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Witness in Lebanon : BEIRUT FRAGMENTS; A War Memoir By Jean Said Makdisi (Persea Books: $19.95; 265 pp.)

September 09, 1990|David Rieff | Rieff is a free-lance writer.

Jean Said Makdisi is all too well aware that the world has given up on Beirut, the city to which she came in 1972 with her husband, a professor at the American University, and their children, and in which she stubbornly remains.

For most outsiders, even that dwindling number who can still muster the moral energy to mourn for Beirut, the city's martyrdom has come to seem less a tragedy than a Hobbesian tale of undifferentiated brutality masquerading as politics and war. And how is the onlooker, no matter how scrupulous and well-intentioned, to make sense of a situation in which, as often as not, the people who were massacring each other last year have become allies today, and, doubtless, will become enemies again tomorrow?

In such circumstances, the ideological and religious explanations that usually are advanced come to seem like obfuscations, the refuge of scoundrels, or, at least, of foreign correspondents on tight deadlines.

Like all disasters that, in our impatient age, go on and on without amelioration, or even the prospect of amelioration--and Beirut is a paradigmatic situation of this type--Lebanon is commonly thought to belong to that special category of events that simply defy rational understanding, limiting cases in our "can-do" world. In all likelihood, any ongoing tragedy in a foreign place toward which few of us, even in a country as heterogeneous as America, have any sentimental attachments can be understood only through the evocation of ordinary experience. For although peoples may refuse to concede the humanity of other people (in any case, there can be few groups more estranged from each other at present than Americans and Arabs), individuals have a much easier time imaginatively, at least when called upon to apprehend the particulars of a situation rather than its politics.

The greatest accomplishment of this profound, heartbreaking book is that, through Makdisi's eyes, it is possible to rid one's mind of all the cant and rubbish that has been spoken about Beirut, and to see what has happened to that city not as a nightmare, with all the connotations of otherness and unreality which that world implies, but as a terrible human possibility. Makdisi begins her book with a bleak act of self-interrogation. "How can I write about Beirut?" she asks. Her reply should put to rest, once and for all, those comfortable, distancing stereotypes about Middle Eastern politics, the Arab character, and religious obsession that for too long have passed for profundity about the Lebanese catastrophe. "Beirut," Makdisi writes, "was a city like any other and its people were a people like any other. What happened there could, I think, happen anywhere."

To be sure, Makdisi, like so many people who lived in Beirut before the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, tends to idealize the city. It was, she claims, a place that combined "the famous generosity of Arab hospitality with cosmopolitan sophistication," a place where intermarriage between members of religious sects was not uncommon, where culture flourished and harmony prevailed. In Makdisi's view, even the confessional system under which political power was apportioned along sectarian lines was beginning to atrophy.

To Makdisi's credit, she is aware of her own romanticizing tendencies. She tells a story of standing on her balcony on New Year's Eve, 1974, and watching young men from the slums snake through her middle-class street. "They wore paper hats and threw streamers," she writes, "often interspersed with cans and bottles picked up from the rubbish, thus burlesquing the more elegant parties that were taking place behind closed doors in homes and nightclubs throughout the city."

She notes that "I felt a deep alarm that night, sensing that their celebration, although apparently good-humored, was not entirely so; that the line between a laughing crowd and an angry mob was a fine one, and that it took the merest spark to transform one into the other." The fighting, of course, broke out only four months later and Beirut began to die.

Makdisi's rare combination of love for Beirut and keen awareness of its contradictions have much to do with her particular background. She was born in Jerusalem, into a prosperous Palestinian Christian family that fled in 1948. The Saids (Makdisi's brother is writer Edward Said) settled in Cairo, where the children were educated in English schools and confirmed in the All Saints cathedral, in Makdisi's case by the Anglican Archbishop of the Middle East. Thus, Makdisi belongs to the last generation in the Arab world to have had a colonial education, one in which, as she puts it, "living in Egypt, being part of it, was a secondary reality; real life was defined as centered on the British Isles."

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