Cultural life in Lebanon on hold but very much alive

Fairouz sings of the pain of Lebanon – a country that has defied wars and death. (AFP)Fairouz sings of the pain of Lebanon – a country that has defied wars and death. (AFP)

Do you hear? My family died

Without a full stop, or quotation marks, leaving her own line hanging as if for an eternity, Fairuz tweeted four Arabic words on Aug. 4. “Hal tasma‘un? Mata ’ahli” come from a poem by Gibran Khalil Gibran, the exiled early 20th-century poet and writer from Mount Lebanon, who became something of a symbol for his countrymen and their nostalgia for the homeland.

Khalil Gibran’s poem, titled “Ya bani ’ummi” (Children of My Mother), implores the speaker’s people (his family, his own) to note how divided they have become in the name of confessional differences, and rebukes them for rendering impoverished their country by reliance on outsiders. The song, which was set to music by Zaki Nassif decades after it was written, speaks volumes, as shown by the legendary figure’s tweet. Just like the pain it holds and the moment it encapsulates, this song could hardly get more Lebanese, could hardly be more poignant.

In the darkness of night
I call out to you, I call out to you
Do you hear?
My family died, my family died
And the hills of my country have been submerged by tears and blood.

Lengthening the musical phrase with a sigh of pain, Fairuz speaks this summer, but without saying a word. She sighs in pain for her country — her family, its departed people.

While her audience awaits impatiently for a return the octogenarian legend might make one day to the stage, Fairuz guards her silence. But in posting a video excerpt from many decades ago, Fairuz speaks today to the wounded, to the starving, to the thirsty and the weary. She speaks to, and for, Lebanon, a deeply divided Lebanon that is tragically unified by disaster. She continuously sings the pain of Lebanon, the country that has defied wars and death, only to be living the unthinkable. By any measure, and short of a miracle, Fairuz and her deeply broken country are staring death in the face as Lebanon slides into a very dark abyss.

Khalil Gibran’s words, prescient about one century ago, point to the hills. It mentions Lebanon’s hills not because they are beautiful, but because they are covered by pain: Just like the hills of Beirut were last August and the hills of other regions are this year. Wildfires, days-long power cuts, hospital closures, water shortages, and fuel tanks which explode, killing the very people from whom they were hidden. Small wonder, then, that in lieu of its numerous summer festivals, and endless celebrations of music and theater, the country is mourning in darkness.

August, the last month of summer, is typically when Lebanese expatriates around the globe converge on their beautiful country. But this year, cultural life is an afterthought, an almost blasphemous thought. How can the Lebanese celebrate when all they think about is how to survive, how to keep their parents from needing a doctor, and how to keep their children alive?
Children are rarely in the headlines, but they are among the hardest hit. Not only were children among the 200 fatalities in last year’s explosion (six, according to UNICEF), but they numbered 1,000 among the 6,500 injured. UNICEF warns of dire prospects for children living in Lebanon, 30 percent of whom go to sleep hungry. They find no help in a population more than three quarters of which, including Syrian refugees, are suffering shortages in essentials such as food and medical care.

“Hardly a day passes without the Lebanese army announcing a new raid on secret storage facilities across the countryside. Significant quantities of gasoline and diesel have been and continue to be confiscated.” – Tala Jarjour

The world says it wants to help, but it largely offers a trickle when the need is for a deluge. Earlier this month six of the Queen’s Royal Hussars traveled from the UK to Beirut to take part in commemorations held on the first anniversary of its epic explosion. Besides participating in the remembrance service for the victims of the Aug. 4 blast, they held workshops with Palestinian refugee musicians, and trained with the Lebanese army band. A nice little change, organized by the British Embassy, for an army working to steer the country away from the dark abyss.

Hardly a day passes without the Lebanese army announcing a new raid on secret storage facilities across the countryside. Significant quantities of gasoline and diesel have been and continue to be confiscated, including in gas stations. In one instance, the army distributed free rations of fuel to people waiting in line outside a gas station after its owner claimed wrongly that petrol had run out. Elsewhere, with help from local and other groups, the army extinguished hundreds of hectares of wildfires across the length of the country’s forested mountains.

In a highly symbolic gesture of solidarity, singer Majida El-Roumi gifted the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Joseph Aoun, a small cedar tree wrapped in the Lebanese flag. That was how she commemorated a shocking blast from which the country is yet to recover.

Staring at the mouth of the beast, Lebanon’s people remain determined to have a fighting chance. Their country’s culture — past, present and future — will remain its truest reflection and most honest expression of resilience, even when the nation’s cultural life appears to be on hold.

Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is visiting research fellow at King’s College London and associate fellow at the Yale College.


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