Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes
In their introduction to reviews Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes, T.J. Gorton and Andree Feghali Gorton describe the country as a “refuge for religious and political exiles, mystics, outcasts and general trouble-makers.”
Indisputably true, but the description also fits the motley rabble of writers whose musings, ancient and modern, form this anthology, from the sarcastic Greek observer Lucian to the possibly fake English knight Sir John Mandeville; from English noblewoman-turned queen of Palmyra Lady Hester Stanhope to pious Muslim, Jewish and Christian travelers seeking out their co-religionists in Lebanon’s mountains and plains.
Veteran wanderer Ibn Battuta makes an appearance, as do modern literary icons such as Mahmoud Darwish and Amin Maalouf.
These and many more witnesses paint a picture of Lebanon’s turbulent history and of the opportunist, zealous or merely curious pilgrims who have crisscrossed the land from the time when “Lebanon” referred to the forbidding mountains that towered over Phoenicia’s city-states to the civil war and that of 2006.
Great themes dominate the book – war, religion, politics and identity. For many Orientalist Western travelers, Lebanon was a mirror that reflected back an image of themselves, their prejudices and fantasies.
But it is the quirky details that bring to life this epic panorama of four millennia of Lebanese history. The stench of murex dye-works pervades Roman geographer Strabo’s account of Tyre, a most “unpleasant” place to live around the time of Jesus. Disapproval taints Ibn Jubair’s description of a lavish Frankish Crusader wedding in that city: “God protect us from the seduction of the sight.”
Magical descriptions of Lebanon’s natural beauty abound, and of its cities and temples. Mark Twain and T.E. Lawrence pay homage to the “noble ruin” of Baalbek; French poet Alphonse de Lamartine to the “Moorish palace” that stretches across the hills of Beiteddine.
A mountain poetic sparring match, or “zajal”, is recorded: Shahrour al-Wadi, “the nightingale of the valley”, whose oral poetry is still recited, sings an ode to the Kesrouan mountains, whose sons “use the sword as deftly as the pen/ And their palms are a spring of plenty and of grace.”
Humor, intentional and less so, also dots the pages. Usama Ibn Munqidh’s droll observations of Frankish life have become a classic. He relates how a European physician treats a leg abscess by amputation, which kills the patient. He then treats a mentally ill woman by scoring a cross into her head and applying salt. She, too, “expired instantly.”
“I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I knew not before…” Ibn Munqidh reports, via his own doctor who witnessed the incident.
Ancient writers are plenty – with Ancient Greece’s Homer and Herodotus having their say. A pharoah’s envoy, Wenamon, recounts being fleeced by a mercenary prince of Byblos. The Bible’s psalm to sensuous pleasure, the Song of Solomon echoes the image often reflected in these pages of a Lebanon at once dream-like and fierce, singing of its streams and spices, its lions’ dens and “mountains of leopards.” “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”
T.J. Gorton, an American Arabist, and his Lebanese wife Andree Feghali Gorton have long experience of Arabic literature, and this carefully researched and detailed anthology feels like a celebration.
“The best of these writers transcend their setting in time and place, and reflect Lebanon, its people and perhaps the rest of us, under a brilliant, unforgiving spotlight,” they write.
Nonetheless, like the history it traces, reviews Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes descends into war for the final chapter, with literary excerpts from Hoda Barakat, autobiographical ones by Alexandre Najjar and Jean Said Makdisi, and the inevitable journalistic essays by Robert Fisk and others.
Brian Keenan draws a portrait of his captors during his long years of kidnap during the 1980s, all the more chilling for its human detail. His guards dress as caricatures of Rambo, seeking “power, power that will restore his dignity and his manhood.” One, Said, imitates lines from violent American films and needs constant noise to distract him between his bouts of aggression. The excerpt ends with Said praying, choked by sobs, crying out in desperation for God as his eerie shadow, caught against the sunlight, fills their cell.
“We did not understand Lebanon,” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, speaking of the Palestinian presence here in his seminal work Memory for Forgetfulness, written in 1982, the year of the Israeli invasion. He seems to sum up Lebanon’s fragmentation, its confusion, the opposing visions and cacophony of voices captured in this anthology.
“No one understands Lebanon. Not its supposed owners or its makers; not its destroyers or its builders, not its allies or its friends; and not those coming into it, or those leaving it,” he writes. “Is it because disjoined reality cannot be grasped…?”
