Archive | October, 2010

Albanian Gangsters, Darwin and Halloween.

So, I’m at Beirut airport on a Saturday afternoon waiting for my mother to arrive from Paris. As per my habitual organizational prowess, I’m about 45 minutes early and have plenty of time to look around and take in the sights and sounds. I decided I needed to buy a bottle of juice and a croissant to stock up on energy for the observational foray ahead. I hand the cashier the GDP of a small Caribbean nation, grab my sustenance and head over to the heart of the arrival area.

Compared with the arrival area at Heathrow, this place is supremely exotic. In England, most people have given up on picking up their relatives at the airport, because they’re too busy watching chubby siblings punch each other on X-Factor or ordering a skinny Latte at Costa. The only people who still make it to the arrival terminal are an army of South East Asian minicab drivers armed with signs bearing the misspelt names of customers who’ve probably just landed at another terminal. Or at Gatwick. But I digress, let’s get back to Beirut.

A cursory analysis of the area reveals a few types of people. First of all, we have the village people. And when I say village people, I literally mean the entire population of a medium sized village has showed up to welcome home one of their own. They show up with bouquets of flowers, balloons, musical instruments and sacrificial virgins. I fully expect to see a goat sacrificed on the tiles some day. Then there are the taxi drivers, who poke at their ears with the elongated pinkie nail and ask everyone non-Lebanese if they’re the person whose name they have on their sign. There are the unhappy couples, pot-bellied uni-browed macho-sexuals pawing ineffectually at their mobile phones flanked by women who seem to have fallen through the makeup and wardrobe section of a 1990s Ukrainian strip club.

Then there are the children, who seem to belong to no one. They run around untamed, bumping into the sparsely disseminated furniture and seem to defy Darwinian logic. But my favourite are the men who seem to be there for no reason whatsoever. They stroll aimlessly, their hands interlocked behind their backs. They cultivate a very particular look which I would describe as Albanian-human-trafficker-chic, replete with thick black leather jacket, wife beater vest, gold chain, hairy knuckles and a look that tells you they’ve stuffed a few people into the trunk of their car over the years.

As I was engaging in this afternoon anthropology, and admiring the various costumes people choose to wear when they head to their airport, I remembered that I had a Halloween party to go to on Sunday. Now, I have a dubious relationship with Halloween. As a child in London, I was the annoying kid who kept reminding everyone that it was an American holiday and that it had only reached our shores due to rampant commercialism and whatnot. I know what you’re thinking, I must have been a bundle of fun as a 10 year old. Sadly, or happily, I still cling to my hatred of Halloween and dressing up. Even though I must admit that, as I grew older, I enjoyed the fact that women usually took “Tonight is Halloween” to mean “Tonight I feel compelled to wear as little as is legally permissible in public”.

I hate the effort that goes into dressing up. Where do people find the time and the energy? And are they dressing up to hide who they are or show who they are? Is that guy in the sequin dress actually telling everyone that he wishes he could be Liza Minnelli all year round? Is that girl in the leather catsuit telling us she actually wishes she was a dominatrix rather than a junior auditor?

As for me, I’m usually the annoying guy who shows up without a costume and gets told off by everyone throughout the night. I might steal a wig or a pitchfork to blend in, but the result is usually quite pitiful. I also sometimes say things like: “I’ve come as a disgruntled unemployed banker” or “I’ve come as an existential void”. But this year, I’ve decided I’m going to give it a shot. I’ve decided that I could stick a black shoebox on my back and go as a fridge magnet. I might carry a coin in one hand and a hammer in the other and go as a quarter pounder. Maybe I’ll put a ball on my head and go as a lowercase “i”.

I have two friends in London who went to a party dressed as traumatised Chilean miners on Friday, which I thought was hilarious. But copying them would be derivative. My favourite idea so far is to go as a pile of dirty laundry. If you have any suggestions I can put together by tonight, your help is greatly appreciated. I don’t want to be booed this year.

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Va Va Voom.

Some of you may have noticed I wrote in article in L’Orient Le Jour last week. The article was pretty successful, it received about 100 “likes” on the newspapers page, about 50 on my own Facebook profile. And needless to say, the article was in French.

In the article I talk about the act of moving back to Lebanon, and what that’s meant for me over the past year. I also go into how it has allowed me to finally find a place for myself after decades abroad. And overall, according to a lot of my friends, I’m far less cynical in French. And most people didn’t mean that in a good way.

