|We Lebanese are constantly in need of someone to remind us of what sets our country apart. The Arab novelists who met in Cairo a few weeks ago plumped for ‘greatness’; i.e. that its people were able to topple a government they opposed (a government which has since been reconstituted by its president).
Others feel its limitless potential, a place where Arabs from across the region make their way to undreamt-of success. At other times, it can appear to be a place of temptation, a country where everything is permitted and forbidden at one and the same time.
“Lebanon’s not like my country, Egypt,” a writer friend of mine once told me, “where the millennia seem piled up in a heap.” Another friend told me that he’s never known anything to change in his country; in fact, he’s never seen anything happen at all.
Perhaps he was trying to say that his homeland was fixed like a photograph in his mind. Unlike him we Lebanese have no desire to preserve a single picture in our minds, and when someone utters the word “Lebanon” in front of us, we don’t want to think of one thing, to summon up a single idea.
But we still need an outsider to come and tell us what our country is really like. It could be that a fleeting, incomplete impression—no more than a sentence or two—is the only way to sum up a country. Or perhaps it is, at least, a reassuring way, allowing the inhabitant to grasp at his country’s identity. But this is not what’s happened to us. Outsiders have seduced us—as we have seduced ourselves—with an image of contradiction that we were constructing even as we tried to understand it. Sixty years after we first adopted the belief that our country is like a phoenix “that sooner has it died, than it springs from its ashes”, we are still captivated by the same tragedy of hope. In other words, we live in a land whose charm lies in the danger of its survival. At the same time we are unable to fly, rooted to the ground, which for all its immovable solidity never ceases to remind us that surrendering to fantasy is a weakness and an inconstancy.
We have another choice, though. We can be the pioneers in the world around us, which for all its ponderous weight and fixity seems to demand it of us. “You are a great people.” So said the authors who gathered in Cairo from all corners of the Arab world. According to them we always take the first step while they prepare themselves to follow after us. But they never do. Something holds them back, and after a while, brings us back to where we were before they started calling us a great people.
Our pioneering efforts are no more than what could—and has—been done by other nations. Maybe they were a little hasty to lavish praise on us, as we are capable of doing much more. We take the first step, we are rewarded for it, and then soon after we get our punishment. We are the pioneers, as they love to say, yet we feel compelled to call ourselves the stragglers. “We are the last country to declare a truce with Israel.” We should say: we are the ones who take the first step, yet its better that we don’t talk about ourselves, since there are so many to do that for us.
We are at the heart of a contradiction: we don’t have to do anything that we should be doing. We see our friends, in their countries where nothing ever happens, rushing to invest this ‘first step’ with more significance than it can bear. They imagine that what we started in Lebanon a month ago will eventually be completed, and the virus will spread to them; to their countries. “We hope that what happened in Lebanon will happen here, in Tahrir square…” So said an Egyptian friend of mine, who’s of the opinion that history, so heavy in Egypt, rests lightly on Lebanon.
It’s not that nothing happens in our country, it’s that we wait for everything to happen. Today we are coping with something completely new, and tomorrow something else will surprise us, either the new, or the violent return of the past, a past that we imagined to be behind us.
We are torn between the desires of different men. Some wait for us to forge ahead, accompanied by their rapturous applause, others want us to remain pioneers of a different sort (fighting Israel, for example). In both cases, we won’t bring anyone with us. WE are torn between those who want change throughout the Arab world and those who don’t; between those who want war, and those who don’t; between this group and that group; between “everyone” and “all”; between this half and that half; between this less-than-half and that more-than-half…
Perhaps this is our true pioneering role: that this struggle should take place in Lebanon, away from their countries suffocated by history, where nothing ever happens. We’re not saying that all these roles are too much for us to handle: all we have to do is fight Israel into ground whilst tirelessly working to keep our country beautiful and welcoming, the stuff of our visitors’ dreams.
It’s a pressure that at times we find unbearable. Choked, we begin to feel the weight and immovability of history that others suffer from. But for us it is an uncertain immovability. Nothing happens, just so long as for every step forward we take one step back as the applause rings out around us.
Beirut,04 11 2005