10 Seminal Books for World Travelers
Lebanon Through Writers Eyes ed. Ted Gorton Lebanon Through Writers Eyes captures Lebanon’s age-old allure as a cultural crossroads for commerce, arts, and politics. Spanning three centuries and featuring writing by both local authors and foreign travelers, the collection exults in Lebanon’s eclectic appeal and melting pot of traditions. The result is a multi-faceted narrative that captures the diverse character of the country it pays tribute to.
Lebanon: Woman wearing burqa plays on rocks near the Riviera Beach Club. (Tim Barker / Lonely Planet Images)
- Times Literary Supplement (London):
TLS Travel 14 May 2010
T.J. Gorton and A. Féghali Gorton,
THROUGH WRITERS’ EYES, 296 pp. Paperback.
Eland Books, 2009.
For a young country, Lebanon has an impressively long history and a surprisingly rich literature. The modern state was only created in 1920, carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in a high-handed late imperialist way that has ensured generations of conflict. But while their independent state is young, the people of Lebanon can trace their story – and stories about them – back at least 6,000 years.
The earliest entry in this anthology, almost 4,000 years old, from an Egyptian named Sinuhe, tells of conflict – he is in exile from his homeland after the death of his master, the Pharaoh. The second entry, some 800 years later, tells of an Egyptian trading mission looking for cedar to build a ceremonial barque for Amun, the great god of Luxor. Trade and conflict have been the two defining themes of Lebanon ever since, from Ramses II to Napoleon, from the death of Prime Minister Hariri to the opening of the Beirut Farmers Market.
However curious the earlier writings, the anthology becomes more fascinating as it moves into the modern era. Lady Hester Stanhope, niece and hostess of Pitt the Younger, emerges as a star of the nineteenth century, both for her writing and for what was written about her. An eccentric who had completely misjudged the nature of the Bedouin when she set herself up as queen of the desert city of Palmyra, she understood enough about the warring Druze to live for many years in ever-reducing circumstances in the Lebanon mountains. Others found the country more difficult to see – the French writer Lamartine peered at Mount Lebanon through the mists; but T. E. Lawrence saw it, as so much else, with stunning clarity and his assessments were unerringly right: Beirut, he thought, would have been “bastard French” without its American college and Greek harbour, and would have been no more than the doorway to Syria had it not been for its intellectual freedom and its wealth.
The compilers of this collection, one Lebanese-born, both Beirut-educated, have cast wide for these fragments, which they have fashioned into chronological chapters, culminating in writing by the likes of Gérard de Nerval and Flaubert, Mark Twain and Pierre Loti. These are followed by brilliant sections on identities and war. The obvious chroniclers of the country’s more recent tragedy are included, among them the long-term hostage Brian Keenan and the journalist Robert Fisk. But some of the more powerful words come from less-familiar Lebanese voices, from writers such as the poet Nadia Tueni, who recognized that “We did not know how to read the omens / in those dead birds in the bottoms of their cages”, and the West Beiruti Mishka Moujabbar Mourani, whose elegiac stories heard in a fragrant garden capture some of the spirit of the post-war city.
Par Edgar DAVIDIAN | L’Orient-Le Jour
Vient de paraître « Lebanon through writers’ eyes » (« Le Liban à travers le regard des écrivains »), un livre documenté sur le témoignage et les impressions des écrivains, depuis l’Antiquité à nos jours, sur l’histoire et les paysages du Liban, signé Ted J. Gorton et Andrée Féghali Gorton.
À travers la plume de nombreux écrivains, Lebanon through writers’ eyes (édité par Eland, 295 pages) jette la lumière, d’Hérodote à Amin Maalouf, en passant par Ernest Renan, sur les remous de l’histoire et la réalité libanaise.
Un important et riche ouvrage, comme un vibrant hommage aux mélanges de civilisations et de culture, avec un apport neuf et sous un éclairage multiforme, que ce dense opus anglophone mettant à contribution les auteurs du monde entier (et du pays du Cèdre) pour cerner l’essence libanaise.
En un vaste panorama, soigneusement et patiemment répertorié, sélectionné, rangé et sérié, la compilation d’une littérature tous azimuts (aussi bien anglophone que francophone ou arabe), incluant fiction, histoire, narration, reportage, politique et poésie, par-delà les siècles, l’espace et le temps, est au service de l’analyse, de la réflexion, de la découverte et du témoignage.