And that got me thinking about why I wrote it in French. Well, for starters, I was educated in French until I was 18, and haven’t written a word since, so I guess on some level I wanted to prove to myself that I could still make an intelligible argument in the language. On another level I was writing it for someone very specific, and I wanted her to read it in French. And also, I think my conclusion was rather soppy and cheesy. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t sincere, quite the contrary, it’s just not something I feel I can express in English and still take myself seriously.

Language is an odd thing. Being Lebanese, I often think in three separate languages, all three of which I’ve been immersed in since infancy. I think differently in each language and according to what I’m feeling. There are beautiful things I want to say to people sometimes, which I can only say in French. There are vituperative, cynical, acerbic things I want to say which trip off my tongue in English. Arabic surfaces predominately during altercations in traffic, and usually involves unspeakable acts being committed by people’s mothers.

Rest assured, I’m sticking to English for this blog.

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Le temps qui attend, le temps qui espère.

For the French-speakers out there, here’s something I wrote for l’Orient-Le Jour this week.

L’Orient Le Jour – Opinions – 26/10/2010

Par Nasri ATALLAH

Mon histoire est celle de millions de Libanais. Elle n’a rien d’unique, elle n’a rien de magique et elle n’a rien de particulier. Elle a, par contre, l’avantage de se trouver sur la page que vous lisez.

Je suis né, comme beaucoup d’entre vous, d’entre nous, dans l’exil. J’ai d’abord découvert le Liban à travers la nostalgie de mes parents. À travers leurs récits d’expatriés frustrés. J’ai découvert l’idée oubliée, il y a quelques décennies, d’un Liban idyllique. Je l’ai découvert à travers les affiches jaunies de l’Office du tourisme sur Piccadilly Circus, à Londres. Des images d’une place des Martyrs qui ne ressemblait déjà plus à elle-même. Ce Liban que je découvrais, je n’y ai mis les pieds qu’à mes 11 ans.

C’est à cet âge aussi que j’ai lu un livre publié chez Larousse, L’histoire illustrée du Liban. C’est à cet instant que j’ai compris que, loin des souvenirs du Saint-Georges et des stars des années 60, le Liban est un pays de guerre. Une terre de conflits. Cependant, j’ai toujours gardé en tête un autre Liban, celui de mes fantasmes d’enfant, un Liban que le conflit m’interdisait de découvrir.

Beaucoup de Libanais feraient bien de lire ce livre, dans un moment de calme, entre deux soirées arrosées. L’amnésie générale, détestable syndrome de l’après-guerre, m’effraie. Au lieu de soigner nos traumatismes à travers le dialogue, des monuments et une cohésion sociale, on les a soignés à la vodka, au consumérisme grotesque et à la chirurgie esthétique. Les Libanais continuent, aveuglément, de suivre les mêmes leaders qui peuplaient les bulletins du journal télévisé auquel je ne comprenais rien étant enfant, à Londres. Un même lexique répétitif de noms de familles qui auraient dû être oubliés en 2010.

Le mien de nom, je l’ai toujours apprécié parce qu’il est neutre. Il laisse les Libanais assoiffés de clichés identitaires, perplexes. Il n’indique aucune religion, aucune région. Et, justement, je n’ai ni religion ni région. À 11 ans, j’ai aussi appris à détester l’instrumentalisation de ces facteurs à des fins meurtrières. À me méfier du tribalisme et des sectes, qui m’ont empêché de vivre dans le pays de mes parents.

J’ai vécu vingt-trois longues années en Angleterre. J’ai vécu mon enfance et mes débuts dans la vie adulte en tant que britannique. J’ai regardé leurs dessins animés puis leurs documentaires à la BBC. J’ai hérité de leur cynisme, de leur amour du civisme omniprésent. Mais avec mon nom et mon faciès de barbu levantin, des limites s’imposaient à cette identité. J’habite le Liban depuis un an maintenant.

La transition a parfois été difficile. C’est un pays où le népotisme fait toujours loi, où personne ne sait attendre dans une queue au supermarché. C’est un pays où la taille du cadran d’une montre est plus importante que la taille de l’intellect. Mais c’est aussi un pays de chaleur humaine, un pays où il se passe des choses. C’est surtout un pays où je me sens chez moi. Malgré un gouffre de civisme parfois, malgré des expériences très différentes, je me reconnais dans les visages et dans les pensées de ceux qui m’entourent.

Malheureusement, à en croire les titres des journaux et la rhétorique ambiante, le Liban est au bord d’une nouvelle guerre. Je n’en ai jamais connu et j’ai toujours senti que cela ôtait une part de mon identité, en tant que Libanais. J’ai souvent honte de ne pas avoir partagé le grand traumatisme de mon pays. Mais j’ai bien peur d’en partager un bientôt. Et, honnêtement, c’est une part de mon identité dont je me passerais bien.

