22 August 2013

Media and Lebanese Identity

When we left Lebanon in the summer of 1984, our youngest son, Ramzi, was barely two years old. Even then, one was aware of his fondness, almost an inborn talent, for music and dance. Rhythmic movement, miming, even a bit of burlesque were unmistakably his favorite form of self-expression. He indulged his passions with the abandon and exuberance of a gifted child, oblivious to the havoc of deadly strife raging outside his own enchanted world. Like whistling in the dark, dance was perhaps his own beguiling respite from the scares and scars of war.

The enchantment was not, though, a mere flight of fancy. Over the past seven years, he has pursued his flair for dance and other artistic pursuits with added fervor. Thanks to the supportive milieu of Princeton, the allures of Broadway, HBO, MTV, the Disney Channel and Princeton Ballet, he has had ample opportunity to cultivate his talents. He is, as a result, an avid reader and listener. For a child of nine, he has developed a rather critical and discriminating taste for the performing arts. He choreographs his own dance routines, writes school sketches and lyrics and acts out their parts. He scans daily, much like an ardent connoisseur, the news and reviews of new releases and events.

He longs to entertain and be entertained and seems, while doing so, buoyed by a blissful mood of intense rapture. No wonder he greets his day, often at the break of dawn, with spirited bouts of dancing! Whatever oracles he is responding to, they are clearly voices within, demons beckoning him to heed his unabashed impulses. As a doting but baffled father there is little I can do, I have come to realize, to mute or redirect such impulses.

His world is largely a fantasy world of 'secret gardens', witches, ghosts, animated cartoons, superstars and entertainers. His room is cluttered with posters and mementos of his idols: Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, Anjelica Huston, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Fred Astaire, the Bangles, Expose, Debbie Gibson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Belinda Carlisle and, off and on, Madonna. As of late, in fact, Madonna has been more off than on. Somehow, the notoriety over her shows 'Blonde Ambition' and 'Truth or Dare' has cooled Ramzi off. When I inquired about the soured relations with his one-time idol, he replied that he is now 'old enough to understand what she is all about'!

With or without Madonna, Ramzi's fanciful world, a figment of his own imagination, remained until recently largely intact. Scarcely little has happened since his exile from Lebanon to challenge the props and symbols that endeared and sustained his attachments to its wonders.

An episode a few days ago signaled the first symptoms of a change in his self-image, with portents perhaps of a more felicitous reshaping of his interests and loyalties. We had gone to the Lebanese Consulate in New York to renew our expired passports in anticipation of our trip to Lebanon in August. The encouraging upturn in security conditions after 17 years of turmoil prompted us, like throngs of other expatriates, to revisit our beleaguered country. We harbored no illusions other than the faint hope that, by exposing our two boys to the few as yet unravaged features of their country--its captivating scenic beauty and geography, the warmth and compassion of family and friends, its prehistoric sites, colorful folklore, delicious produce and cuisine--we might rekindle their longing for Lebanon's threatened and defiled legacy. Alas, to them Lebanon has been reduced to an ugly metaphor, a mere figure of speech applied to the most threatening situations elsewhere in the world. The mere word 'Lebanon' or the term 'Lebanonized' is invoked by the media to conjure up images of the grotesque and deadly.

It is immensely sad that the Lebanese have been maligned and humiliated by words and deeds that make the things that were once sources of national pride and resourcefulness seem futile, trivial and pathological. Consider what happens when a child's most precious possessions--things around which he weaves fantasies and that make him a bit different from all others--are redefined as worthless. In a sense, this is what has been happening to the Lebanese. Their country's geography, its plural and open institutions, which, as sources of tolerance and co-existence. had once set it apart, for better or worse, from its adjoining repressive and monolithic political cultures, are now dismissed as aberrant.

We didn't have to wait too long for Lebanon's image to be partly redeemed, at least in Ramzi's eyes. The moment he walked into the Consulate and saw posters of Lebanon--the usual glossy mounted portraits one sees in tourist offices and travel agencies--he was overwhelmed with amazement and wonder. There was a sudden sparkle in his eyes, as dazzling as when he is dancing or simulating the fantasy world of his favorite fairy tales.

The scenes from Lebanon, juxtaposed against the ordered, flat, dull, antiseptic milestones of America (at least the America most familiar to him: the America of suburbia, manicured lawns and parks, shopping malls, mega-highways, etc.) seemed out of this world and much closer to Ramzi's world of make-believe. The ancient Roman monuments of Baalbek, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Anjar; Phoenician mosaics and amphitheaters, Crusaders' castles; Ottoman souks and bazaars; feudal estates; fortresses, caverns, tombs and quaint villages with their picturesque red-tiled roofs huddled in deep gorges, on hilltops or coastal towns hugging the Mediterranean shore… all seemed like idyllic backdrops to the fantasy world he conjures up and plays out in the backyard of our Princeton home.

He was captivated and awe-struck. The Lebanese Consul, touched by Ramzi's reaction, graciously volunteered to give him a poster. He picked the compelling view of Sannin, with the highest snow-capped peaks and ridges of Mount Lebanon standing out in splendor against the blue skies. It is incidentally this same view that captivated generations of Orientalist painters and engravers (e.g. Roberts, Taylor, Bartlett, Wilson, Van de Velde, Harper, Woodward) and inspired native poets and writers. It is also this view that is etched vividly in the memory of emigrants and speaks to their longing for the old country.

When Ramzi got home he furtively dismounted one of Madonna's portraits and replaced it with his new acquisition, which represented his reawakened longings to reconnect with his disinherited past. He now counts the days to the moment he will behold the same riveting view from the window of the plane taking him back home.

Ramzi's rediscovery of his country's natural and historic endowments should not be dismissed as an infantile gesture. It carries an instructive message. Just as an intuitive young boy is willing to part with his ephemeral symbols to embrace those of a higher and more enduring order, so his besieged compatriots in Lebanon (young and old) can do likewise. Now that many are in fact revisiting parts of their country previously inaccessible to them, they too have the chance to renounce all the alien and borrowed ideologies they embraced to sustain their belligerency. They could at least begin by disarming themselves of the instruments of collective violence.

Lebanon has long been plagued by disharmony between the beauty of its natural endowments and its boisterous political culture. An awakened sense of geography, sustained by an ethos for preserving and enriching the edifying features of their habitat, could be life-enhancing, enriching and, especially in the post-war period, a means of bringing tranquillity and vitality. Ecological and environmental concerns, for legitimate reasons, are also becoming generational issues. It is the so-called 'eco-smart' children who are today most incensed by the damage done to their environment. It is, after all, their future abode that is being violated. For the disinherited children of Lebanon, almost half the victimized society, such concerns could well serve as the rallying call for their active reintegration and involvement in pacifying and healing their damaged environment.

Other than being homogenized by fear and grief, little else today holds the Lebanese together. But geography can be an antidote to fear. Stripped of their bigotry and intolerance, territorial entities could become the bases for the articulation of new cultural identities. With visionary leadership and enlightened spatial planning, communities can be re-socialized to perceive differences as symbols not of distrust, fear and exclusion but of cultural diversity and enrichment.

Herein lies the hope, the only hope, for transforming the geography of fear, which has beleaguered Lebanon for so long, into a new political culture of tolerance.

[This essay is by Samir Khalaf, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut, and was originally published under the title 'Madonna and Mount Sannin: A Boy's Rediscovery of His Lebanese Identity' in Cultural Resistance: Global and Local Encounters in the Middle East (London: Saqi Books, 2001, pp. 299-301).]

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