Pour mieux saisir et révéler l’identité libanaise. La plume des écrivains est souvent plus pertinente, plus aiguisée et plus aiguë que l’œil d’une caméra. Voilà la fraternité, la diversité et la turbulence humaine à travers l’encre d’éminents auteurs (parfois aussi de moindre notoriété) qui ont laissé leurs traces non seulement sur les pages des livres, mais aussi dans l’esprit des lecteurs. Studieuse et intéressante pérégrination à travers des textes appartenant à plus de trois millénaires où, d’Homère à Maurice Barrès, Sir James Frazer, Colin Thubron et T.E. Lawrence, en passant par les croisés, les auteurs arabes, tels Ibn al-Qalanisi, Ibn Jubair et Ibn
Battouta, Volney, Nerval (et la kyrielle de voyageurs français du XIXe siècle, tels Flaubert, Lamartine, Pierre Loti), Mark Twain, la duchesse de Cleveland, le Liban, superbe éventail déployé brassant une foule d’images, surgit avec ses multiples facettes.
Des textes tirés des écrits les plus divers pour refléter les idées religieuses, politiques et littéraires d’un pays cerné par une région remuante et aux embrasements meurtriers et imprévisibles depuis des décades… Perçu comme terre de convoitise ou de refuge, de guerre ou de paix, de rencontre ou d’exemplaire et unique harmonie multicommunautaire, de verdure, d’ouverture ou d’isolation, le Liban est dans ces lignes un kaléidoscope de paysages escarpés, lisses ou exubérants et d’événements tortueux ou volcaniques. Lignes retraçant avec lyrisme, réalisme ou objectivité de science humaine le parcours mouvementé du pays du Cèdre à tous les croisements, revirements et détours de l’histoire.
Des préoccupations religieuses allant de la confession druze à celle des maronites, en passant par les chiites, on retrouve certaines explications et analyses avec Sami Makarem, Jaber el-Atrache, Paul Daher et Lara Deeb. Quand aux autres communautés, les auteurs dévoilent un manque de source pour des textes purement libanais.
Les guerres, les luttes fratricides et les conflits interconfessionnels sont aussi omniprésents dans ces pages. De tous les troubles du XIXe siècle à la guerre des Six-Jours pour finir avec l’indicible et inextricable guerre civile 1975-1990 et au-delà… Pour ces années de plomb, ces épisodes noirs et ces jours sombres, de la plume du colonel Charles Churchill à « l’espoir » d’Alexandre Najjar, en passant par Desmond Stewart, Thomas Friedman, Lina Mikdadi, Jacobo Timerman, Hassan Daoud, Brian Keenan, Jean Saïd Makdissi et Robert Fisk (pour ne citer que ceux-là), les tentatives d’appréhender, d’affronter et de rendre au clair, noir sur blanc, par le truchement des mots et de la pensée rationnelle, ces sanglantes tranches de l’histoire libanaise…
Pour ne rien laisser à l’ombre, pour retrouver toutes les couleurs de la mosaïque libanaise, du « zajal » populaire à l’inspiration de Michel Chiha, Khalil Gibran et Nadia Tuéni, en passant par les narrations romanesques d’Emily Nasrallah, Hoda Barakat, Mishka Moujabbar et Amin Maalouf, s’imbriquent rêves, ambitions, us et coutumes, « dolce vita » méditerranéenne, lutte pour des jours meilleurs, désirs, vie au quotidien, nostalgie du passé et modernité du présent…
À travers le regard des écrivains toutes frontières et périodes confondues, un regard chargé de curiosité, avide de compréhension et parfois débordant de rêve et de souhaits, un regard unifié ici sous la bannière d’une traduction anglaise judicieusement choisie, voilà un livre capital sur le Liban, plaque tournante du Moyen-Orient.
Un livre étayé d’une foisonnante documentation pour être au plus près d’un pays dont les ondes de beauté, d’opulence, de pauvreté, de lumière, de poussière, de violence, de douceur, de clarté, d’anarchie, de pouvoir à l’endurance, de piété, de liberté, de volonté de reconstruction, d’enchantement, de désenchantement, de grandeur, de misère, de séductions et de surprises sont infinies…
Daily Star (Beirut):
Review in Aramco World (September-October 2010)
The editors of this anthology, a husband-and-wife team with a scholarly bent, have assembled texts from some 75 authors spanning more than 3000 years. Readers who have experienced Lebanon’s natural beauty or personally tasted its stew of cultural diversity will find much to please them in this collection, despite its academic framework. Although there are excerpts penned by such familiar names as Homer, Ibn Battuta, Flaubert, Twain, Stanhope, Lawrence and Gibran among the essays, readers merely curious about a romantic, perhaps exotic Lebanon they know slightly, or imagine, may find many of the texts a tough slog. The extracts are grouped in four sections: chronologically from antiquity to medieval times; western travelers of the 14th through 20th centuries; works by religious, political and literary writers; and poetry and fiction revolving around the periods in which the land has been wracked by war, enough to depress even Lebanon’s most ardent admirers. —William Tracy
Article (by me) in the Daily Telegraph Expat section:
Lebanon through writers’ eyes
Lebanon is teeming with the vestiges of earlier civilisations and émigrés of every conceivable variety, due to its beauty and its location. Our writer has compiled an anthology exploring this.
