Ahlem Mosteghanemi Reflects on Beirut, Lebanon

With its complexity and madness, Beirut nurtures writers. Steeve Iuncker / Agence Vu-Aurora

My voice was born in Beirut. Actually, I forged the birth certificate in gratitude to the city for granting me emotional asylum in the 1990s. That was the time when 70 Algerian writers and journalists were being murdered by terrorists for the offense of writing.

There are cities that we write and others that write us. There isn’t a single Arab author not composed by Beirut; he doesn’t even have to visit it. What need is there to live in a place that lives within us? It’s there in the voice of Fairuz, the poems of Gibran, the cedars and the debka dance; in the special beauty that Beirut exports to the whole Arab world and in her voracious appetite for life.

Every Arab writer has that which comes before Beirut and that which comes after. No one leaves her without picking up a touch of her madness. Because ink is thicker than blood, there isn’t an Arab writer who hasn’t strayed away from his homeland to become involved with Beirut. She is the homeland for writers par excellence because she is a crossroads for opposites.

There is a Beirut for everyone: a truculent city of vices, a city of resistance and reconstruction, a city of piety and of delights where churches and mosques rub shoulders with nightclubs.

When I moved to Beirut 17 years ago, my first shock came when I turned on the TV: a live broadcast showed thousands of revelers dancing in the city center until dawn to the beat of various bands. Changing the channel,

I found another live broadcast: lamenting crowds dressed in black and beating their chests. The very image of Beirut—half of it celebrating a music festival while the other half commemorated the death of Imam Hussein, the most tragic memory in Shia Islam. From that day on I have been a witness to the coexistence of contradictions in Beirut.

Beirut has more than one night, while other cities have just one. She makes more than one proposition. You can celebrate; you can make love; you can get rich. You could dedicate a wall to the pictures of your idols, whether they are immortal singers, martyrs, or politicians. You could have a book printed in a day and write what you like about love and sex, but you must guard your tongue when it comes to the barons of politics. How can a writer sleep soundly when assorted militias take shifts to guard his pen?

For decades Lebanese writers have been against this perverse marriage between the word and the gun. Many of them have fallen on account of a handful of words. Beirut has dedicated statues to them and gardens that bear their names, and so remains the Arab capital of free expression.

If cities are feminine, Beirut is a tribe of women where you cannot help but find one who pleases you. Here lies the secret of its appeal and generosity to foreigners. She doesn’t take you by the hand, but takes hold of your destiny. You arrive an unknown writer, yet she doesn’t check your identity or take your fingerprints; she is satisfied with the impress of your ink.

If all creative people are orphans, none of them has entered Beirut without finding an extended family to make them welcome and join their clan. One’s family tree becomes a forest of readers, and for this very reason Beirut—long acclaimed as the capital of the book—has become the mother of every writer. As the saying has it, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.” (Although, after the tragedies of Iraq, this no longer quite holds true.)

Beirut also reads. So much so, her readers are capable of creating the mystique of a book, as if they had written it. Books, rather than a bunch of flowers, may be given as gifts when calling, or sent to friends and family abroad and exchanged at festivals.

Beirut’s generosity isn’t just that she invites you to eat, but she opens your appetite for life. In all she does, she bites the apple of life with infectious voracity. She is always hot. She experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death. So there is no escape. After her, you’ll never be able to live anywhere else.