1. Arabic endearment ‘Habibi’ (حبيبي) is as likely to mean “dude” as its literal sense of “my love.”
2. For more on BO18, read this excerpt from my book, a profile of architect Bernard Khoury
In 2006, World Press Photo selected as its photo of the year an image of the aftermath of the July War, Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In a piece by the late author and activist Mai Ghoussoub published on OpenDemocracy, Lebanese themselves disagreed as to the meaning of the photograph, some of them seeing in it an affirmation of life and others cause for revulsion:
That same afternoon, I went to a housewarming party and I overheard two young Lebanese arguing about the same photo. Both were in their 20s and very “cosmopolitan”. One said: I think this is a great photograph, it shows us as we are, not people associated only with war and destruction. The second one was appalled and said: this is the “new orientalism” – instead of the women depicted in Delacroix’s classic orientalist paintings, today we have these modern, model-type Lebanese women against a background of war and poverty.
The Guardian ran an article yesterday about what they call 9/11′s most controversial photo, one that bears a striking thematic resemblance to the Lebanon photo.
In that article, Jonathan Jones’ explanation of the 9/11 photo’s significance might serve for both images:
Today, the meaning of this photograph has nothing to do with judging individuals. It has become a picture about history, and about memory. As an image of a cataclysmic historical moment it captures something that is true of all historical moments: life does not stop dead because a battle or an act of terror is happening nearby.
Artists and writers have told this truth down the ages. In his painting The Fall of Icarus, the Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel depicts a peasant ploughing on as a boy falls to his death in the sea beyond: it is a very similar observation to Hoepker’s. WH Auden’s lines on this painting in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts apply perfectly to the photograph: “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster…
The Arcadian Library is an anthology, but the world it evokes sounds like so much more: a hidden library containing “one of the finest dedicated collections of books ever made about Western entanglement with the Middle East.”
The earliest items are medieval manuscripts, but there are also many incunables, translations of Avicenna and Arabic originals, printed in Venice and Padua; the more recent items include de luxe editions of the Arabian Nights, such as the white vellum, gold-tooled presentation volumes illustrated in luscious colour by Edmund Dulac. The books rise floor to ceiling in two lofty rooms, with a custom-made emerald carpet woven with lily-of-the-valley posies, the colophon of the Library, and a tribute to the flower that grew under the cedars of Lebanon.
The volumes’ beautiful bindings glow in the penumbra protecting them from light damage; a panorama of Cairo, printed in Venice in 1549, and one of the two impressions still extant, is hung off the main reading room (it is the subject of Nicholas Warner’s fascinating study The True Description of Cairo, published in three volumes earlier in the same series, “Studies in the Arcadian Library”).
Visiting the Library is by introduction; it is free. Its location is not advertised and indeed, can’t be discovered from the publication details of this book or of any others in the series (the most recent is Robert Irwin’s treasure trove about the illustrators of the Arabian Nights, “Visions of the Jinn,” 2010); it does not reveal its whereabouts on the internet.
Afghanistan and Lebanon are both volatile places, survivors of long civil wars with violent aftermaths and intransigent political crises. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a lull before tourists find Lebanon again. Afghanistan, in contrast, has been virtually absent from tourists’ maps for decades now, despite very real safe havens where we might go. (The analogy is an imperfect one – Afghanistan ranks 7th on the 2011 Failed States Index whereas Lebanon comes in at 43, though perhaps it’s most telling that both of them make the list.)
What if our refusal to tour, our suspicion that some places are simply doomed, has little to do with the big picture? What if – when it comes to Afghanistan and Lebanon, in particular – it has more to do with the stubborn resilience of a catchphrase in one instance versus its absence in another? Acquaintances of mine who know next to nothing about Beirut frequently call up one epithet as though from a distance: “Wait…it used to be ‘the Paris of the Middle East,’ right?”
Plug “Paris of the Middle East” into Google and Wikipedia entries for Beirut and Lebanon come up first. (Unless I’ve fallen victim to personalized search.)
It’s amazing, the effect of these five little words. Afghanistan is so rich in geographical beauty, culture and history, but it has nothing like this magic phrase, which undoubtedly played a role in boosting Lebanon’s tourism by 22 percent in 2010. If that’s not a testament to the power of marketing on our minds and world, then I don’t know what is.
Of course, you might ask: Why does it matter whether tourists go to Afghanistan right now? Doesn’t the country have way worse problems? It does, but it’s clear that people – by which I mean, voters and tax payers, not journalists, soldiers or spies – think about a country differently if it’s conceivable that they might someday visit it.
When it comes to just watching a documentary, it’s a subtle shift, yet it takes the viewer from static to dynamic. The continuing distress of a country, any country, for years or even decades, may be consequential but it’s not inevitable. In Afghanistan, in Lebanon, the future is open.
From my latest piece for MainGate, the alumni magazine of the American University of Beirut:
When Charles Raad (BA ’55) decided to gift an old medical textbook from his grandfather to AUB, their shared alma mater, he yielded up a material link to the institution’s earliest days when Arabic was the primary language of instruction.
“The book was like their bible,” Raad says, referring to his grandfather and his five classmates who, in 1871, formed the medical school’s inaugural graduating class and became the Levant’s earliest locally trained doctors. “How to treat people, how to save people. When you read it — it’s ridiculous today. Modern medicine is a different story.”
An excerpt from this talk delivered by Anthony Shadid last year at TEDx Oklahoma City:
To me the antidote to conflict, the antidote to violence, is a shared sense of universal values and – it sounds very basic but it’s hard when you try to execute it in journalism – the sense that we all are human. There’s a humanity that bonds us together. In Baghdad, I tried to write about conflict as a background narrative, as white noise in a way, and make the stories about people.”
I never met Anthony Shadid, but I’ve been reading his work for years – his book Night Draws Near and his journalism in The New York Times and, before that, The Washington Post – and the best way to meet a writer, anyway, may be to read him. With his exemplary, ever-curious, empathetic reporting, he demonstrated how much a journalist can bring to readers when he’s immersed in the language of the region he’s covering. He wrote about subjects and for them.
The New York Times coverage of the Middle East will suffer without him. Americans in particular have lost an essential voice from within. Let’s remember not only Anthony Shadid but what he worked for. Let’s keep listening.
What role has Lebanon played in the Arab uprisings? Why did revolution break out in Tunisia? Libya?
For some answers, browse the the Arab Spring-themed issue of MainGate and read my latest work, including a feature on feminism in Lebanon, a profile of a Tunisian doctor who’s taken the pulse of the revolution and a Q&A with Libyan-American professor and dissident Mansour El-Kikhia.
The Abu Dhabi Book Fair‘s coming up and my publisher will again be taking part.
The best part? You can flip through my book, Creative Lives: Portraits of Lebanese Artists, and maybe even take home your own copy at Turning Point’s dedicated space on the Ciel Stand (12 M 17). To get a better idea of the books contents – profiles and gorgeous photographs of thirty-one Lebanese artists – click on the following links to read about writer-director-actress Nadine Labaki, architect Bernard Khoury and choreographer Alissar Caracalla.
And if you’re in the neighborhood between March 28 and April 2, do drop by!