Thoughts on defeat and catastrophe via Hamra

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I have left the hustle and bustle of Hamra to live in a quieter patch on the periphery of Beirut around three years ago. Hamra had won. Catastrophically, it had kicked me out. Like many others, I was kicked out because I refused to tolerate what that part of Beirut was transforming into. Not known for her tenderness, Beirut constantly kicks people out. It has either become too violent, too noisy or too expensive. It’s a humiliating defeat for each and every one of us.

I like to speak of myself as part of a generation that will change the current state of things. We will clean the mess of our fathers and their fathers in a manner that allows us to make new mistakes, not repeat old ones. I like to think that we will be able to tame this wild city, yet most of our stories seem to end in dramatic finales of our apartments attacking us, changing us into versions of ourselves we hate, kicking us out of a city we are constantly trying to love. It becomes only a matter of time until we leave. For a generation that needs to win, this is a very humiliating defeat.

While on a quite random research spree on the topic of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous – random research being an activity I thank the internet for so dearly – I came across a statement on his Wikipedia page. “In the late sixties, triggered by the Arab defeat of the 1967 war with Israel, political Arabic theater was born.” I am not qualified to state whether this is right or wrong, although it sounds quite late for such genre in a world where children are weaned with politics. Regardless, what I found interesting was the birth of a critical genre due to catastrophe, to defeat, and I haven’t felt as defeated as a Lebanese, let alone as an Arab, as much as I do now.

It somehow made the scene of my life and the lives of brothers and sisters of my defeated generation a bit more heartwarming. To imagine that this is a phase towards goodness complies with all what we have been brought up to believe. We go through hard lives to reach heaven, or sadly mumble tales of the phoenix coming back over and over from the ashes. Maybe defeat is actually a seed to something positive. Maybe we’re just finding our ways downward to beneath the abyss, to somewhere more morbid than rock bottom to feel it hard and come back with something exciting.

So how does one deal with defeat? As Lebanese, we tend to call it victory. It’s always ambiguous. It’s all a matter of perspective. From rubble after the next, constituting the places we call home, we insist on looking at a bright side irrespective of whether it’s true or false, and preach it somehow impotently. We have won a million battles with Israel. Israel remains. We have won different battles against dictatorships. Dictatorships remain. We won over censorship, racism, capitalism, all of which remain steadily in place. We won over each other, a million times over, and there’s nothing more full of defeat than that. How does one deal with defeat, if it’s never stated?

And what becomes of a catastrophe? If catastrophes were a womb, Lebanon would be, in fact, on the pinnacles of cultural vanguards instead of a sidelined spectator watching the world move forward. In Lebanon, with multiple history books reciting different narratives of who we are, we will never agree on facts of triumph and defeat. If we will agree to have disputed views on who won what and how, let’s all agree that catastrophe is in fact, a womb. It would make us more interesting, suit our existing delusions, and propose a vision for a future beyond our minute-to-minute planning regimens. We might also not spend most of our lives planning our farewells.

What if Hamra were a womb? In one of my cab drives towards Hamra, I realized that I am still in fact in love with her. Wherever I choose to temporarily reside, I always end up in Hamra. The cliché love and hate relationship haunts me as I remind myself that I now hate her. Her devastating streets that now smell like sewers, her sidewalks eaten up by fences contouring noisy construction sites cooking hideous towers, her shoe shining children violently begging for attention, her old men reciting poetry in cafés to eager refugees that live on lyrics and dreams, her shady trees and shadier hotels haunt me. My belief that I also haunt them makes me want to move back. Those who have stayed, trying to make it work, are heroes. The city’s fragility and the fragility it brings out in its people are perfectly romantic. To share this state of defeat could allow us to share renaissance. Let’s believe that catastrophe is a womb. What will we choose to give birth to?

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut


According to my research, political Arabic theatre in Lebanon was actually born out of Lebanese-Armenian political theatre in the late 1950s (this theatre was done in Arabic, Armenian, French, and interestingly even Turkish). The causality of defeat is interesting, but one could argue instead that Arabic political theatre was born out of defiance and resistance, and even though "Al-Fil ya Malik az-Zaman" was written in the wake of 67, but Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers were creating political theatre in Arabic from the 1960s, and they were also collaborating with the Armenians of the so-called "Age d'Or" of Lebanese Armenian theatre in the 1950s.

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