Review of a Beirut memoir by Nesreen Salem

‘All the drives and dreams of a universal id seem to have come alive in Beirut and have been translated into physical reality. There are no dreams here; it is no longer possible to dream…’

Jean Said Makdisi, Beirut Fragments – A War Memoir.

Upon being infected by the Beirut Bug in the spring, I decided to explore the history of this wondrous place – not through history books, but through its canon of fiction and non-fiction literature. What started off as a naive curiosity has grown into a full blown obsession, not only with this beautiful country where my international sensibilities – that hybrid of Eastern and Western upbringing that can alienate the individual from both – have found a nurturing ground, but also for the relevance that history is playing out today across a region that is plagued with wars and conflicts disguised in robes of religion and ethnicity. 

Jean Said Makdisi was born in 1940; a Christian Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem where the Israeli occupation forced her family to move to Cairo. There she studied briefly before moving to the USA for further and higher education, and witnessed the 1952 coup against King Farouq led by the Egyptian army who continue to rule Egypt today. It was just before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 that her Lebanese husband, herself and their children decided to move to Beirut. Upon reading her memoir, one can sense the slow yet steady descent that moored the nation into chaos, one conflict after another, until, towards the latter third of her memoir, her reflections could only be rendered in fragments desperately piecing together the remnants of war:

‘I had a sense of timelessness, as though the siege had always been and always will be; as though I had known no other reality. There was no work and no play, no proper time for doing this or that, for sleep or waking. We slept when we could; we woke when we had to. The structure of time collapsed, and hours fell about us like stones off a broken building. Sundays, Mondays – all the days of the week were alike and lost their character, and all the dates of the month as well.’

Palpable is the despair that builds month upon month, year after year, as scores of Lebanese flee their war torn homeland while others, like Makdisi, remained resolute, rooted to a land where blood overflowed and the fine line between nightmare and reality blurred each day. She depicts the transformations that occurred on the streets of her beloved city of Beirut; what they once were and what they had become during the war:

‘We were living among the dead and the dying, never knowing when we would be called to join their ranks, and so we took on the look of the dead.’

And then there was the spirit; that fierce enigmatic energy that united and empowered in the face of despondency. Its prevalence in the face of death, hunger, constant siren wails, shelling and air raids, prolonged periods without water or electricity; that spirit that is still palpable today in Beirut and continues to bless it. 

Her memoir is not just about what she and others endured during the war; Makdisi takes us on her unique journey from the start: her move to USA; the accusations she had to face being an Arab woman at a time when the country was sold the idea that Arabs were primitive butchers bent on killing all the jews.The question of Palestine’s right to exist not even in the realm of consideration. She also recalls her first encounters with Western feminism, questioning its oblivion to the obvious differences that exist between East and West and how such an ideology cannot simply be transplanted in a society where women are often symbols of religious, political and cultural differences.  

Makdisi was a voice present during the entirety of the Civil War, with its continuous barbarity and brief interspersed respites; raw agony, frustration and despair come through her reflections. She writes of a journey that – although we continue to see it around us everywhere – still boggles the mind as to why and how man can regress to such savagery and shameless intention to ‘cleanse’ whatever it is they perceive as ‘impure’ or ‘troubling’: ‘The death machines worked; hardly anything else did.’

Anbara al Khalidi is another Lebanese writer whose memoir is worth reading. Hailed as a feminist pioneer, her memoir reflects the history of Lebanon during the first and second world wars (when the civil war began she had moved to England, too distraught by what had become of her homeland to write about it in her memoir despite having witnessed it). Reading Makdisi’s memoir after having read al Khalidi’s puts into retrospection the timeline of the immense turmoils that had hit this relatively small but stubborn nation. One wonders if the traumas of wars, particularly those erupted and perpetuated by none other than fellow kith and kin can heal in times of relative peace. 

Today, Beirut stands for much more than the revived capital of Lebanon after decades of devastation. Arabs everywhere look upon it as a beacon of hope; the capital where Arab culture continues to thrive despite political tensions. It takes reading memoirs such as Makdisi’s to understand the scale of the destruction the Lebanese people have emerged from. 

There is a beat to this city that inspires a passion for it; it is not the thud of an emerging capitalism with its soaring skyscrapers, glamorous brand name shops or booming nightlife. Nor is it a beat that will reveal its rhythm to those ignorant of its blood-laced history: it is a fine-tuned beat; the pulse borne of resuscitation; a resounding lust for life after years of relentless war drums. 

‘How can I express my strange love for this mutilated city; how to explain, both to myself and to others, the lingering magic of the place that has kept me and so many others clinging to its wreckage, refusing to let go, refusing to abandon it? I feel today, after fifteen years of war, more attached, more committed to Beirut than ever, even dependent on it in a strange sort of way, like a suckling child toward its mother.’

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