October 4, 2021 Born in Jordan in 1959, Rabih Alameddine had an itinerant childhood. He was brought up in Kuwait and Lebanon; when civil war broke out there in 1975 he was sent to live in England. He later moved to California to study engineering, then embarked on a career as a painter before releasing his debut novel, “Koolaids”, in 1998, when he was nearly 40. The book revisited two crises that had shaped those formative years: the Lebanese civil war and the AIDS epidemic that afflicted gay communities in the 1980s. (Mr Alameddine is himself gay.) “Koolaids” announced him as a writer capable of combining tragedy and social commentary with biting black humour.
His five subsequent novels experimented with structure and voice, touching on family politics, Lebanon’s violent history and the ability—or inability—of literature to “make sense of the senseless”. The protagonist of “I, the Divine” (2001) compulsively writes and rewrites the story of her life; “An Unnecessary Woman” (2014) is narrated by a reclusive old lady who secretly translates literary classics into Arabic. “The Angel of History” (2016) is set in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic as the narrator, a masochistic Yemeni poet, reflects on his experiences as a gay man in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis. Mr Alameddine says he is “fascinated by people who are on the margins but not so far outside that they cannot be seen”.
THE LEBANESE sense of humour is “as dark as a politician’s pocket”, says Bernard Hage, a cartoonist. In hard times—and there have been plenty of those in the past year—it can be a survival mechanism. Since last September the Lebanese pound has fallen by more than 80% against the dollar. Citizens have watched their savings vanish as banks have restricted dollar withdrawals and blocked overseas transactions. Government infighting has hindered international aid. Persistent power cuts have left homes and hospitals reliant on private generators; soaring food prices pushed many to the brink of starvation. Through all this, the robust Lebanese sense of humour endured. Then came the explosion.
On August 4th a blast caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate—a chemical used to make fertiliser and bombs—stored improperly in a warehouse in Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and left 300,000 homeless. No one is laughing now. But “catharsis humour”, as Mr Hage calls it, has made a satirical board game called “Wasta”, released two months before the explosion, a surprise success.
At the moment that one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history blasted outwards from Beirut’s port and swept across the city, Zeina Arida, the director of Sursock Museum, was standing outside her office with two colleagues. The force of the explosion, less than a mile away, threw them into the museum’s stairwell, as all around them windows shattered and glass and debris rained down. “We have escaped by a miracle,” Arida said over the phone three days later. “The museum is blown away, very simply… There is no door, no window, no glass left in the building.”
The force of the explosion also brought down parts of the ceilings and internal walls in the museum, housed in an ornate white mansion dating from 1912. Less than five years after it reopened in October 2015 — following a seven-year renovation costing more than $10 million — the museum is a wreck.
MILLIONS OF PEOPLE in lockdown are finding diversion at the flick of a dial. According to Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio in Britain, local and national stations reported increases in daily listeners of between 15% and 75% in the second half of March. They’ve got competition. Radio stations offering information, entertainment and reassurance to listeners isolated at home have sprung up from Ireland to Syria, Italy to India. Informal and interactive, many are run by amateurs from their homes, with producers learning the ropes as they go.
“I’m just afraid of rats and dead animals,” says 23-year-old Jana Mezher, flicking her long brown hair out of the way, as she bends down to inspect a battered schoolbook full of handwritten notes on the floor of an abandoned apartment in Beirut. A student at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, Mezher is what’s known as an urbexer. She spends her spare time sneaking into abandoned buildings to excavate the forgotten stories within.
In a small, soundproof rehearsal room in the mountains just outside Beirut, Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, Slave to Sirens, is getting ready to make some noise. Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, the five-piece’s lead and rhythm guitarists, respectively, unzip cases to reveal their V-shaped axes, and vocalist Maya Khairallah warms up with a practice growl, the raw sound ripping out of her small frame with startling volume. Bassist Alma Doumani is tuning up her instrument while drummer Tatyana Boughaba shakes her thick, waist-length hair out of the way, adjusts her leather jacket and gives her sticks a twirl.
THE SAME basic plotlines form the basis for thousands of stories. A joke has it that there are only two plots: a stranger arrives, or a man goes on a journey. Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” and J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series both feature a young orphan boy who discovers he has magical powers, attends a wizarding school and defeats an evil adversary, but no one would argue that they tell the same story. (Much the same could be said of Luke Skywalker.) Several recent lawsuits regarding alleged copyright infringements raise an important question. When it comes to an overlap of theme, plot or character, how close is too close?
Decriminalising homosexuality, abolishing child marriage, improving women’s rights and introducing secular laws. These are just some of the issues that are cropping up as a new Lebanese generation votes for the first time on May 6th. The last election was in 2009—when the iPhone was two years old and Barack Obama was six months into office.
In July 1947, British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe was ordered to travel to India, which at that time was under colonial rule. After two decades of increasingly violent struggle, India had won its independence but amid rising calls for a Muslim state, the British agreed that the territory would be divided, keeping India primarily for the Hindus and Sikhs and also creating Pakistan, an independent Muslim country.
Radcliffe, who had never visited India before, had one month to decide where the line between the two countries should be drawn. When his decision was made public on August 17, millions found themselves on the wrong side of the border.
There was a bloodbath. While disputed, it was estimated that more than a million people were massacred and between 12 and 18 million displaced in what is thought to be the largest mass migration of all time.
Now, at the world’s first museum dedicated to exploring the history of Partition, an entire gallery offers insights into Radcliffe’s thought process. His decision was ultimately made by drawing a line on a map – he had never visited the places involved.
For decades, survivors of Partition were surrounded by a “veil of silence”, explains Mallika Ahluwalia, the Partition Museum’s chief executive, co-founder and curator. But in recent years, several cultural and story-driven projects have started to shed light on their memories and experiences.
MARAM, an eloquent 14-year-old from Ain el-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, stood behind the microphone and began her story. After a minute she faltered, flushing as she turned to a lady in the front row for her hand-written notes. The audience burst into a round of spontaneous applause, calling out words of encouragement. One of five storytellers to speak on the theme of “Borders, Frontiers and Road Blocks” at the June edition of the Hakaya Storytelling Night in Beirut, Maram shared her feelings on the stigmatisation she faces growing up as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.
Hakawatis—storytellers—have historically been an integral part of Middle Eastern culture, orating popular myths and fables to audiences in cafés and public squares. In Beirut, where the tradition of public storytelling has faded in recent decades, a new phenomenon is drawing crowds: autobiographical storytelling events where participants share their experiences on a theme such as “love”, “transition” or “roots”.