Yahia Lababidi

Yahia Lababidi | Photo Diana Restrepo

Yahia Lababidi is an Arab-American writer. He is the author of three collections: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry).

Lababidi is currently seeking an intrepid publisher for his genre-bending series of literary conversations with Alex Stein, tentatively titled “The Artist as Mystic”.

For more information, please, visit: www.pw.org/content/yahia_lababidi

The text below from Yahia Lababidi’s new collection of essays, “Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing”


Beirut, and the Mediterranean spirit of Beauty


My first proper trip to Beirut, just before the last war, was charmed from the start, when the plane touched down by a stretch of glittering Mediterranean sea. (My previous visit, a decade earlier, didn’t count as I was wanted for the army, and spent my time ducking at checkpoints.) After this amazingly graceful landing, the next few days in the city left me musing on how sea creatures are different—those who live by the sea, not in it—say, the way Alexandrians differ from Cairenes.

I began to think that living by the sea—with its rhythms and vastness—spawned more unruly, free spirits. That it fostered an amorality, a sensuality even, beyond good and evil. In fact, the more I observed these remarkable creatures the more I found myself thinking of another sea-loving, sun-worshipping people: the ancient Greeks. Here’s philosopher Nietzsche in rhapsody:

  Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance… Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!  

As far as I am concerned, he may as well have been describing the Lebanese. Ravaged by a long civil war, it is not as though Lebanon has not had it’s fair share of death or suffering, or that they’ve not had occasion to think about it. They have, and it is their life response that distinguishes them. In accordance with the words of another existentialist, Beckett, they seem to have found the prospect of death vivifying. Through it all, they asserted their indomitable will by living, festively.

On weekends, and weekdays, these incorrigible hedonists dance till the small hours of the morning, on the tabletops. In one notable club, they dance on tables made from the coffins of martyr—a symbolic gesture, if ever there was one. While I was there a days-long classical music festival took place. The event was dedicated a Dionysus, after that ancient Greek god of drink, song and dance whose spirit (it can be argued) animates the national temperament.

Following the assassination of beloved Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, it looked like the controversially renovated downtown area, Solidaire, was not going to outlive its murdered founder. Until his sister spoke out. “My brother did not live and die,” she reportedly said, “so that his dream could be buried with him.” This rousing speech was shortly followed by a several-days shopping/dining festival, simply titled Celebrate Life—something that comes instinctively to these natural-born bon vivants.

Next to downtown, Martyr’s square was transformed into a makeshift campsite in honor of Hariri’s passing. Unprecedented numbers, surpassing 1.5 million, made their way to the square to demonstrate against his assassination. It seemed that, in dying, Hariri had achieved what he could not in life—namely, unite bickering Lebanese factions (Marionites, Druze, Sunnis, etc.) under one flag, for Lebanon, for The Truth. “We shall not rest till we know the Truth” they declared in unison at this peaceful demonstration. The previous evening, thousands had gathered for a night-long vigil and, with burning candles, spelling out “The Truth” in Arabic and English.

Old women and toddlers participated in these impressive civil marches, some making the pilgrimage to Martyr square from miles away to register their passive resistance. As police cordoned off the Square, children marched up to them fearlessly, armed with roses. It was a page torn out of Romantic literature. An army of cherubs, emboldened by Beauty, waving their roses like magic wands, at a barricade of soldiers.

Meanwhile, the adjacent Mohamed Amin mosque had metamorphosed into a living shrine to the felled national hero. An iconic, larger-than-life photograph of Hariri was mounted atop a monument of flowers in the shape of an automobile—a nod to the car bomb that claimed his life. Passing between bodyguards, and under an electronic board advertising the number of days since his death, a steady stream of mourners walked in off the street, and pulled up in swanky cars to pay their respects. An atypical installation in a mosque, to say the least: the birth of the secular saint.

Across from this extravaganza was another monument of sorts, a five-story Virgin Megastore. Aside from offering a dizzying selection of music and film, the monster music store showcases an impressively liberated book section stocked with contemporary erotic literature, in addition to the classics. Outside, on the sidewalk, a curious skateboard community congregates. Lebanese teens with long, kinky hair, luxuriant afros, and pierced lips, issue skater-speak in immaculate American accents that abruptly veer into unexpected Lebanese slang: “Yeah, dude, just keep popping…yalla, ya zallama.” Behind this wondrous-strange triptych, bristling with contradictions—mosque-shrine, music store-temple, and inscrutable skateboarders—stood the amoral sea, reconciling all differences.

