Specters of war thwart efforts to forget

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

A distraught woman screams at the guide in Armenian as the audience stands by. Photo by Ziad Ceblany, courtesy Sahar Assaf

May 5, 2014

BEIRUT: As we troop awkwardly through the narrow streets of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, our guide gestures to the decaying facade of a once-stunning building.

The balconies are crumbling, their wrought-iron rails rusted. The masonry is pocked with bullet holes, window frames empty or fringed with jagged, lethal-looking shards of glass.

As if unaware of the devastation that has been wrought on the building, the guide orders us to take note of the beautiful architecture. The derelict-looking structure is occupied, he notes in passing, but the inhabitants in the area are forbidden to hang washing outside to dry.

Pointing out one building where residents have blithely ignored this stipulation, he complains that he has called the police several times but no one ever shows up.

The washing, he claims, ruins the area’s historic appearance.

“Watch Your Step: Beirut Heritage Walking Tour,” is an interactive, site-specific performance directed by actress and AUB theater studies lecturer Sahar Assad and written by Robert Myers, cultural historian and AUB professor of English and Creative Writing. Continue reading

The War on Words

This story was originally published in The Outpost.

Haddad was invited to sign English copies of her book at the Emirates Literature Festival, even though the Arabic version is banned in the UAE.

“To become a great writer – regardless of which Arab country one is in – one must be truthful; to be truthful, one must be free; and to be free, one must be alive; yet to be alive, one must hold one’s tongue!” – Syrian poet, dramatist and radio journalist Muhammad al-Maghut

In the Arab world, words are used as weapons. First occupied by colonial powers then presided over by authoritarian rulers, in many countries in the region literature has become a battleground between the state and those seeking to voice a perspective that challenges the status quo. Novels, stories and poems have been both exploited by the state as a vessel for spreading propaganda and feared as a means of smuggling subversive messages to the public. Continue reading

Solving Lebanon’s child labor crisis

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

child labor
Children sell flowers to motorists in Beirut. Photo courtesy Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star

October 29, 2013

BEIRUT: Mohammad says he’s 13, but it’s hard to believe him. With his tiny, hunched form, cavernous cheeks and emaciated limbs, he looks closer to 8 or 9 years old.

Having fled Syria without his family, Mohammad works as a shoe-shiner on the streets of Hamra, beginning at 7 a.m. every day and working until 7 p.m. At the end of his 12-hour shift he will have earned a total of LL 5,000 – just over $3.

As the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues and the economic situation in the country declines, the number of child laborers is increasing.

Thousands of Syrian children are working to support their families, while the country’s declining economy has also had an effect on Lebanese and Palestinian children, who are increasingly expected to work. Continue reading

Closed adoption system helping child traffickers

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

Newborns sleep in incubators at a hospital in Sidon. Photo courtesy Mohammed Zaatari/The Daily Star

September 9, 2013

BEIRUT: Adoption is often seen as a benevolent act. Rather than being brought up in an orphanage, a parentless child is given a home, stability and a loving family. In Lebanon, however, the closed adoption system has helped to transform the practice into something less than benign: a business. When Daniel Ibn Zayd was adopted in 1963, the details of his biological family were fabricated. “In the paperwork we have from the orphanage it lists family name, mother, father, birth date, birthplace,” he explains. “You grow up thinking that this is true.

“It was my fellow adoptees in France who enlightened me to the fact that these [were] false names … There was a kind of comfort in knowing that link was there if I needed it, and the minute it was ruptured, then I felt this need to establish that link.” Continue reading

Shahrazad was like my mother

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

Hanan al-Shaykh (right) performs with Nidal al-Ashkar at the Hay Festival. Photo courtesy The Daily Star

May 10, 2013

BEIRUT: Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh has had a long and complicated relationship with “One Thousand and One Nights.” As a child, she recalls, she was “utterly smitten” by a radio dramatization of the tales. As time passed, she distanced herself from the epic fable of the storytelling Shahrazad, her murderous King Shahrayar, and all it evoked.

“When I was young I wanted to be so Westernized,” the London-based author admits. “I was brought up in a district in Beirut, Ras al-Nabaa, which was very traditional. … I think because of books and films I felt that I wanted to be somewhere else completely.

“I started changing my mind a little bit,” she continues, “because in the West whenever I published a book they’d say ‘The New Shahrazad!’ and I’d say ‘What is this cliché?’ Then I read a few stories and I thought ‘Hmm, not bad.’ … I was intrigued because it reminded me of the women in my family. I thought ‘Yes, I can see that – this is why they were cunning and crafty, especially my mother, because it is the weapon of the weak in such a society.’” Continue reading