Beirut
Returnees

While having an excellent lunch at La Spaghetteria, an old-fashioned Italian restaurant with a splendid view of the Corniche and the ocean, which Robert Fisk calls his favorite restaurant in town, I read through Transit Beirut, a book of new writing and images, edited by Malu Halasa and Roseanne Saad Khalaf - two young women I have come across, of course, during one of those afternoons in the Prague. I am struck by a very honest description of the writing classes Roseanne Saad Khalaf has been giving at the American University of Beirut. From the very beginning, her students - often kids that had returned from the US, Canada and other places with their parents somewhere after the war - had been very eager to turn their experiences into writing. Reading her analysis of their work, I cannot help thinking this must be a portrait of many of the young artists I am meeting here.

image

A few fragments:

'Life in Canada', Ali explained, 'had proceeded normally without any major upheavals. It was not my country so it was normal not to fit in. Being an outsider did not bother me.' Now the situation is entirely different. His returnee status sets him apart from mainstream Lebanese society. He feels that he is viewed with suspicion, and as he does not particularly adhere to social convention, he is perceived as being 'different from the rest', especially by an extended family that he cannot identify with, and that prides itself in maintaining 'solidarity' or 'a unified front'. If Ali is 'absorbed in a book' or 'engrossed in writing', they become immediately agitated, fearing it might contain damaging or inappropriate ideas that he could use to 'disgrace the family'. With time, Ali has become a 'tempting target' even to well-meaning relatives who are concerned that he might make them vulnerable to social criticism within the community.

'Students were quick to reject the romantic and nostalgic views fed to them by their parents while still abroad, dismissing these stories as wishful imaginings of homesick exiles whose emotional needs are satisfied by clinging to a vanished past. Nesrine laments the desire of her parents to reconnect at the expense of ignoring the tragic reality of a country torn apart by factional strife. 'There is a part of me that accepts the need of my parents to reconstruct a perfect past, however, I wish they would stop living in denial and see how the war has destroyed Lebanon.'

'Juggling multiple identities, an inevitable part of the diaspora experience, means constantly losing and reinventing the self. Along with this comes isolation and confusion.'

I encompass a spectrum of personalities because my life has been interrupted so many times. I have never enjooyed continuity. My existence is choppy and disconnected. (Maha)

'Ironically, students have no desire to alter their suspended betweenness. In fact, in some inexplicable way, they welcome being kept off balance, presumably because it necessitates the constant and creative energy that accompanies reinvention of self. Increasingly, they grow accustomed to this condition of fluidity.'

'Students saw merit in the ability to remain detached; sustaining a high degree of emotional distance was viewed as an asset. The idea was not to shut out the rest of the world, but to observe from a safe distance. To achieve this, they place themselves in situations that are out of step with what is happening around them.'

When we moved back to Lebanon I was distressed by the political and religious conflicts. Luckily I like to be alone and witness what is happening around me. Often I prowl the streets at odd hours just to observe and I write about what I see. I don't like to be seen. In fact, I wish I could be invisible. (Wael)



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