Ahlem Mosteghanemi reflects on Beirut, Lebanon

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.

Ahlem Mosteghanemi authored best-selling novels such as "Memory in the Flesh," "Chaos of the Senses" and "Passer by a Bed." She became the first Algerian woman to write a novel in the Arabic language and the first contemporary Arab author to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of her work.

The above article was published in thedailybeast.com on March 4th, 2012 (10:52 p.m. EST).

Continue reading