For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterised as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilised pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.
Of course, Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter. In the introduction to his seminal text Orientalism, the late Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:
“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to … the Orient of [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] Chateaubriand and Nerval’. He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”
The terror attacks in Beirut, “Paris of the Middle East” and Paris, France – tragedies filled with laments for the dead and injured – inspire a predicatable response.
Beirut’s story is one of two suicide bombers. An explosion. A father and his young daughter are out for a walk.Adel Termos notices a second man approaching those who gathered after the first attack at the mosque a. And he acts. This man on the street throws himself on the second suicide bomber. He and his daughter die of course but dozens of other potential victims survive. The story barely surfaces and disappears with the name and number of the victims: 43 anonymous bodies in Beirut dead in the street and over two hundred wounded. But Beirut is so far away on the margins of the orient in “Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country with a history of civil war, [which] has seen deadly spillovers from the Syrian conflict.”
In Paris, three times as many people die and many are wounded in a meticulously executed multiple-site series of attacks. And there is unending international attention to this story. We are appalled over and over and over again as the maps fill up with explosive stars of red identifying the Cambodian cafe, the stadium, the concert stage, the street….
But the wreckage of these two narratives turn on who we recognize as deserving of elegies and our attention. Paris fills us with the romance of where we may have been, European romance and the short-cropped hair of Jean Seberg for those of us who remember, the streets of beloved museums and cafes. Simone de Beauvoir’s cigarette and the eye of Jean Paul Sartre. A bridge of love locks. A photograph of my mother in 1956, bleached blond hair, a beauty, standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Over the years, Paris remains the cobblestone destination honeymoon destination.
We don’t think about the suburbs of alienated youth, the police actions, the racist legacy of Le Pen and the father/daughter’s inheritance, the prohibition of Muslim dress for women. The will to bomb the Middle East. None of this justifies the attacks. But one of the everyday pivots of life in the city is inequality and non-fraternity along racial grounds.
Last week, I saw the opera Air India [Redacted] with a libretto based on Renee Saklikar’s brilliant poetry collection The Children of Air India (Nightwood, 2013). You can listen to her interview about the collaboration here.
Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the public in the aftermath of this catastrophe in measured tones. None of the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament patriarch who would have us ramping up military action. . Thank you for your measured commentary.