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Raphael Thelen

Pointless writing

A talk on freedom of expression at Hay Festival Beirut

Abbas Beydoun

The poet and writer Abbas Beydoun is arguably one of the most influential voices in the Middle East. He spoke in Beirut last week alongside Egyptian journalist and writer Wael Abd el Fattah, and Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo Rabab El Mahdi. The event, which was co-organized by PEN Beirut and the Hay Literary Festival, delved into questions of a writer’s duty to recount certain stories, particularly in the context of imposed limits on the freedom of expression.

 

Beydoun’s words on Lebanon - both its internal goings-on and its place within the Middle East - are heard in all camps and by all parties. Born in 1945, he has accompanied his country’s tides through many ebbs and flows. A man of words, he has lost the belief that he, or other writers like him, can make a difference in Lebanon in the present day.

 

“I used to write political poems,” he tells NOW, sitting in his office in the headquarters of As-Safir newspaper in Beirut, where he is the Culture Editor. He continues: “but now I praise defeat.”

 

During his time at Beirut’s Lebanese University in the 1960s, the country’s revolutionary, conservative and religious groups were zealously fighting over Lebanon’s soul; Beydoun found himself in the eye of this storm. Beydoun joined Communist groups, writing pamphlets and organizing dissent. “Before the Civil War we had a big mission. We thought that we were making history, defending and changing it,” he says with the air of a man who has had his dreams smashed. “We thought that Lebanon is a concept, a utopia, an essence with no boundaries or reality, something floating in the universe of ideas, abstract a phenomenon. The Lebanese Poet Said Akl said: ‘my country is not rivers and mountains it is pure love.'"

 

The Civil War tossed Beydoun and his fellow Utopians into reality and drowned them with its facts. He had to leave Lebanon and went into exile in France. There he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent more than two weeks in hospital. He took heavy medication and struggled to recover. Eventually, he turned to poetry as a form of self-therapy.

 

Looking back on this time, Beydoun says: “with time, frustrations and defeat, we quit and became writers.” He realized that writers stand in opposition to those involved in politics, living in their own realm. They lack the qualities that politics demands: submissiveness, practicality and a one-dimensional life for the sake of political principles.

 

His conviction was reinforced by the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanese territory.  He shared the moments of euphoria with many others in the country, and hoped for a better future. But years passed and the sectarian divisions remained.

 

Back then, like today, these sectarian tensions left no room for debate. “Intellectuals are marginalized and have no influence, because the sects’ leaders talk about anything but ideologies. They are just manipulating people with concepts like common history, destiny and status. Our society is vertically divided.”

 

All this makes him pessimistic about the power of the pen. After all, if there is no room for intellectual debate, can there be room for change? “Change?” he says with an aura of emotional detachment. “No, political writers cannot make any change. The Lebanese society is divided and based on tribalism, racism and xenophobia.”

 

These attitudes are like sacred cows to community leaders that thrive on sowing fear and division and block any debate. “Since the war there are many taboos, like sex, politics and religion. Therefore we cannot touch dirty religious figures and politicians,” he says.

 

For him, as a poet, he turned to his more immediate environment. A development, he says, that can be seen across Lebanon’s literary production: “after the war, we panicked and we were afraid that Lebanon would disappear. That is why we started highlighting its detailed reality and that is what changed the surreal into the real in our writing. It became more tangible and black.”

 

This leads Beydoun, perhaps one of the most influential voices in the region, to a disheartening conclusion: men of letters in Lebanon must accept their role as chroniclers and spectators at the side-lines of the country’s self-destruction. 

 

 

Yara Chehayad contributed reporting.

The poet and writer Abbas Beydoun (image via 123people.com)

“With time, frustrations and defeat, we quit and became writers.”