October 2009


Abd al-Latif Fakhuri, one of my favorite local historians, has an article on the history of epidemics in Beirut in today’s Annahar. Local histories of the various quarters in Beirut are very interesting — if also sometimes inaccurate. In this genre, I find Fakhuri’s work the most interesting because he does serious research in periodicals and literary works to complement other sources. In this article, he goes through a list of epidemics that have struck Beirut in the past, tying into the narrative local beliefs, quarantine measures, epidemic-poetry, advertisements, etc…

It is all written in the spirit of the flu season and, if you are historically minded (and read Arabic), it makes for a very interesting read. I found the local name given to the flu when it first struck in 1889 rather funny: the goat’s nose. anf ‘l-3anza. Inf ‘l-uenza.

Since we are on the topic of local history, there is a small museum worth seeing in `Ayn al-Mraysah. A certain Ibrahim Najem, a diver/fire-fighter of the neighborhood, damaged his legs during decompression many, many years ago. He has since taken to collecting things that most, in utter fascination with “the new,” would have thrown away. The three rooms that constitute this “museum” are a heap of objects many of which are commonplace. But the gems scattered indiscriminately among them and the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Ibrahim make this trip definitely worth it. Contact details can be found here.

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In the 1990s, when the Lebanese civil war was still a fresh memory, cultural products accused of “disturbing civil peace” began to disappear from the Lebanese scene. It proved to be a very flexible and useful category that included almost anything that touched on the war. I remember Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation disappearing overnight from Beirut’s bookstores. Many blamed it on Syria at the time, but the heavy hand of censorship continues to strike today in Lebanon, the Middle East’s “only breathing space.”

This year’s Beirut International Film Festival promised to be the event of the year for film buffs. It kicked off with no less than Francis Ford Coppola coming to Lebanon to launch his latest film, Tetro. But the atmosphere soon soured when General Security prohibited the screening of two of Paolo Benvenuti’s films. The reason: they offend the church of the Middle Ages. The church here being the Catholic church, of course, because General Security based its decision upon consultation with the notorious Catholic Center for Media (المركز الكاثوليكي للاعلام), also behind the banning of Da Vinci Code.

But the story goes beyond the Catholic Center. Using the worn-out weapon of “safeguarding civil peace” — as if we needed the cinema to whip things up — General Security is now undermining the work of a promising young talent, Simon al-Habr. They have censored a crucial part of his documentary Samaan bil-Day`ah, which deals precisely with the memory of the civil war — a war we are allowed to commemorate but not to allowed to remember. The director has put the censored bit on youtube, so you can see for yourself how threatening it is (includes English subtitles).

In today’s al-Akhbar, Pierre Abi Saab rightfully points out the hypocrisy of the so-called “liberal” “intellectuals” in Lebanon who were quick to jump the gun when the censorship concerned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but remained silent about the undermining of local works such as al-Habr’s documentary and Mark Abi Rashid’s Help.

But I think there is another side to this. This censorship, like most censorship, is not only about the content. It is more about who is allowed to do the utterance. For what is utterly ridiculous about censoring al-Habr’s documentary in the name of “safeguarding civil peace” is that the censored recollection of the mountain war is nothing compared to the venom regularly spewed by Lebanese politicians when they evoke the civil war. And those politicians who wield violence, ironically (or not), seem to have more right to the molding of a collective memory of the war. What this kind of censorship effectively does is strip only us, the citizens, of this right.

After a long (very long) and mysterious absence, Marxist from Lebanon is back in the blogging business! He blogs on Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and much more. But there is one quality about MFL’s blogging that I particularly value: when crisis hits again, as it surely will, he will dissect it and blog it and it will be a soothing balm. So, there he is if you have not checked him out already.

It is a slow season, so here is a little something from the archives. The accusation of the love of France is popularly leveled at those who came to eventually monopolize it: the Maronites of Lebanon. But this here is a sweet request for a scholarship written (so it says) by a boy from Damascus:

Je suis un jeune chrétien de Damas; j’ai dix ans; j’ai sucé l’amour de la France avec le lait de ma mère […] Un mot de votre Excellence à M. le Comte de Sercey et mon bonheur sera assuré! Que Dieu protège la France et la rende de jour en jour plus puissante! C’est le voeu d’un jeune Français de coeur. Damas, 17 juin 1904

I am a young Christian from Damascus. I am ten years old. I imbibed the love of France with my mother’s milk […] A word from your Excellency to Mr. le Comte de Sercey [French consul general in Beirut] and my happiness will be assured! May God protect France and make her more powerful with every passing day! It is the wish of a young French at heart. Damascus, 17 June 1904

Source: Archives diplomatiques — Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Paris. Correspondence politique et commerciale, Turquie.