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The Enchanting and Ossified Past: Visiting Lebanon with Roseanne Saad Khalaf
By Malek Abisaab
LEBANON: FOUR JOURNEYS TO THE PAST, by Roseanne Saad Khalaf, 225 pp. Dar An-Nahar, Beirut: 1998.
Roseanne Khalaf visits the Lebanese past with a personal rather than historical bent, weaving travelogues, autobiography and history into four short stories. From the bleak present and the gloomy depths of the Civil War (1975-90), the author reminisces about the "beauty, magic, mystery," and the "enchantment" of the Lebanon that was.
With unmistakable artistry, powerful imagery, and rich language, Khalaf succeeds in taking us to an uncorrupted world of nature and popular culture filled with pristine strength and a centered sense of being. Many times I succumbed to the narrative, allowing myself a journey over the hilly Lebanese slopes and fertile fields on a brisk morning. I smelled the pine and olive branches, enjoyed the scent of lemon trees, and ate the dew-sprinkled grapes and peaches. I walked on the narrow village paths, slipped down while chasing a butterfly, then slept under a huge oak tree. Another time, a woman silk worker came my way while a young peasant plowed the soil and then cut the wood in preparation for the approaching winter. Khalaf certainly evokes a bucolic Lebanon, long gone.
In "Enchanted Childhood," Lebanon is captured through the childhood memories of the author through the simple social and economic rhythm of peasant life, the network of kinship, village relations and familial feuds. Political life revolves around an all-too-familiar dichotomy: the intruding, oppressive, Ottoman Turks and the local subdued Lebanese. Jeddo [grandpa], for whom Khalaf carries profound feelings of love and admiration, becomes a protagonist in the tale of Lebanese resistance to the Ottomans on the eve of World War I. When Jeddo refuses to engage in an illegal sale of food as he was advised by Abou Mousa, a local Ottoman official who monitored the distribution of food rations, the latter threatens him with accusations of British espionage. Teta [grandma], one of the few female Lebanese characters in this collection, was 13 years old when she eloped with the 38-year-old Jeddo, antagonizing her father yet successfully establishing a good life for herself.
In the next two stories, "A Most Peculiar Woman" and "Dancing in the Shadows," Khalaf embellishes historical-literary accounts of two Western women living in Lebanon whose experiences offer a gendered and politicized commentary on the Orient-Occident relationship at the time. What unfolds is not truly a Lebanese story as Khalaf may have us assume, nor a commentary on Lebanese society, but rather a study of how two Western women recast their images in their own American and British societies using the Oriental "other"Cwhich happened, in both cases, to be Lebanon. The women were selected for their "keen minds" and "determination" against the stifling conventions of their time and the way they rejected "the Western mold" and escaped the strictures imposed on them by their Western societies.
In "A Most Peculiar Woman," Hester Stanhope, a British aristocrat and a descendant from an influential family, moves to Mount Lebanon during the early 19th century. From her magnificent mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, Sitt Hester, as the indigenous people called her, wins the respect and awe of the villagers and also that of Emir Bashir II, (1788-1840), the Ottoman Lebanese governor. From 1831 to 1840, Sitt Hester's mansion becomes a refuge for those who flee military conscription by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad >Ali of Egypt. In her Eastern home she is exoticized as the "queen of the desert" when she decides to take a long journey to Palmyra, Syria, to pay homage to the historic kingdom of Queen Zenobia. Khalaf devotes much attention to the description of the trip, painting an atmosphere of enormous excitement, anticipation and fear of crossing the desert and facing assaults by "Bedouins." The reader's anticipation of a dramatic ending to the trip is disappointed, however, for the story finishes quickly.
"Dancing in the Shadows" unearths from this "Lebanese" past Sarah Smith, the wife of the Rev. Eli Smith, a Protestant missionary who settled in Lebanon in 1833. While the Reverend is submerged in the translation of a Protestant version of the Bible into Arabic, Sarah is busy establishing a girls' school which incorporates students from various religious and social backgrounds. Sarah becomes directly involved in the investigation of the disappearance of As'ad Shadiak, a convert to Protestantism who defied the Maronite church. With the support of the Ottoman governor and accompanied by Mr. Tod, a British official, Sarah embarks on an expedition to Deir Canobeen (Dayr Qannubin) where Shadiak was detained. The daunting atmosphere of the trip and the description of the Qanubin monastery itself invokes the haunting image of "The Isle of the Dead" (1886), by the painter Arnold Bocklin. Khalaf writes,
Built upon isolated pinnacles, it remains cut off from all communication with the outer world. To get there takes hours of travel directly up a perilous mountain. Both sides are razor steep, and everywhere streams spill down from the rocks in cascades, all uniting at the bottom of the valley to form a rapid and hazardous torrent.
The Maronite Patriarch, however, refuses to cooperate with them or to give them any information on Shadiak's whereabouts, claiming he had died. Freedom of opinion and choice, and the power to make changes, are all presented by the author as remote, distant, and alien phenomena in this world.
The final story in the collection, "Between Dreams and Nightmares," reveals Khalaf's troubled spirit and sadness at the future of a Lebanon that, in her mind, remains ossified and static: "Now the past stands aloof, glaring down on me. In many ways nothing in my country has changed, only now the actors are different. Perhaps somewhere there is an answer."
But in reality, much had changed. Today Lebanon has a new social and political landscape, and nowhere does it repeat itself, let alone resemble what one finds in these four stories. The old, good, and beautiful days of Lebanon have never meant the same to all the Lebanese, and as such, the founding myths about Lebanon can no longer be resurrected even for the sake of healing the wounds of the present.
Indeed Khalaf's meta-narrative seems to be a nationalist commentary on the present. The Ottoman, the outsider, is held directly accountable for the decadence and misery of the Lebanese. Few of the characters through which Khalaf chooses to narrate Lebanon's past represent Lebanon. Sitt Hester, for instance, is able to reinvent herself in a gendered discourse on the Orient through the eyes of British, not Lebanese, society.
In brief, those of us who have been repelled by the post-war reconstruction mania of the Hariri government and the forests of cement that have mushroomed throughout Lebanon will find in Khalaf's work a welcome haven and an enjoyable imagining of the past.