A Tale of Two Cities

Right off the bat I’d like to apologize, I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, which is inexcusable in the world of blogging. However, I haven’t been particularly inspired for a whole host of reasons, and I would rather not write than unleash a load of piffle unto the world. However, I finally have something to say again, so you can revel in my superficial insights and nagging tirades once again.

The worst cliché amongst the plethora of bad clichés available to mankind is the one that states your abhorrence of clichés, promptly followed by the use of one. So here goes. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

I recently spent a week in Qatar, experiencing the Gulf beyond Dubai. As one might expect from a bourgeoning oil-rich Gulf economy on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, it is replete with shimmering skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes, man-made islands, gargantuan shopping malls, white Land Cruisers, sun burnt expats and south-east Asian labor.  It’s not a place particularly fussed about tourists or visitors beyond the transiting passengers of the wildly successful Qatar Airways. It’s practically impossible to hail a cab anywhere in the city, there’s essentially one museum, a souk and not much else. The city is infested with construction cranes and vacant buildings. Towers rise out of the desert and stand empty, corroding away in the gentle caress of the sands. But all in all, it’s a great place to make a living and it doesn’t have any of the gaudy excess of its shinier neighbor (you know, the one with all the “Biggest” and “Tallest” in front of everything).

The Lebanese friends I saw are making the most of it, settling into healthy routines and giving themselves completely to their work. They do so almost joylessly though; talk of a dreamed return to Beirut always creeping in early on in any conversation. I would try to comfort them, saying half-heartedly that Lebanon wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that they were romanticizing the place due to their position as voluntary exiles.  Until one of these friends asked me if I’d ever watched Beyrouth Derniere. I’d heard about the show (a one-off spin off of Paris Derniere broadcast by French cable channel Paris Premiere) but I’d never found it anywhere. So we sat down in from of his laptop and watched it.

Before I explain what the show’s about, allow me to indulge in a little rant. Contrarily to most of my beloved friends, I tend to be mostly irritated by foreign (and local) coverage of Lebanon and its supposed attractions. I cringe anytime I read about calls to prayer overlapping with the ringing of church bells as the sun gently sets across a shimmering Mediterranean. I shudder when I read about a veiled woman crossing paths with a mini-skirt wearing blonde along the Corniche.  I’m left with a sour aftertaste anytime I read about the sense of impeding danger hanging in the air even as people party away at rooftop bars. Although I can’t deny that these things occur, I’m infuriated by the constant lacing of commentary on Lebanon with a touch of exoticism, post-colonial guilt and the conflict-porn of bored Europeans.

It seems we are relegated to being an amalgamation of clichés, some of them of our own making. For example, in 1968 Abdallah Farah published a series of postcards of Beirut. We’re all familiar with them, they’re the weathered and battered clichés of Beirut in the 1960s that are still sold in some bookshops that time has forgotten. In the early 1990s they were the only postcards you could find anywhere. So here we were, perpetuating an image petrified in time. A Beirut from the Golden Age, as if the war had never happened, and it was of little importance that half the places represented on these postcards didn’t even exist anymore.  If anyone were to receive one them in the post, it would be a postcard from another era, let alone another country. Basically, I had always been waiting for an accurate portrayal of what Beirut was to me.

So, it is in the context of these various imaginings of the same geographic place that I return to the television show I watched in Doha last week. The concept of the show is that the host (who you never see) has a handheld camcorder, and goes around town interviewing people. He usually does this at various venues around Paris. The resulting feel of the show is very intimate and realistic, as you’re basically looking at the world through the host’s eyes (technically your vantage point is that of peeking over his shoulder). His escapades in Beirut are varied. He’s shown around town by renowned architect Bernard Khoury, musician Zeid Hamdane, he wanders around Sabra and Chatila with actress Beatrice Dalle (a favorite of mine because we both have gapped teeth). It basically feels like you’re showing a friend around town, the good the bad and the ugly. He even ends up at some sort of drug-fuelled sex party in the hills above town, which might shock some, but it does happen and is an integral part of our city. So here was Beirut, laid out on video, in its excess and its decorum. In its superficial intellectualism, and its deep superficiality.

But watching this show was almost like a revelation. Amongst the highly ascepticized skyscrapers of Qatar, I suddenly remembered I lived in a real city. It isn’t a city made up of artificial islands and towering temples to all that is shiny and new, built in the hope that people will flock to inhabit them. It is an organic city, sprawling and disorganized, and all the more attractive for it. A city that contracts and expands in tandem with the demographic and societal demands of its population and not some oasis-like dream. I have to say, my friend and I sat there in front of the screen in a nostalgia-induced numbness, mine tempered by the fact that I would be coming home the following day.

Being Lebanese and Mediterranean, our actions are often laced with a heavy dose of passion. We wave our hands about comically in order to convey our points in conversations; we greet people with “a thousand welcomes of welcomes”. Everything is superlative, from the size of our Hummers to the depths of our hospitality. So it’s quite natural that our relationship with our country is also one of passion.  It’s a relationship between lovers. But like all romantic endeavors, after an initial phase of unbridled admiration and steamy romps, we settle into a facile habituation.

During this phase we take our partner for granted, and start complaining about the futilities of life. The way she squeezes the toothpaste tube from the middle rather than from the end. The way she places pot pourri in a bowl near the television. We start taking each other for granted and become infuriated at the slightest hint of one of our pet peeves. However, should you spend a week or a month away from your better half, you’ll quickly remember what it is you love about them, and you’ll find yourself in anticipation on the road home. You look forward to the passionate embrace, to the inevitable tryst. And so, on my trip back, I realized I was lucky to be coming back to this city I love and hate in equal measure. Source of all my frustrations and all of my ambitions. It’s good to be home.

