Beirut, a city with a thousand faces
Samira Aghacy explains how her book depicts the Lebanese capital as “multiple construct–urban and rural, sectarian and secular, liberal and conservative, Lebanese and Arab, and Eastern and Western.”
Samira Aghacy, LAU professor of English and comparative literature, recently visited LAU NY to launch her book, Writing Beirut: Mappings of the City in the Modern Arabic Novel. Exploring the ways in which writers utilize the spaces of the city, the book–which took her three years to complete and includes citations from a wide range of sources–shows how idiosyncratic perceptions of Beirut are produced, thereby generating an infinite number of Beiruts. Aghacy’s extensive research draws on works from the 1950s until the present day by Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, French, and of course, Lebanese authors. We caught up with her in New York.
Why did you choose to write about Beirut?
Unlike New York and London, Beirut is a very small city, but it is as much at the forefront of modernity, cultural activity and revolutionary politics as it is of wars, insurrections and resistance. There is a large volume of writings about Beirut, including novels, autobiographies, poems, academic studies and films, but they largely focus on the city as a passive and static background to the action. My book addresses the gaps in these studies. I argue that the city is not a backdrop for the action, but rather an active constituent of the action.
You’ve lived in Beirut your whole life. Was writing this book cathartic for you?
I really enjoyed writing the book. Apart from living all my life in this city, I witnessed the 15-year civil war, and even though I went through it, there were so many things I did not think or talk about. Writing the book gave me a chance to reflect on all those experiences, the good and the bad.
How did the process of writing the book make you feel?
At times, I felt euphoric. I would discover a memory or an association and I would get so excited that I would jump and start dancing. Other times, all I felt was sadness.
What’s the difference between conceptual space versus lived space?
French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre speaks about this and he writes that “conceptual space” is from above; where we see the city as coherent, rational and detached, whereas “lived space” is hot, passionate, unpredictable, varied and teeming with intimacy. According to Lefebvre, “space is never innocent. It is socially produced.”
You dedicate one chapter to the rural/urban divide. Why is this important when writing about Beirut?
The theme is common to many books. For example, in Death in Beirut, author Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad presents the village as static and depraved. But the city, a supposed refuge for villagers escaping their towns, turns out to be a place rife with danger, corruption, violence and intolerance, therefore having a very strong affinity with rural ferocity and vengefulness. In the city, the traditional consciousness is unavoidable.
What do you think of the present state of the city?
The war produced many writers, but the life we lead now is not conducive to interaction. Because the country is so divided along sectarian lines, interaction between people is not what it used to be. Everything has soured.
Is your book timeless, or are some of the themes you discuss no longer relevant today?
There is no such thing as timeless. The aim of the book is to emphasize the quotidian experience which is personal and temporary and not general and universal. Beirut is always changing. It defies any attempt to view it as static or timeless. My focus was on Beirut in a particular time and place. It progresses and moves forward, then destroys itself to start all over again.