Lebanon (Margaret Drabble, Sept 2006)

From the book, Lebanon, Lebanon, Publisher: Saqi Books (20 Sep 2006)


Once upon a time, about fifty years ago, I worked as an au pair girl for three months with a French Protestant Marxist family. The parents were intellectuals and teachers of English, and their children were numerous and most of the time delightful. I learned a great deal from that family. I learned some French, which was the ostensible purpose of my visit, but I also leaned about French cooking and French communism. It was a period of hard work, both physical and mental, and I benefited from it greatly.

One of the most unexpected benefits has been my friendship with the Lebanese writer, Rachid El-Daїf, whom I met though the oldest daughter of this French family. She in turn, in the 1970s, came to stay with me in London as an au pair for my children, and later she sent to us her friend (and future husband) Rachid, who had been studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris. He came to London in part because he was taking refuge from the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975, and he stayed with me for some weeks. I think this must have been in 1976, but I cannot be sure of the dates. Again, this was a period of intense learning for me. Rachid’s English was not as good as it is now (and indeed I now think he had an objection to the English language, which represented American imperialism). My schoolgirl French had fallen into neglect, but we talked in French, which was difficult for me, and i am not sure that i always understood him correctly. But we tried hard to communicate, and i have vivid memories of our long conversations, and of his attempts to teach me about the politics of the Middle East. Although he came from a Maronite Christian family, he was then a Marxist, and his line on events was Marxist and pro-Muslim. He had a complex multiple identities, a theme about which he has written much.

We talked, about the Jews and the Arabs, about the Soviet Union, about Israel, about the CIA and the PLO, about Hollywood and distortions of American life and American perceptions of Arab culture. My first husband is Jewish, and I was much more familiar with generally received liberal Jewish views on the Middle East: it was a salutary shock for me to hear another point of view presented and argued so forcefully. I think we both helped to educate one another. He asked me once why the ’Royal Free Hospital’ down the road from our house was called ’Free’, and I remembered how I was able to boast that all the hospitals in England were free. He was astonished.

Eventually Rachid returned to the Lebanon, to take up his carreer of teaching Arabic language and literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut. But the political situation there went from bad to worse. Communications with the outside world were almost non-existent, and the newsreels showed daily and appalling carnage. I thought of him frequently, because he had by chance become my point of emotional and personal contact with a disastrous sequence of events. I learned that he was living in West Beirut, where he had been seriously injured in a car bomb explosion, but had survived. I wondered what he thought about the way the war was going, and whether his politics had changed. (They had).

I can’t remember how we made contact again. News about him gradually began to filter through. I learned that he published a volume of poems in 1979, and then several novels, some of which were translated from Arabic into French, and some, a little later, into English and other languages. I read what i could of his fiction, which gives a vivid, haunting picture of basic survival in a Kafkaesque world of siege, road blocks, identity checks, dirt and poverty. At least, i thought, he was making good sense of his experiences.

Slowly, slowly, in the 1990s, after fifteen years of war ended, life in Lebanon began to improve, and so did communications. Telephone lines were restored, and the internet became accessible. Rachid, always up with the new technology when given a chance, was able to assure me by email that life was much better, as that his prospects were good. He came to Europe, and we met and exchanged literary and family news. His son Unsi, continuing the tradition of exchange, came to stay with friends of mine to learn some English. (My son Joe, meanwhile, had been to work on a kibbutz near the Golan Heights in 1985). I felt such pleasure for Rachid, and through him for the whole country, which was returning to normal life and prosperity, and becoming once more a part of the international community. Rachid was free to travel abroad, and tourism in his homeland was flourishing. He had become a man of the world, invited to conferences. In September 2001 he was scheduled to speak in Geneva, under the auspices of the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development): he prepared a paper on the values of literature and politics, the failure of political analysis, the meaning of war, the impulses that drive suicide bombers, the question of Arab identity. He described his country as a beautiful land, ’ruined by the sport of nations’. He delivered his powerful and personal address two days before the Twin Towers collapsed. Rachid had always lived close to history.

I used to dream idly that maybe i would go one day to see him in his native village in Zgharta in the north. I have in my head a child’s picture book image of this village, composed of scraps of poems and conversations, in which I see Rachid as a little boy in a huge bed with his six brothers and his little sister, all in a row under one woolen coverlet, with their mother in the middle, smiling proudly at her brood. Outside I can see the snowy mountains and the wooded slopes and the biblical cedars of Lebanon, and indoors on the little tables are placed dishes of dates and figs, and the bowls of goat yogurt which Rachid loved so much. It’s a simple, once-upon-a-time fairy story picture of happiness and plenty, of childhood as it ought to be. In his novel, Dear Mr. Kawabata, (1995; English version, 1999), he asks the reader, ’Have you ever tasted the milk of goats, heated with a little mint from a garden warmed by the sun in the front of the door, and watered from a nearby spring, water from a spring that is cool even in the heat of summer? I used to feel that when i drink goat’s milk that I am at peace with life…”

I will never go to the Lebanon and taste the goat’s milk. That daydream is over. Once more, the country has been destroyed. Its buildings and bridges have been reduced to rubble, its fleeing population has been bombed as it tried to escape the attacks, and its children have been buried alive. Its coastline is awash with deadly black seas of oil. Sixteen years of laborious reconstruction have been ferociously crushed. The waste of human life and human effort is appalling. The devastation is unspeakably shocking. So many years of labour have been wantonly undone in three weeks. I never thought I would feel sorry for bricks and mortar and breeze blocks, but I do. They represent the lands of hope and men.

I see more clearly now why Rachid’s novels are full of building sites and bulldozers and construction and deconstruction. That is the hisroty of the region.

His novels of the 1980s and 1990s are eloquent on the theme of destruction and endurance. One of them is called Techniques de la misère (1989; Arabic, Tiquaniyat al-bu’s), a phrase which is hard to translate, and which indeed needs no translation. This novel is about dull, grim, and day-to-day survival, in a half-ruined city, where life goes on, and the plumber never comes. Everyday objects take on a malign objective obstructive life: taps, cisterns, telephone lines, buckets, candles, the generator, and holes in the road provide occasion for hourly negotiation. You have to learn to deal patiently with these mindless things. Each daily act is a challenge. Rachid, in an interview in 1989, says that ’misery’ (or ’poverty’, or ’despair’) requires skill, or savoir-faire: you have to learn how to be miserable, just as you have to learn how to be a carpenter or a stonemason.

And now the Lebanese people will have to learn the art of misery all over again.

All victims, says Rachid El-Daїf, as others have said before him, become executioners. ’Il n’est pas de victime qui ne se transforme en bourreau.’ He had watched the cycle go round once, and now the whole damn thing begins again. I have seen him grow from an intense idealistic thirty-year-old ideologue into a benign man with a sceptical and benevolent smile. It is good that he is there to bear witness, but he must have wished that he would not be called once more to bear witness to these violent acts of anger and hatred and folly of revenge.

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