In the Beginning Was Beirut, and Beirut Was the Wor(l)d
Alphabet de Beyrouth
By Michel Fani
Paris: Editions de l'Escalier, 2000
Picture an alphabet that does not follow an order. An alphabet that is incomplete (no "w" or "x"). Picture headings, 132 of them, succeeding one another as main subjects. Picture personal stories, ideas, digressions, all intermingled to piece together memories, and by extension, a book. This is Michel Fani's "Beirut's Alphabet." One might classify Fani's book as a kind of "Small Poems in Prose," similar to Baudelaire's, or fragments much like Barthes's "Mythologies." Fani's writing revolves between the "readable" (lisible) and the "writable" (scriptable), poetically depicting society in his ethnologist's point of view.
"Beirut's Alphabet" is without a doubt a subjective description of the city of Beirut, with Fani playing the role of connoisseur, the only one able to understand and decipher it. He offers many details about the history of Lebanon and Beirut during the 19th and 20th centuries, stressing particularly the period between the 1930s and early 1970s. He makes very few direct comments about the civil war but its presence is felt: unspoken, but definitely palpable towards the end of the book.
In his first "entry" named "Liminaire," or Introductory, Fani proposes his reasons for writing the book, citing the "need to give a possible meaning for this country, Lebanon, and for this city, Beirut." However, "Beirut's Alphabet" is more than a search for a possible meaning for these places. Several references to violence, suffering, and pain, all associated with the narrator's past and notions of identity and forgetfulness, invite the reader to see the therapeutic virtue of writing: "to deliver [the one you have been] both from the nightmare of having to relive everything in order to forget and to remember to write." Fani's writing is therefore perceived as a (Freudian) healing process and, as a matter of fact, "words become balm."
Memories flood back to him as he puts them on paper. Unfortunately, this leads him into multiple digressions, and sometimes names of chapters have no relationship to their content. Nevertheless, each title is closely linked to one experience of Fani's life. For instance, the first actual place he describes in Beirut is La Place des Canons. After a short historical presentation, he digresses and many leitmotifs (such as violence, suffering, and crude lights) come back to haunt him. Fani often comes back to this former heart of Beirut as if it were his own. Here the pain always remains, "cut, cut short into the living flesh of the streets."
"Beirut's Alphabet" seizes upon the perpetuity promised by the printed word; Fani immortalizes what is gone, therefore contributing to eternity, which paradoxically for him, has no past, no present, and no future. In the chapter entitled "Writing," he says, "There is to hope though, that never this very possession will be lost if it is written. Someone, something existed and totally belonged to you, and nothing can take it away from you." The act of writing, and eventually, this very book, provide him with a bittersweet shelter: "to live in places that do not exist anymore, continue to live." Writing to him is also "the only means to extend love." He definitely illustrates this love by displaying his very own intimate relationship with Beirut and Lebanon as he refers to them as "little," a French term of endearment: "Beirut, little territory of death;"
"Lebanon, my little disaster, my poor little hand-sewn disaster;" "Beirut, my personal and itinerant little disaster." Once again, the author's torment and pain are mixed with emotions of fondness. He is full of regrets when faced with what happened to his country: "We have been the country of all possible and unthinkable treasons... The Lebanese, one foot in the water the other in the boat. A whole country next to the sea ready to emigrate only to return full of nostalgia."
Fani does not solely focus on Beirut as a geographic place since he deals with the city's body and soul. Using many anecdotes, he guides the reader through the cultural, intellectual, artistic, and ordinary daily life of Beirut. Fani pays homage to several Lebanese artists, painters, and writers such as Shehade, Khalife, Naccache, Bounoure, Aouad, Seyrig, and Zghaib as well as Europeans like Flaubert, Nerval, Lammens, Le Gray (these last two being photographers mentioned by Fani in his previous works). However, Fani also remembers and celebrates unknown, everyday people from his past.
Throughout the book, Fani levies several judgments against, for instance, the Egyptian exiles, or others such as the French. The most severe, however, is against Lebanese society with its corruption and negligence of true values: "A city only and completely obsessed by money, bank, interest, commerce, and trade. The intellect and creation are at a dead end because this society cannot seize its reality." He goes on absurdly making accusations for the hate and destruction and all the disasters that struck his country: "In Lebanon, what mixes up and overshadows memories is not time but blood."
Fani concludes with "Lebanese in Paris." At this point the book becomes more objective because he refers to all the Lebanese in Paris, rather than only himself (although he is part of this community). For him, the circle is complete ("Liminaire"/ "Libanais"). The catharsis concludes, as if the therapy were over; the pain has been exposed and exorcised. The "unfinished truth" finally "achieves [his] own liberty."
Though unconventional on many levels, Fani's "Beirut's Alphabet" is an original and creative piece of literature. This disordered alphabet resembles a puzzle that Fani is trying to reconstitute. Each "chapter" is a piece, a specific part of what has been. The reader is faced with a creeping nostalgia that forces him to realize the irony, the absurdity of war, and the inner torment of dealing with a painful past. Fani shows that he is not the master of his own destiny (and none of us is for that matter) and to many extents we can draw a parallel between him and his beloved Beirut. "Beirut's Alphabet" will stir deep emotions for a certain generation of Lebanese, especially those exiled, because of its myriad of references to streets and places that no longer exist. Though Lebanese in its essence, "Beirut's Alphabet" will reach anybody in search of a past, a place, a part of themselves that has long been ripped away.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002).