When Israel was created in 1948, my Palestinian father strapped the forty day baby that was me to my seven year old sister. He told her that, should they get separated she was to walk with the sea to her left and keep walking until she got to safety. Fortunately for her, they were not separated and they joined the estimated seven hundred thousand Palestinians expelled by the new Jewish State and encouraged to leave by misguided and self serving Arab leaders. The rest is history.
My mother being Lebanese, we eventually settled in Beirut where I had the good fortune to be brought up – or, as more often the case within our society – dragged up from an oblivious latent childhood to a dependent and largely dysfunctional adulthood. Education was highly expensive and, in direct inverse proportion to every pound my hard working father paid, it was useless with its rote learning, some abusive teachers and a highly rigid and closed environment where critical thinking was anathema – punishable by all kinds of social pressures to conform.
As ever in life, there were compensations that made life tolerable despite many difficulties. My father, in many ways a rather humourless Victorian chap, had a kind heart, was assiduous in providing and caring for his family and, in private, had a delightfully mischievous sense of humour. He was one main consolation in a largely unhappy childhood. He was also a very fair man. When my brother told on me reading the then banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he was utterly gazzumped by our father turning to me and quietly asking me what I thought of the novel. That was one of only two occasions when my father and I discussed sexual behaviour. This was the same man that one day walked into the front room, saw me reading Lenin, snatched the book out of my hand and quietly placed it on the wood fire. Next day, he walked in, put a replacement copy in my hand, apologised for his earlier reaction and invited me to discuss its contents with him over a glass of Almaza – a local beer. I felt so grown up and went back to reading fiction which was an infinitely less damaging occupation for an impressionable teenager.
There were other compensations for a relatively difficult childhood that included losing my mother, being injured in a bomb explosion, falling ill quite frequently and generally living through hell at an abusive school. The main compensations that made life good were: Lebanon’s phenomenal natural and widely varied beauty. My happiest memories were of picnics with a father who loved nature. I have memories of collecting Cyclamens for an elder sister whom I loved a great deal, although she terrified me – one side look from her left me quaking although she never really did me any physical harm. I was a child and all else was huge and frightening. It was during journeys all over the country with my father doing his agricultural engineering work, that I was free to roam as I willed whilst he conducted his business. These journeys included many parts of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. I wandered across the Green Line in Tulkarm in Palestine, met my first Israeli man, wet myself with terror (is it not strange how we brainwash our children into endless terrors and unreasonable hatreds?)
The second compensation was the diversity of Beirut. I had a love hate relationship with it. It was a teeming, noisy, busy, bubbling and colourful city wherein I had always joyed in walking endlessly aimlessly. Its real beauty was its people: hard working, struggling, fighting for life, laughing, teasing, arguing, shouting and, most delightfully, making merciless fun of their political leaders. I loved their complexity laced with deep humour at the best of times and at the worst of times.
These little reminiscences from a youth full of adventure (like every youth!) are being invoked to give a realistic image of Lebanon as a country with a complex people full of all the ordinariness of daily strife. Yet, in the Western World that we so admired and so wanted to ape, we are still largely “the Lebanon” – that pretty geographical entity sleepily hugging the eastern Mediterranean.
I was sitting in my favourite coffee shop in Dorchester in Dorset, Re-Loved in South Street (which is my second home). I love it early in the morning when it is empty and silent. Each morning is a lottery as I wait for the music to come on. On some days it is a loud cacophony of noise which drives me off back home. Most mornings it is sixties music which floods me with memories of my beloved Beirut.
I sat reading. Looking up to rest reading weary eyes, I saw a series of old encyclopaedias lined to the side. I ran my eye down them and picked the letter ‘L’ volume. I flicked through and found the short entry on Lebanon. The article was made up of some forty five lines of which 80% discussed Lebanon as a series of geographical entities rather than a nation with people… It had mountains, rivers, trees (especially Cedars), valleys, fields, farms, beaches, hills… Indeed, the description was of my Lebanon that I so loved. But, still, I was waiting for something about the Lebanese… That came in the last few lines.
“The people are a fine race, fond of gay colours and practise tattooing.” Complexity? What complexity? The first tattoo I had ever seen (apart from some Palestinian women whom I met as a child) was in Britain. Indeed, today, “body art” is de rigeur.
“The British people are a fine race, fond of fish and chips and practice a new form of Europhobia. A humorous people who laugh a lot especially when the going gets tough as it often does on the small island floating west of Europe.” Sounds funny, doesn’t it?
I read on about the few Lebanese that hang around: “They employ themselves in cattle-breeding, in cultivating the walnut, olive, mulberry, vine (for home use), wheat, barley, sorghum and tobacco; coal, bitumen and petroleum are found.” I was so pleased to hear these nuggets of a national truth. In Lebanon, there were no schools, universities, theatres, thousands of years of history, innovative national literature, beautiful music scene, glorious food…etc… Finally, I was enlightened with the knowledge that Lebanon was made up of Maronites and “Mohammedans”. Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it? That’s the Lebanon disposed of in a few lines.
Much of my childhood – for ill or for good – is a figment of an over ripe imagination since ‘the Lebanon’ had so little nationhood about it – just quaint prettiness to the exclusion of all human complexity and passion. And we wonder why our world is so fractured? Why our mutual perceptions are based on nothing but pure prejudice? Why we have so much that divides us instead of the wonderful human commonalities that should unite us? It is no wonder that this is the case when the powerful and educated have a monopoly on knowledge and when the ‘civilised’ write our history and shape our actualities in their image.
Categorised in: Article
This post was written by Faysal Mikdadi