Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Alternative Asset: A review of Nasri Atallah's 'Our Man in Beirut'

“I don’t want to turn into one of those pathetic creatures who are always homesick, always saying I wish I were still in Beirut. I don’t want to become like you, split between here and there. I know I’m not happy here, but why should I be unhappy in two countries?” – Asmahan in Hanan al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues

At one point in Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, after having blamed the European debt crisis on atheism and dared to defend the Christian mission in Africa (will we ever get an apology for Catholic crimes in Rwanda?), he more or less gave the entire game away by saying that the best argument for faith was that it enabled one to succumb to the happy idea that the Universe was created with us in mind after all:

Where does joy come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved.

Every ribbon of DNA within me revolts against this infantile talk of a ‘divine plan’. And yet, on some days, it can almost sound plausible. Thus in the same month that I quit my job as a financial analyst to move to Beirut to pursue a writing career, I find in my Christmas stocking a new book written by a man who has quit his job as a financial analyst to move to Beirut to pursue a writing career. Like me, it transpires, this man is British, and yet like me, also, he is a ‘Third Culture Kid’. Both of us have spent years living in London. When I tell you, dear reader, that we even shared the same supermarket in Holborn, where he once worked and I once lived in student halls, you will see, I think, why I had to write this review. 

Martin Amis once said of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village that it “looks like a book and feels like a book but in important respects it isn’t a book”. Our Man in Beirut isn’t really a book either, being instead a collection of his blog posts, or “rants”, shuffled out of chronological order for reasons that don’t become apparent. Some of them are humorous, and some of them aren’t supposed to be humorous, but all of them are markedly, peculiarly readable.

I use the word cautiously; strictly in the sense that the book is easier to pick up than to put back down. This isn’t to say that the prose itself is a thing of particular beauty. We are told that Flaubert is a favourite writer of Atallah’s, but there is little evidence of any labour expended in search of les mots justes. The words “pretty much” find their way into far too many sentences where they don’t belong, as does the phrase “maybe, just maybe”. It’s claimed that our author has a “deep-seated hatred of the cliché”, and yet he can be found “running like a headless chicken”; “cast[ing] all caution to the wind”; “pulling the rug from under” things; “tak[ing] in the sights and sounds”; “enjoy[ing] a good party as much as the next guy” and solemnly telling us that his father has “travelled to the four corners of the earth”. Elsewhere, some things are “full to the brim” while others are “slim pickings”; people are “unsung heroes” and Lebanon is a “concrete jungle”. Every writer must be forgiven the occasional stale or lazy expression, but in a book that numbers fewer than 150 pages, one can only be so clement. Put simply, I’m not convinced that the man loves language. This is a terrible thing to make a reader suspect. 

It is left to his humour, then, to give life to the pages. That he has a gift here is undeniable, especially when it comes to dialogue. Try the following dilation on Lebanese driving:

People drive the wrong way down one-way streets, and they do this at full speed as if to cancel the illegality of their move by amplifying it. Boy racers zigzag in and out of traffic on battered scooters, ponytails flapping in the wind. Traffic cops urge you to ignore red lights: “Yalla! Arrib! Mfakarhallak bi Fransa?1

Or how about the ghoulish aunts gossiping in Gemmayze cafes about the errant niece who postpones marriage for a career:

“Yvette, you know I don’t like to talk, yaane I’m very discreet, bta3rfineh. Bass cette Maya, she’ll never find a husband like zis. She wants to be a banker 2al. Haram her parents, 3an jad. Bass ca reste between us!2

He mentions at one point that he is writing a novel: I hope very much that it will be a comic one. But I would urge him to be on guard against what one might call the Jon Stewart Syndrome – from which he is a slight sufferer – whereby a joke that could be funny if pitched intelligently is compromised by cheap recourse to the elbow in the ribs. Take this example:

When I was studying for a master’s in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I always used to give my papers unnecessarily complicated names, casually sprinkled with words I didn’t understand, colons and subtitles. Things like “Pseudo Dualistic Dichotomies in Post-War Glasgow: How Factory Workers Overcame the Unicornification of Labour and Triumphed Over Plethorism.”

Contrast this with Jim Dixon’s coming to terms with a similar piece of intellectual bankruptcy in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim:

It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.

Amis’ title is funny because one really can imagine such chloroform actually existing somewhere. The person who laughs at “Unicornification” will, I’m afraid, laugh at anything.

Yet one of Atallah’s appeals is that when he is funny, he often makes a very unfunny point at the same time. Here is his summary of the Lebanese attitude to politics:

Choose one of a plethora of local petty leaders. Adore them. Place their pictures on your car, balcony and other visible areas that may come under your ownership. Follow these leaders blindly, regardless of how racist, irrational and frightening they may be.

Most of the Lebanese that I know could laugh at this. Yet it was precisely this factionalism that, barely a generation ago, dragged the country into a fifteen-year bloodbath that left well over 100,000 Lebanese dead. Indeed, in more than a few cases, today’s “petty leaders” are the very same warlords responsible. That this doesn’t appear to detract from their popular support is a paradox deftly caught by Atallah: “We’ve come to expect very little from our leaders, all the while bestowing them with demi-god status”. 

As for God himself, I was disappointed to find he gets conspicuously friendly treatment in Our Man. The satire of religion has of course been a staple of comic literature since at least the poetry of Omar Khayyam. For Atallah – a self-avowed atheist – to discard this exorbitantly bountiful stock of material is a great, and grave, sacrifice. (He does, I should say, get one jab in: “I had a Haitian cab driver in Miami once who recited a good portion of the New Testament as he was speeding down a busy highway, which I took to mean he was intent on sending us headfirst into the harbour”. Interesting that nobody has to have this joke explained to them.)

Atallah states no purpose or objective in his introduction, so an ultimate appraisal of the book’s ‘success’ isn’t possible. However, he does tell us at one point that “there are ambitions I have in Beirut. I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference.” His triumphs, from shaming Lebanese racism to extolling the pleasures of walking in Beirut to his passion for Lebanese theatre and architecture to his attacks on the “grotesque” plastic surgery culture mean that, whatever the book’s shortcomings, Our Man is a tangible first step toward that difference. 

1 "Come on! Go! You think you're living in France?"
2 "Yvette, you know I don't like to talk, I mean I'm very discreet, you know me. But this Maya, she'll never find a husband like this. She wants to be a banker, so she says. Her poor parents, really. But this stays between us!"

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