There is an uncanny familiarity to Beirut, for me, not unlike the adopted child tracing the face of their biological parent. Like Cairo, Beirut is another city of extreme contrasts and contradictions, at the crossroads of ancient tradition and contemporary culture, only more sophisticated in the European sense, and far sexier. Not without reason does Beirut pride itself on straddling East and West; and by Arab standards at least, some of the get-ups women wear on the street during the daytime can look like a cross between skimpy nighties and dressy underwear.

Of course, food is also a sensual delight and national pastime for these Epicureans. They savor eating, and 50 dishes of mezza (appetizers) washed down with a jug of arak (the national drink) is what it takes to get these fussy gourmands purring, cat-content. Unsurprisingly, artful presentation is everything around here since the eyes eat first. Visiting a breathtaking mountaintop restaurant, in Broummana, I was exposed to several rarefied taste sensations. At the end of a sumptuous, and ample meal, the table is blanketed with heaping bowls of fruit. But, you’re only meant to sample—a dark cherry here, a pale one there—before it is all taken away. The idea is to create the illusion of paradisiacal plentitude. It’s all about illusion. But what life-sustaining illusions!

Beirut is a city of staggering physical beauty, the great outdoors a vast cathedral where all worship, and honor the surrounding beauty in their own persons. Here, all abide by the laws of Beauty, bodies and landscapes, alike. There are mountain-high billboards amidst the hills advertising electric shavers: your face is your work of art, one reads, style it. And they do. It’s a matter of good form to look one’s best. Beauty is not a luxury but a necessity. And luxuries are the only necessity, when you’re exquisite.

All this scented beauty can, at times, seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. There is a story illustrating the civilizing influence of nature on the beauty-starved. A foul-mouthed man is brought before the legendary Caliph Harun al Rashid, swearing and cursing. But, rather than banish him to some underground prison, the enlightened ruler sends him off to the mountainside. The man returns a poet, with an ecstatically worded poem in praise of Beirut’s natural beauty.

After a day trip to the resplendently green Bshirri, or GibranLand (where the poet-philosopher’s home and museum are located) one is better situated to appreciate this insight. There at the Gibran museum, an old monastery where he spoke of retiring, in a Spartan cave-like room, is his tomb. The words on the epitaph read: “I am alive like you … Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you.” Or, I think as I step outside, one has only to open their eyes and look around; the mountains are alive with poetry.

The downside, of course, of this worship of beauty and profound aestheticism is that one can get caught up in the surface of things. But, no body is perfect (as your plastic surgeon might tell you). Watching LBC, Lebanese television, one afternoon, I catch a lip-pumping session on a talk show featuring three squirming girls in their early twenties—host, “patient,” and her best friend. The Doctor —with syringe, white overcoat and rubber gloves—is giving one disconcertingly young beauty acolyte that sought-after bee-stung look (a not uncommon procedure, and why Beirut is the L.A. of the Arab world: Mediterranean Silicone Valley).

“One must suffer to be beautiful”—on doit suffrire pour etre belleˆ—squeals one girl as she squeezes her best friend’s hand. And, before the procedure is even over, she asks the expert, impatiently: “So, how long is it before the next injection?”

Strolling the streets of Beirut, one senses a low frequency erotic charge in the air, diffused desire. All communication is a kind of casual flirtation. Male-female, female-male, male-male, female-female, all breezy seduction. Everyone loves you, touches you, kisses you three times (Beiruti style) and gives you the eyes. Nothing personal, really. But, oof, what self-regard these people have—what astonishing auto-erotica. At times one gets the feeling they’re not really smiling at you, but at their own reflection in your eyes. A trip to the beach confirms this impression of drowning in a nation of narcissists. With their backs positioned disinterestedly to the distant sea, a pile of perfect bodies preen around a pool that they hardly deem fit to dip in.

It’s all about appearances, habibi.

Text in this post: © Yahia Lababidi
Photo © Diana Restrepo
Published with the permission of Yahia Lababidi