Beirut Two: Everyone in their Box

I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the second.

When a Scottish-based writer, an escapee from the perma-gloom, visits Beirut for a mere four days, he must prioritise his activities very carefully. As previously stated, I aimed first of all to immerse myself in the sea.

A small group of us hailed a cab to take us southwards down the coast to Jiyeh, where a beach had been recommended. Jiyeh wasn’t very far – we could still see Beirut jutting into the sea behind us – but it was still a good third of the way to the South and the troublesome border with Israel-Palestine.

Lebanon is a small, closely-packed country chopped again into still-smaller zones. Our driver (he was called Abdullah) inched us through the snarled traffic of central Beirut and past Tariq Jdaideh, a Sunni area loyal to the Hariri family, whose posters were prominent. Then along the edge of the Shi‘i southern suburb which was hit so brutally by Israel’s assault in 2006. Here Hizbullah controls one side of the road, with its pictures of Nasrallah and the late Ayatullah Fadlullah; the Amal movement rules over the other, shabbier side, where the pictures feature Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament. As the building density eased, banana plantations alternated with churches and seaside resorts. We sped up past Khalde, which had housed an illegal Druze port during the civil war fragmentation, and then Ouzai, which had housed an illegal Amal movement port. Inland, the Shouf mountains rose, the Druze heartland where the Junblatt family predominates. In this country, it seemed, everyone fitted into their specific box.

We swam. It was beautiful. I thought I was in the water for twenty minutes; in fact it was an hour and a half. When I eventually stepped out a girl ran up to present me with a reviving slice of watermelon.

Abdullah was waiting for us. We gladly accepted his offer of tea at his family home in the hills. The road wound up steeply through pines and prickly pear. Then we passed a sign pointing to ‘Nancy’s Farm’ – owned by the lovely Nancy Ajram. Afficionadoes of cheap and catchy Arab pop music will know who I mean.

We climbed a bit more. There were no political posters up here. Abdullah explained that the people of the area had made a conscious decision not to label themselves, not to make anyone feel out of place. In this area, he said, the people respected education rather than politicians. Indeed, much of the conversation in Abdullah’s house, led by his friendly father, centred on the importance of culture and learning, the spiritual rather than the material aspects of life, as well as on brotherhood and commonality of purpose between sects and ethnicities.

It was a Muslim family. The mother and daughters, all as articulate as the men, wore hijab. But the story they most wanted to tell us was one concerning a dream vision of the Virgin Mary, dreamt by the youngest daughter during the Israeli bombardment in 2006. The girl had been praying earnestly to God for the safety of her family and the survival of her home, when the Virgin appeared at her bed, enhaloed by light, to promise that family and home would be untouched by the violence. And so it happened. The family talked eagerly about this contact with the divine. When the local priest heard the story he presented the girl with an icon of the Virgin, which now decorates the wall of the family’s entrance hall.

Orthodox Muslims love and respect the Virgin Mary. She’s the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and Jesus is often called ‘Jesus son of Mary.’ As a direct communicator with God she attains the status of a prophet. But orthodox Muslims don’t usually hang icons on their walls.

I had been taught a lesson concerning Lebanon: despite appearances and hard political realities, people did not after all fit into specific boxes.

The Literature Across Frontiers conference, meanwhile, was all about rendering boxes irrelevant. For a start, the participants pooling experience came from all over the place. They included Ehab Abdelhamid of the Badrakhan Cultural Centre in Cairo, Roman Simic of the Festival of the European Short Story in Croatia, Ashur Etwebi (the well-known poet) of the Tripoli Poetry Festival, Cihan Akkartal and Mehmet Demirtas of the Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival, Clare Azzopardi and Albert Gatt of Inizjamed and the Malta Festival of Mediterranean Literature, and Juan Insua of the Kosmopolis International Festival of Literature in Barcelona. Second, the main topics of conversation concerned the bridging of cultural boxes: translation and transmission issues. Third, the LAF events were being held simultaneously with, and in collaboration with, the first Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Peter Florence, Hay’s director, attended an LAF meeting in Zico House to compare notes. And the concentration of writers alongside translators and literary promoters meant all the more useful social interaction. Which brings me towards my next post…

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