By Ted Gorton
9:48AM GMT 02 Dec 2009
Sinuhe was not alone. In antiquity, the famous cedar forests provided cover for the really desperate, mystical or just crazy. With time, whole tribes and sects left the plains or desert and staked out a corner of the mountain, where their descendants cling to (and defend tooth and nail) whatever cultural quirk tempted them into exile all those years ago.
Later came the eccentric Europeans, like Lady Hester Stanhope. A niece of Pitt the Younger and a famous horsewoman, Hester fell for Oriental travel after being received like a queen in Syria. She settled in an old Lebanese convent and soon became a fixture on the Grand Tour, which funnelled the great and good of Europe towards the Holy Land. Her money eventually ran out and she died alone, crazed and abandoned by friends and servants alike (an object lesson for potential expats everywhere).
In modern times, deposed politicians or bourgeois exiles settled in various Beirut neighbourhoods and gave them a distinctive flavour of their homeland—Syria or Egypt, Armenia or Palestine. There is a large Anglo-Saxon community centred in West Beirut, many teaching at venerable institutions like the American University of Beirut (AUB) or the new universities and language schools, having fled less mortal dangers like failure to win tenure. There are journalists on r&r from war zones, swapping tales at the bar of the Commodore Hotel. There are bankers and stockbrokers taking advantage of one of the few economies to have weathered the recent crisis with its banks intact. There is a frantic, diamond-and-champagne diplomatic social scene that flourishes in inverse proportion to the size of the country (10,000 square kilometres).
There are two more recent expat species in Beirut, the jet-setting hedonist and the tax exile. With the 1975-90 civil war now consigned to history, and the withdrawal in 2005 of the Syrian army, the fact that Lebanon levies only a symbolic income tax on investments began to attract serious numbers of wealthy Europeans and Gulf Arabs. Accommodation is expensive but spacious, domestic help readily available and cheap; a retired banker or deal-maker in search of a tax haven can live a chauffeur-driven lifestyle for a fraction of the cost back home.
Lately CNN and other TV channels as well as the print media have been gushing about Lebanon’s new status as party Mecca, where beef flown in from Scotland is washed down with buckets of Roederer Cristal champagne. Bevies of Slavic go-go dancers provide ambiance, and gambling is tolerated (or required, at the famous Casino north of Beirut).
Sounds like a rowdy, vulgar cabaret of a country? Well, there is that aspect, and it is easy to find if that is what you really want.
My Lebanon is very different. Since I first came here – to study at AUB way back in 1967 – I have found it to be many things, none of them remotely cabaret-tinged or tax-driven. Example: a leisurely meal in a restaurant founded in the 1960s by a Lebanese-Mexican returned expat. There you sit as midday morphs gently into evening, sipping fine Lebanese wine or heady anis-flavoured arak, nibbling from a seemingly endless parade of small mezze platters: the usual hummus and mutabbal, but literally dozens of others, from tiny white aubergines (in season, like everything else) stuffed with garlic, to salads of rocket mixed with fragrant wild thyme. Capped off by a grilled seabass caught the night before by one of the old fishing-boats that bob lazily in the sun during the day down below, in the old Phoenician harbour. For this is Byblos, where the sun sets into the sea beyond a field of untidy Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Roman and Arab ruins, brooded over by an upstart Crusader castle.
Other than the cuisine, one could add: skiing among cedars and pine with a view of the Med; staying in a renovated Druze palace-hotel in the fabled Shouf mountains; visiting the best surviving Roman temple anywhere at Baalbek; bargaining for textiles or brass in the souks of Tripoli; hiking on the newly way-marked Lebanese Mountain Trail running down the backbone of the country from north to south; or a vineyard tour, tasting a surprising variety of wines (remember the Song of Songs?).
The locals are incredibly gregarious and hospitable in three or four languages, and make the most undistinguished foreigner feel special. There is a modern international airport with a vast hub of connections.
But there is a problem. If you live here, where do you go on holiday?