It’s Friday evening, and an animated crowd is pressing itself at the Pitoeff theatre in Geneva to attend the roundtable with five Lebanese authors during the Fureur de Lire Festival that’s focusing on Lebanon this year. The discussion, chaired by Farouk Mardam Bey ,director of the French Sindbad collection, and organised by Alain Bittar from the Libraire Arabe l’Olivier, amongst others, gathered renowned novelists and poets such as Elias Khoury, Hasan Daoud, Cherif Majdalani and Abbas Beydoun.
Farouk Mardam Bey kicked off the debate by giving a short overview of the Lebanese literature landscape from René Khawam, one of the greatest translators of classical Arabic texts of the twentieth century, to Fares Ahmad Chidiac, one of the founders of modern Arab literature, to Gibran Khalil Gibran, whom I will not insult you by introducing.
And then, it was on to the authors.
It was somehow really touching to see these men, accustomed to express their feelings and thoughts by writing, sitting on their chairs in the cosy Geneva theater, trying to explain their art, the way they like playing with the oh-so-beautiful Arabic language, and their struggle with time. Impossible task, if you ask me. You could tell it was literally not their scene. However, their whole posture, expressions and presence changed when each of them was asked to read an extract of their books. Transfiguration, that’s the word. It was as if the audience, the pressure of being scrutinized, didn’t exist anymore as soon as they stopped trying explaining their art and let the public try and feel it.
Each of them had this incredible knack for tackling the sensitive issues, impersonating the well known fact that writers and artists enjoy breaking taboos and shaking dogmas.
Elias Khoury questioned the Omerta law that seems to be the rule around the civil wars that Lebanon has gone through, not only the last one but also the previous one that lasted from 1958 to 1960. He also shared his intimate statement of belief regarding literature and the act of writing: that literature simply can not exist if it is not a mirror of true-life experiences. One just can’t write (properly, that is) about things he has not experienced and lived through. In front of an audience composed for the vast majority of Lebanese, the author of the Gates of the City talked about finally owning our Arab heritage and our Arab culture, and to question and break the religious and economic barriers that are dividing us. So much for all the we-are-not-Arabs-but-really-Phoenicians talk.
The authors were also asked about their relationship to the Arabic language, the role of the poets in society and the need to desacralize them (As Abbas Beydoun put it, no, poets are not prophets, as much as we would like them to, they’re just (admittedly brilliant), artists), and, in the case of Cherif Majdalani, the specific status of Lebanese novelists who write in French. But what the participants underlined the most was the role of Beirut as a safe haven for artists coming not only from diverse regions of Lebanon, but also from all over the Arab world. They talked passionately of a Beirut I’m sad I will never know, a Beirut that welcomed and glorified people like Nizar Qabbani and Adonis, a Beirut whose Ecole de Beyrouth rivalised with the Ecole de Paris.
And so I wondered.
I wondered what went wrong.
I wondered what happened between the dynamic Beirut that sheltered artists and poets, revolutionaries and mystics, as opposed to the Beirut I’m seeing today.
Although some resistants still hold the flame high, the sad truth is that Beirut is becoming more and more money and lust driven. A lethal combination for the soul and mind. We might blame it on the Saudis, on the khaleejis, on the government, on Hariri and on Jumblatt, on Aoun, Nasrallah and God, but at the end of the day, we’re only left with ourselves to blame.
Beirut was a melting pot of ideas and cultures because its inhabitants took pride in shaping it that way, because at the time they were thirsty for the sublime.
Now all we have to do is to find that drive again, the fire within that made us ache for diversity and culture rather than for dollar bills, fight for tolerance and openness rather than closets and defiance.
In a word, we have to get over the fractures of the Civil War, and become one again.
Beirut has it in her, we just have to find the treasure beneath the ashes.
To learn more about the Fureur de Lire Festival, please visit http://www.fureurdelire.ch