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Nonfiction in Brief

BEIRUT : City of Regrets by Eli Reed and Fouad Ajami (Norton: $34.95)

June 19, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

In America, photographs of misfortune in developing countries have been used so often as symbols for a cause--end the war in Vietnam, stop hunger in Africa--that they have come to play a diminished role as artistic communication. The photographs collected here, however, attest to the continuing power of the medium; American photographer Eli Reed has found something new and unique to say about a city often dismissed as a war zone.

When Lebanon achieved statehood in 1943, it was hoped that the Lebanese would fashion a hybrid culture, like that of their Phoenician ancestors. Lebanon would be a place "where beliefs, languages and liturgies bow low to each other," said Michel Chiha, an influential Lebanese intellectual, "a Mediterranean country first and foremost, but like the Mediterranean itself, sensitive to every man's poetry." The reality, of course, turned out to be more grim, forcing the Lebanese to come to terms with a more personal kind of conflict instead: embracing life amid destruction. It is this struggle that Reed's photographs eloquently recount. Reed's style is alternately simple (an attractive young woman walks in mod dress next to an older, gentle woman holding flowers, while a bullet-ridden wall and trash clutter the background), suggestively mysterious (A stormy purple sky hovers powerfully and sacredly above a mountain roadside, while an orange-white sun rises, like an explosion, on the opposite horizon) and subtle: A young man clenches an artillery launcher--Is he holding the weapon up or is it supporting him, offering strength and a sense of mission?

In a short introduction, Fouad Ajami, an Arab-American writer who grew up in Beirut, re-creates the city's spirit, from proudly "wild and anarchic ways" in the 1940s and '50s to the Syrian and Israeli invasions in the late 1970s and early '80s, which magnified differences between Arabs, Christians and Jews. "Ideology," Ajami writes, "became banditry." Ajami recounts history with such a gentle spirit and understanding mind that his text does little to help us understand why the country rages with such hatred. But Ajami's text skillfully sets the stage for Reed's photos, recounting diverse Lebanese fears, hopes and desires that seldom receive coverage in news reports about the latest bombing.

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