Faute de mémoire collective, faute d’une histoire commune, certains s’obstinent à la répéter. Mêmes acteurs locaux, régionaux et internationaux. Tous ont pris quelques années, certains ont pris du ventre, d’autres ont changé d’allégeance. Mais tous ne se lassent pas de piller et de manipuler notre pays. Ce petit pays qui, pendant vingt-trois ans, n’a existé que sous forme d’un drapeau sur un mur de ma chambre à Londres, qui n’a existé que comme un fantasme dans mon cœur d’expatrié. Un espoir d’appartenance dans l’esprit d’un Britannique qui savait qu’il venait d’autre part.

Cette année au Liban m’a permis de poursuivre une carrière que j’aime, elle m’a permis à redécouvrir le sens de l’amitié, de l’amour, de la famille. Le Liban m’a redonné les montagnes, les plages et les gens que j’imaginais sous les cieux pluvieux d’Europe. Le Liban m’a redonné une joie de vivre et un sourire que j’avais oubliés. Et je vous dis aujourd’hui, politiciens et autres manipulateurs et mafieux, vous ne nous entraînerez plus dans vos guerres. Fini les exils forcés, fini les diasporas. Je reste. Nous restons.

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Article in Trashed Magazine.

The folks over at Time Out Beirut have launched a new student publication, aptly named Trashed. They asked me to write an article to motivate young Lebanese kids to stay in the country. Click on the photo to read it, but be warned, most of my argument revolves around my chest hair/beard.

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Attack of the Killer Channel.

So, it’s Thursday night and I’m flicking through the modicum of channels I have left on my TV. My friendly neighbourhood pirate cable provider, the one with three teeth I’ve mentioned before, has gone AWOL and he seems to have taken most of my watchable channels with him.

So, it’s slim pickings when it comes to TV these days I’m afraid. On the one hand, I could watch the Sudanese satellite channel, which seems to mainly involve military parades and dubbed cartoons from the 1800s. I could watch the Food Network, but the host of Iron Chef America gives me nightmares. Then there’s Russia 1, which, from what I can gather, seems to be built around some form of Wheel of Fortune-type show hosted by a plump mustachioed alcoholic who receives gifts such as cabbages, and places them on said wheel.

Thankfully, I still have MTV. Sadly, it would seem that they decided to stop playing music at some point in the 90s and now try to fry what few brain cells are left in the world’s youth by diffusing such dog’s vomit as The Hills and Jersey Shore. The latter, by the way, being a great illustration that bad taste is in no way restricted to Lebanese shopping malls and is alive and well all the way across the Atlantic.

The other day, as I was zapping through what’s left of my channels, I came across one of the oddest most compelling inventions in the history of television, E! Entertainment. A typical day on this entity seems to be made up mostly of an endless stream of reruns of Top 100 lists, True Hollywood Stories and godawful semi-reality shows, topped with about 15 minutes of highly topical celeb gossip. And it’s absolutely captivating. E! is the black hole of television channels, in that it sucks in anyone who dares come within range, and never spits them out again. Once you’ve zapped onto E!, there’s no pulling you away.

I sat there, slack-jawed, knowing full well I should be watching a high-minded documentary about water shortages in Benin on BBC World, yet I remained transfixed. “I’ll change the channel after they reveal who number 87 on the Top 100 Sexiest Hollywood Bodies is”, I said to myself reassuringly. Cue 15 minutes of ads for shows I felt I’d seen a million times, 90% of which include Hugh Heffner shuffling around his mansion looking for a misplaced pneumatic blonde.

As the hemorrhaging grey matter trickled down my forehead, I prayed for a miracle. Maybe someone would come and grab the remote and put on the Discovery Channel. It’s probably Shark Week again. Maybe the remote would fall on the floor and smash into a thousand pieces, but just before doing so it would point me towards Mezzo, where I could enjoy a nice jazz concert for a few hours.

Then, like a sign from the heavens, the Lebanese government intervened. That’s right, the government itself swept in and took charge of my televisual viewing habits. In a moment of sheer euphoric delight and relief, the power went out in my flat. Darkness descended upon a room previously awash in the flickering glory of Jessica Biel’s thighs and Brad Pitt’s abs. A darkness that made me reach for a candle and a book, and helped me block out a world where Ryan Seacrest gets to host shows.

A divine intervention if ever there was one.

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