Reinventing Beirut


Reinventing Beirut

“The open sore that is the Middle East.”

Activist, artist and writer Zena el Khalil has lived a colourful life of travel, trials and tribulations. She has resided in Lagos, London, New York and Beirut, where she currently lives and works. Her cultural activism sees el Khalil take a prominent role in Lebanese society, including her annual performance in “The Pink Bride of Peace”, donning a viciously pink wedding dress for the Beirut International Marathon. This is a tradition el Khalil began in 2003, partly as a commemoration of the death of her best friend from cancer, and which she continues to this day.

In 2006, el Khalil began writing her blog Beirut Update, documenting the scenes of the Israeli invasion from her Beirut apartment. This blog received international acclaim and was publicised on various news portals including CNN, BBC, the Guardian, Counterpunch, The Nation and Spiegel Online. In 2008, El Khalil received an invitation from the Nobel Peace Centre to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of the freedom of expression online.

Beirut, I Love You is a story about identity, a story about war, about strength, and most of all about belief – about keeping hold of belief and about losing it. Amidst the backdrop of war, the people of Beirut must find something to hold on to, something tangible, something real. El Khalil holds on to Beirut and her memories of this beautiful city and its potential to be something great. El Khalil personifies Beirut; it is its own character with feelings, emotions and anxieties.

“How long were we, Beirut and I, going to continue to be raped like this?”

Like its people, Beirut must find a way to reinvent itself, to embolden its identity and circumvent the atrocities of war. The narrative of the book flits between past and present; el Khalil’s discourse is current in her Beiruti nightmare, caught up in passionate embraces, sexual encounters and hellish experiences with the enemy. We are taken through each of el Khalil’s past lives, yet somehow she is always an outsider looking in: “This particular Arab woman, who often talks about herself in third person.”

Beirut’s society of newfound freedom has experienced hell on earth: bloodshed, rape, death and defilement. Love is what keeps people strong – love, sex and gratification. It is this sense of freedom and escapism that people crave, to break free from the evils of reality: “Instant gratification. Death was just a door knock away.” Women loving men, women loving women, sex, catharsis, climax, the blurring of boundaries and bodies, “bodies eating bodies.” It is no longer about tradition; people don’t have time to worry about living up to the expectations of others, they simply want to get through the day and make it to the next, to live every day like it might be their last – drinking, dancing, loving, escaping reality to somewhere they feel safe.

“Through sex, we beat death. Through sex, we can exist.”

Beirut, I Love You is a book about expression, about reinventing oneself and breaking free from stereotypes and oppression

El Khalil talks us through the Arab stereotypes: the “fat men in red felt fez hats,” the “plump women adorned in turquoise,” the “make up with eyes lined and dripping in kohl.” She makes very clear her standpoint on such traditions, defying all stereotypes from the outset: “This Arab woman hates cooking.”If that were not clear enough, she goes on to describe God as female. She carves herself out as an independent woman, free of the stereotypes of the world. She does not require the assistance or support of a man, and actively advises other women to hold their own and take control of their lives: “God will forgive me, but she certainly won’t forgive you if you don’t finish your education.” El Khalil’s sardonic tone is a breath of fresh air, a female Arab who takes total control; her narration is conversational and brutally honest – entirely gripping. Her tone is acerbic as she plays on the typical Lebanese ideologies in her blunt, witty discourse:

“War can be good because anxiety is great for losing weight…War is great for the fashion industry”

The Lebanese preoccupation with aesthetics and beauty is a continuous theme el Khalil makes sure to play on at every opportunity: “That I might as well, at least, look good when I die.” There is a scene in the book in which she endures a session of waxing; the point at which she screams out in pain meeting the exact moment a bomb goes off in her mother’s building. The poignant trivialisation of pain, the playing of one emotion against another, the intimacy of sex pitted against the closeness of family come together to express the feelings of loss, of anguish, and the numbness experienced after a climax of emotion. This blurring of boundaries and merging of emotions is what Beirut, I Love You is all about. The people of Beirut embody Beirut; they are Beirut. They are its feelings, its emotions, it damnation and its salvation. The drugs they take are its remedies, its temporary fix to dull the continual ache of reality. The wine they drink numbs the daily anxieties of ducking and diving and hiding and fearing. Sex is used as a weapon against the world:

“What we didn’t do with guns, we were doing with sex. In public we voiced our opposition, but in the darkness we released our disappointment on each other.”

These are semantics of confusion, of anger, of deep sadness and torment, semantics of frustration, fear, passion, hopefulness and hopelessness. Barriers have come crashing down, lines have been blurred and identities are confused. People are looking for a way to feel human, to experience emotion for themselves and take control of their feelings, rather than being dictated by external forces. People are taking control of their bodies, their sexuality, their appearance and their minds: “Girls were breaking off their cultural noses and replacing them with Barbie ones.” Beirut, I Love You is a book about expression, about reinventing oneself and breaking free from stereotypes and oppression. But no matter what the external appearance, these are continuous wars, cyclical in nature; in spite of the Barbie noses, these women are still Middle Eastern on the inside:

“The Middle East has not changed much in the last 200 years. We are still fighting the same wars, but we’ve given them new names.”

El Khalil paints a picture of a society uncertain of who it is, of where it stands and of where it is going. All we know for now is that: “Beirut, I love you.”


Beirut, I Love You was published by Saqi Books in March 2009, the North American edition was published by NYRB Lit in Octover 2012

A version of this article was originally published on The Culture Trip

Sarah Zakzouk falls betwixt the Arab and Western world. She works in academic publishing and is an avid reader, blogger and campaign volunteer to promote literacy and the sharing of books in public spaces. She blogs about publishing and the book world, as well as organising literary events with BOOKED.