Living in hope of a Lebanese resurgence - Businesslive

15 July 2019 - Hopefulness can be unreliable — passive, or blindly clung to — in the face of history’s ravages and flattened remains. But, as Najjar implies, hope can also be a more active ingredient, a claim, against the odds, to be insistently present.

Two days into a visit to Lebanon in June, I sensed my reputation for navigation had fallen to the floor on the grounds of a rattling failure to locate a bookshop I knew was only a few hundred metres from our hotel in Beirut’s teeming Hamra district.

In its dense, often unrevealing Levantine setting, you would have thought The LittleBookshop would advertise itself like a siren to a foreigner adrift — especially one anxious to find English translations of Elias Khoury, Alexandre Najjar and Amin Maalouf. No such luck. I had some excuses — street signs rendered in inscrutable Arabic, slight discrepancies between map and actuality, the general disorientation that comes with foreignness.

But still, it was an embarrassing failure. “I know exactly where it is,” I kept insisting to my increasingly sceptical wife. “It’s only two blocks from the hotel.” Well, Sharon’s expression seemed to say, why can’t you find it? I did eventually (my fourth foray, I think), in the Makdisi Building in Basra Street, but it was closed. In the end, all turned out well; the excellent Librairie Antoine, and, in our final hour, the Virgin Megastore at Rafic Hariri Airport, yielded all on my list, and more.

Though — or because — unvisited, The Little Bookshop serves nevertheless as a helpful metaphor for a condition hinted at in Benjamin Disraeli’s cautionary observation that, like all travellers, “I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen”. Perhaps one of the best reasons for seeking out writerly discursions is that they can almost always be counted on to muddle the simplicities that inevitably well from remembering more than you have seen.

One of the books I bought in Beirut is Najjar’s moving homage, The Silence of My Father. It closes with an account of the million-strong 2005 demonstration against Syria’s 30-year occupation — the Cedar Revolution (after Lebanon’s national emblem) — in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square.

Damascus withdrew its forces within six weeks. Najjar’s lawyer father was too old to attend, though followed proceedings on television. Later, when Alexandre returned home for supper, he reminded his father of the condolences expressed by a notary many years earlier, during the civil war, when old man Najjar’s country home “had been ravaged by 13 bombshells and that all of the trees in the garden — with the exception of the cedar — had been flattened”.

The notary had said: “My condolences, sir. It was with great sadness that I learned that your house had been destroyed. What a tragedy.” Najjar concludes: “Lifting his index finger, my father had replied: ‘Yes, but the cedar is still standing!”’ It’s a piercing instance of hope — yet, one might ask, what’s to hope for?

I wrote elsewhere last week of Lebanon’s grave challenges, for all the successes of its mammoth post-civil war reconstruction, and the indefatigable generosity of its people. Its administration is riven with corruption and deadlock-prone politics, perilously balancing the interests — sectional and ideological — of no fewer than 18 religious sects. Its economic condition is reflected in a debt-to-GDP ratio of 150%, with nearly a third of government spending going to interest on debt, and a similar sum to the wage bill of a bloated civil service.

Hopefulness can be unreliable — passive, or blindly clung to — in the face of history’s ravages and flattened remains. But, as Najjar implies, hope can also be a more active ingredient, a claim, against the odds, to be insistently present.

Najjar’s homage to his father begins with a half-page prologue in which he speaks of his much-loved parent as an amalgam of things, “at once authoritarian and gentle, austere and mischievous”. He was a “teacher of hope”. “The day I was born,” the prologue begins, “my father planted a cedar tree in the garden. That meant he loved me as much as his country.”

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2019-07-15-michael-morris-living-in-hope-of-a-lebanese-resurgence/

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