Why Did Begin Besiege Beirut?
by Justin E. H. Smith
Rarely have I seen a cityscape more depressing than that part of Beirut we are expected to call its centre-ville. It once contained a real souk, a vital, organic city center. But this was flattened in the various wars, with Syria and Israel, over the past several decades, and was replaced by a ghost town of Fendi and Armani, the vapid aesthetic of a giant duty free shop, free of all duty to the past and to community. There is almost no one around but the security guards behind cement blocks, with their metal-detectors and their florescent vests. The main corridor of the souk has all the joy of a Daniel Libeskind monument. There are some mosques, too, equally well protected, and I sense I would be roughly as out of place inside as I would be at the Armani or Dior shop.
So I make my way back to Hamra Street, for now the real center of cosmopolitan Beirut, with thin men in berets who roll cigarettes and sit at cafés, with shop signs in a proud vestigial French– not the kind that speaks of oppressive colonial structures, but the kind that testifies to a forgotten hope for a true cosmopolis. The proper names are transliterated à la française –Chaussures Fouad, Vêtements Ayoub— and that is already enough, for me, to read them as belonging to a venerable lost era (there was an Ayoob’s hardware store in my hometown in California, but that conjured very different sentiments). When was this era? It was Ottoman, perhaps, but the Turks left the Levantine upper and middle classes to choose, from under their political domination, whatever cultural orientation they chose.
Why France? There are plenty of Lebanese blondes, immortalized and lampooned in fiction and popular culture. There are also plenty of hair salons advertising various techniques of blondification. But somewhere between the dissimulation of the color-treatment of hair and the pure genetic expression of Nordic traits, there is the historical fact of the Crusades, and it does not take long here to hear some variation on the claim that all this the blondness comes from the Franks.
The Frankish women march in and out of the Fendi shop, carrying bags, past the black-haired Saracen guards.
I was taken to a restaurant-bar on Hamra Street my first evening in this city and was reminded of a recent news item I had seen, on the growing problem of distinguishing between Islamist and hipster beards in this city of heterogeneous communities. Both Hezbollah as well as the clean-shaven Lebanese security forces want long, non-religious beards banned, and they periodically harass and attack the young men who wear them not because scripture requires it, but out of devotion only to global fashion. In the bar I was struck by how fine the difference is between these two primary significations of the beard in the contemporary world, but since the men who wore them were also holding drinks I knew I was among my own people.
So I went to the restroom and was surprised to see a poster for the lecture I’ll be giving hanging on the toilet door, next to posters for other arts-and-culture events around town, and, significantly, posters for charity events for Syrian refugees. It is hard to explain what this lecture I’m giving is about, or what it is for, but at that moment I felt a sharp pang of shame at the way I move through the world, going around and making frivolous gestures in places that have no room for frivolity. In more hopeful moments I like to think of the project as aimed at the preservation and promotion of beauty, of sweetness and light, in a world that threatens to extinguish these altogether, and thus I like to imagine that the real urgency is to bring the frivolity, the ars gratia artis, precisely to the corners of the world where the darkness encroaches most. It is important and necessary, I tell myself. Ars gratia artis, too, is political. So I tell the other people waiting to get into the bathroom that the poster on the door is advertising a talk by yours truly, and they seem to think this is laudable, not shameful. They have the right kind of beards.
The next morning I go out walking along the corniche with a friend who lives here, and she tells us that in the past Hezbollah supporters would drive by and throw acid at women who wear revealing clothes. She is wearing yoga pants and some sort of halter top. I look at her nervously. Would you mind covering your shoulders? I say.
We walk past the rocks where men congregate to sunbathe together free of the company of women, calling each other habibi and showing off their bodies. ‘Hi mister’, some of them yell up to me from the rocks. Two massive Lebanese beefcakes stroll down the corniche with their shirts off, slowly, exhibitionists arm in arm. Another man comes up to me and asks me what time it is in French. I tell him, he reaches out his hand to shake mine, grabs it hard, says ‘I love you’, and makes a kissing sound. A woman in Ray Bans with old-fashioned Walkman headphones and three sequined hula hoops twirling around her fat waist comes rumbling past, a grotesque juggernaut of individualism. A bench full of women with headscarves watch her with blank stares. A small girl in these women’s collective care gawks at the hula hoops in amazement. One of the women notices, and covers the girls eyes with her hand.
There are men more terrible still than the beard-enforcers of Hezbollah. ISIS is said to be preparing for a siege of Christian towns close to the Syrian border. Lebanese Hezbollah is committed to joining with the state security forces to ensure that that does not happen. Compared to ISIS, everyone looks like a friend, even the ones who hate seeing bare shoulders.
You can go to a bar and you can give a frivolous lecture and you can hula hoop along the Mediterranean, but through all of this Syria looms: Assad, ISIS, and most of all the refugees. This looming is not new: less than ten years after the final withdrawal of Syrian troops after a three-decade occupation of Lebanon, the country to the east and north collapsed into total war and came to beat out even Iraq in our collective imagination as the most troubled place on earth. There is still a crater in the heart of Lebanon where, in 2005, someone, probably under orders from Assad, killed Rafic Hariri, and 22 other people along with him, with 1800 tons of TNT.
Refugee women from Syrian villages show up in Lebanese camps covered head-to-toe. One can’t help but think that’s a good strategy: keep from encountering le visage de l’autri, and nothing can go too wrong. But here in Beirut one sees more women’s faces covered with bandages, with blackened eyes, sitting waiting for black SUV’s to take them back and forth to the hospitals for further increments of their ongoing plastic-surgery regimes. Beirut is said to be the Botox and nose-job capital of the Middle East, and the secular Lebanese rich will tell you that maintaining the face is no more vain than combing out and styling unkempt hair. And one senses, here, that it is not vanity, but the natural and inevitable complement to the concealment of women’s faces demanded by the religious poor.
The Phalangist Christians who sided with Israel to exact so much pain from their enemies during the Lebanese civil war held to an ideology of ‘Phoenicianism’, which says that the Levantines are not primordially or deeply Arab, but trace their ancestry back to the Biblical Phoenicians. Like the Botox is to the niqab, Phoenicianism seems the natural opposite of, and complement to, pan-Arabism, to the idea that there is, or that there can be made to be, a homogeneous people from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Local particularism is good, it seems to me, as is recognition of transregional commonalities. Discretion with one’s face is good too, as are lush and youthful lips. So many good ideas here, yet so much violence.
I keep recalling a joke I heard long before I was old enough to understand it:
Why did Begin besiege Beirut?
To impress Jodie Foster.
In 1982 I didn’t spend my days glued to a newsfeed (I wouldn’t have even if such a thing existed), I had no idea who John Hinckley was, and what struck me most about the joke was simply the alliteration of B’s. But it turns out the joke is actually about the futility and insanity of war. Jodie Foster, whoever she turns out to be, will never be sufficiently impressed.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website