piece and up, while there is a shortage of dwellings for middle income families, "shortage" being an understatement. Some young men and women try to emigrate, knowing that they couldn't find a decent place to buy or to rent. And to make things worse, no owner of these huge apartments is willing to subdivide his flats, his pride refusing to own anything less that the false palaces that he has.

Gradually, the views of the sea are disappearing. The coastline is bordered by ugly high-rises which erase the topography of the city. Beirut was built on hills. The hills have crumbled under monotonous volumes and the trees, of course, have utterly disappeared. Some property owners manage to make their hired architects integrate into their construction the sidewalk itself! No, don't dream to see the government punish them. The laws themselves stipulate that with a (little) fine, one can get away with any violation of the existing and not enforced building codes.

It should be said, at the start of our reflections, that the Lebanese government led by the Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has done a remarkable effort since the war in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country. It established security, it rebuilt confidence in the survival of Lebanon as a state with a future, it restored public services such as a new telephone systems, electricity everywhere and for all the people, roads, the operating of Beirut harbor, the construction of a new airport, etc. These are huge accomplishments in about eight years and in a country thoroughly destroyed in its institutions, services and material existence. These efforts are of incredible value and should absolutely not be overlooked. But, then where are the problems with the government?

The problems lie at the meeting points between the government and the local culture as it has become: the government of Lebanon is made mostly of old-type politicians who do not fit the new visage of the country. The old families are discredited, although they still provide the ministers, administrators, the "cadres" of the nation. These people go on governing as if nothing had ever happened. Besides the prime minister himself, who has an energetic entrepreneurial experience at home and in the world at large, the government officials, deputies, and functionaries are inefficient and, what's worst, corrupt. Their jobs represent a good way to get exceedingly rich while they last in office. As the country is small and practically reduced to a single city, the man in the street knows in detail about this corruption and feels frustrated, cheated, robbed. Being still weary about war, he will not revolt in a foreseeable future, but nobody knows what could happen if the frustration keeps growing and if the city itself, materially speaking, becomes a stifling forest of cement, with no places for public recreation and no alleviation of the tremendous traffic jams that by themselves are changing social intercourse by making a simple visit to a friend an insoluble nightmare.

On the cultural scene the government hasn't done anything worthwhile. The Lebanese University is still understaffed and not completely rebuilt, the public school system is in shambles, and cultural institutions are lacking. Beirut had a healthy cultural life before the war. Now, little of it remains. Publishing houses for Arab literature are closing down both because of some censorship and mostly a lack of readers. Watching television has become a national curse because it eats up other forms of entertainment and eats up any time one has outside work. Beirut was before and even during the war a good place for experimental theater. Today, it has three theaters: Masrah Beirut, Masrah al Madinah, and Monot Theater. The last one belongs to the French speaking Jesuit university and the two plays I saw there which came from Paris with French actors were second rate, to put it kindly. The two other theaters did and do interesting work but support for them, instead of growing, is dwindling and they may close for lack of money. When one thinks that some rich people give parties which run into a million dollars (of American dollars!) just to satisfy some inflated ego and do not give a penny for a cultural creation, one is heart-broken indeed.

It is true that this summer the Baalbeek Festival and the Beiteddine Festival are in full swing. The Beiteddine Festival did and does make a point in hiring Lebanese or other Arab artists and musicians, which is something it should do, but in general both festivals invite at their own cost (which is money from the Lebanese government's Ministry of Culture and Tourism) foreign artists and foreign troupes. This policy would have been a good one if these activities added to the culture in Lebanon itself. But to "hire" foreign companies of music while letting national productions die and perish is certainly extremely unfair and dangerous for Lebanon's cultural role in the Arab World. On these scores and on many others the government of Lebanon is failing its duties and promising trouble for the future.

-- Etel Adnan

 

This letter appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, no. 24 (Summer 1998)

Copyright (c) 1998 by Al Jadid


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