19 Responses to “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. Christina
    January 31, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Love the way you express yourself! :)

  2. Bashar
    January 31, 2010 at 7:42 pm #

    You almost made me tear reading your words.. I can’t wait to go back there again! :(

  3. Branimir
    January 31, 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    How can you use the title of the most successful original english book for so futile a post?
    Just grow a pair. Or as you Lebanese say “choud halac”

  4. Nasri Atallah
    January 31, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Christian and Bashar – thanks:)

    Branimir – nice use of one of the cornerstones of the Lebanese dialect there. As you may have noticed, I tend to use other people’s works as titles for my posts, remaining under no illusion that what I’m writing is in any way similar. But in this case, it is indeed a tale of two cities, with none of the Dickensian overtones. Oh and my pair is doing just fine, thanks for asking. Your name does mean “defender of the world” (huge fan of Croatia, as a sidenote. Zagreb is my favorite place in the world after Beirut and London) so I understand why you would be coming to Mr Dickens’ defense and why you would want to shoot down the mediocrity of the writing I’m unleashing upon the universe. Hvala.

  5. Branimir
    February 1, 2010 at 12:34 am #

    Dear oh dear. Don’t put yourself down like that Nasri. You write well, don’t get me wrong. A Lebanese friend of mine invited me to join your group on facebook, so I decided to go through some of your posts before I commit myself and join your lavish fan-base 😉
    I found your ideas very amusing. Sharp humour. Ridiculously well maneuvred. Sometimes, trying too hard or sounding like a monkey ready to be shot into space. But overall deeply captivating
    The only two things I didn’t like were:
    i-the title borrowed from Dickens which I won’t go back to now
    ii-the fact that you felt no shame in admitting you couldn’t read Arabic
    Apparently it is a common thing now. People associate it with being posh. Weird
    And by the way, You were right about my name. I am from Serbia though. Close enough!

  6. Nasri Atallah
    February 1, 2010 at 1:36 am #

    I’m not quite sure what a monkey ready to be shot into space sounds like, but I’m guessing its some form of frantic screech.
    1- Dickens is untouchable. So we’re agreed on that.
    2- I never said I couldn’t read Arabic. I made an effort to learn Arabic even though I’ve always lived in the UK. I can read Arabic perfectly, but I can’t appreciate the language as well as I’d like to. So I basically feel like I can decipher Arabic. And I don’t wear the ineptitude as a badge of honor, quite the contrary. And for the record, I can read Cyrillic too.

    On which point, sorry about the mis-identification as Croatian. If its any consolation, one of the places I have most fun in Zagreb is Sokol. Big fan of Ceca.

  7. Dajana
    February 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Great post, Nasri. I loved how you metaphorically used lovers to describe a relationship between you and your country (I guess we Croats share the same passion about our bella Croazia so I perfectly understand you)…

    (btw, Branimir would be “defender of peace”, not the world) :))

  8. Joumana
    February 1, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Fashaytelle khel2e! I want to copy-paste that paragraph about cliches in the comment section of every one of those sickening articles and rub it in the face of every foreigner who comes here because of them. And I agree completely, it’s a messy, noisy, often ugly city, dysfunctional at best, but it’s a REAL city with real people leading real lives, and with a life and mind of its own.

  9. hala
    February 1, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    j”aurais jamais cru ca d’un mec qui finit en nain de jardin a 5h du mat au behind… xx

  10. Nasri Atallah
    February 1, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Joumana – feel free to quote me if you want to tear apart their reviews. alternatively, get out the samurai swords.

    Hala – haha, on peux etre creatif et debile tu sais. cest meme encourage! :)

  11. L*
    February 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    speaking of clichés…

  12. Nasri Atallah
    February 2, 2010 at 3:30 am #

    hey L. sorry you’re going to have to elaborate. if you’re implying that I’m lauding yet another cliche by debunking others, id love to debate you.

  13. L*
    February 4, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    “I suddenly remembered I lived in a real city. It isn’t a city made up of artificial islands and towering temples to all that is shiny and new” … is that not cliché?

  14. Nasri Atallah
    February 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    L – not really. its pretty heartfelt actually. I’d never realized what it was about Beirut that got under my skin and its slowly starting to make sense.

    If you think the structure of the sentence is contrived, that’s another matter. Every word on every piece of paper, or every blog post, has been used somewhere in some sort of language-based assemblage, so we’re bound to repeat ourselves and the thoughts of others. That in itself doesn’t constitute a cliche.

    I was referring very specifically to type of cliches used by lazy journalists and tourism execs. Surely you can see the difference.

  15. Clara
    February 19, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    Do you have any idea where can we find this documentary Beyrouth derniere? Thanks!

  16. Sara
    February 25, 2010 at 3:21 am #

    One of the best, best postings I’ve read in a long time! Wow! (haha can you tell I’m at loss for words?)

    Waiting for more!


  17. Karim
    April 28, 2010 at 12:54 am #

    Hey Nasri,
    Where can I find this movie?

  18. yaz
    August 22, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    I’ve been talking about this exact thing for years.. The constructed vs. the organic city.. My Dekenneh Theory.. Dekkanehs are a sign of organic growth, of a real city built around demands, needs, desires..even the social networks that are both a cause of and a manifestation of the dekkaneh.. So much to be said..
    In short, I totally agree with ur post, love ur writing, and am very glad I landed on this blog :)


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