In the middle of a week of important politics for Lebanon, the New York Times chose to run an article about fashion in Beirut. The old cliches of the city as the Paris of the East die hard.
Through western eyes, Beirut is perpetually partying or at war
Last week, the day after Lebanese president Michel Sleiman met Barack Obama at the United Nations to discuss the Syrian conflict, The New York Times thought it timely to publish an article titled In Beirut, Where Fashion Lives Dangerously.
The article discussed the apparently innocuous question of the survival of couture in a conflict-ridden country. It framed Beirut’s couturiers in the context of a paradigm that most Western readers expect when reading about Lebanon: the war.
The journalist began by describing an explosion, then quoting a young couturier: “‘It sounded like a bomb,’ said [Krikor] Jabotian, who grew up in the city during the civil war that raged in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990 and started his label there five years ago. ‘But we just kept working. That’s just how we work in Beirut: expect the unexpected.’”
There was more of this familiar contrast throughout the rest of the article. On one hand, terror and explosions. On the other, dreamy gowns, clouds of chiffon, pearls and satins – and a culture of resilience in the face of inevitable disaster.
On one hand, terrifying chaos, monstrous carnage, a doomed destiny of violence. On the other, French couture; luxury, escapism and sophistication.
In a sentence that expresses the article’s main idea, the journalist sets up a binary: “Beirut traditionally has been described as the Middle East’s most fashionable city – but in recent decades the country has been better known for conflict than couture, especially today with the civil war in Syria.”
Conflict or couture? Either Lebanon is a terrorist-infested, war-ridden hell, or the Paris of the East. This article falls into a tradition of western coverage of Lebanon that reduces the country to a clash between barbarism and western-style liberalism, attempting to create a causal link between the two and ultimately failing to grasp the deep history and many layers of complexity in contemporary Lebanon.
Beirut is a labyrinthine web of religions, cultures, political parties and socio-economic strata, all of which are the result of centuries of various dominations, geopolitical struggles and socioeconomic crises. Anyone attempting to write about Beirutis’ reality today must understand and explain this context.
By setting up this simplistic binary opposition, the journalist defines the Lebanese as the other – which cannot be contained or understood outside pre-established categories. Beirut, in this Western construct, is foreign and exotic. It is the most sophisticated city in the Middle East – and yet it is ravaged by war. Behind these contrasts are a way of viewing Lebanon that is fundamentally Orientalist, fundamentally “othering”. Beirut cannot merely be a city, in the way that, say, Paris or New York are cities, collections of living, breathing people. Instead, it has to permanently be a “symbol” of something, a reflection of a greater struggle. The language of the article – which is symptomatic of a wider narrative – suggests that Beirut is always torn between these two longings, this oriental barbarism and the western sophistication. The idea that Beirut could merely exist on its own terms, that it could be a city in and of itself and not permanently striving to be something else, is alien to the West.
In the midst of a week of crucial and rare diplomatic dialogue, such articles must be read in the context of the ideological struggle between the West and the Middle East.
There are serious political issues in Lebanon and they provide the context for why the country is riven by conflict. But in the New York Times article, they are ignored. Rather than place the resilience of fashion in the context of the city and the country, the piece presents Beirut as if it is permanently at war. But war is not a permanent part of the Lebanese national psyche; it is an alien event that came to Lebanon. And the roots of it go far back into history.
Historically, the tiny land of Lebanon has been manipulated and fought over by world powers seeking access to the East. When the French and English sliced up the Levant as part of their plans for regional hegemony, France made sure to draw the borders between Syria and Greater Lebanon to create a Christian majority on the coast and mountains, which they then courted, creating an elite that ruled the country and aggravating sectarian tensions.
For years Lebanon was known as the Paris of the East, the Saint Tropez of the East, the Switzerland of the East, a country where you could ski and swim in the same day – with sexy, couture-clad women shaking champagne bottles and belly-dancing belts in your face. It was an exotic yet friendly East, far from the untamed orient of the movies and novels. It was Christian. It was western.
Then the civil war started and images of a tanned Jean Paul Belmondo lounging at a pool were suddenly replaced by scenes of slaughter, grenades, bombs and bloodshed. For 20 years news networks and papers filled their pages with analyses of the civil conflict, which seemed to everyone – including Lebanese, who still call the war “the events” as if to erase its monstrous scar – gruesome and unfathomable.
The Lebanon that we were proud of, an ancient and tolerant land of history and culture, a complex web of religions, languages and sensibilities, morphed into a never-ending, gruelling news report. Lebanon died.
And then, as the cliché says, the phoenix rose from its ashes and the city restored its bullet-scarred façades, blasting skeletons of the city and replacing them with hotels, restaurants, bars, cabarets, luxury boutiques, valet parking, starchitect towers, all eager to restore Beirut’s place as a choice tourist destination.
The media began to promote the city again, reassuring weary readers with sexy clichés. Once again, Beirut was the Paris of the East! The city of all sins! Of partying with sexy girls on rooftop bars! Only, this time the clichés were even more alluring. What’s more thrilling than a war-torn city partying away to bury the horrors of human atrocity? Tourists flocked in, lured by the mix of danger and Mediterranean hedonism.
They called it living on the edge.
But Lebanon fell into the darkness again when, at a time of revolutions and calls for change in the region, the Syrian regime abruptly shut down its voices of dissent, drowning the country into a tragic – and seemingly endless – war.
And, among images of gas-massacred children and despairing refugees, as frustratingly ineffective world powers convened to discuss solutions, The New York Times thought it pertinent to ask: “So what is the point of fashion in Beirut now?”
Surely the newspaper could – and should – have asked many other questions. But perhaps the worst sin is that of omission: the exclusion of the complex, subtle and nuanced reality of Lebanon today. We are fed up with being reduced to stale clichés.
A journalist I know once said that the world’s perception of the Middle East is dictated by TV news. I would say that it is the media in general that shows what it claims is the reality, and that reality is dictated by norms, by ideas about what a place such as Beirut represents and how it can be reported.
Western, and especially American, media treats Lebanon in a way it would never report on another western country, constantly surprised to find Beirutis doing what millions of Lebanese, Arabs and people around the world do: dance, fall in love, create art, make a living. What truly matters is that Beirut has always been one of the region’s thriving centres, a great model of plurality, openness, tolerance and relative democracy. A city of ideas and change. This is the Beirut we need to fight for, both from the inside and from afar.
Shirine Saad is a Brooklyn-based writer on culture and lifestyle. She is the author of Boho Beirut: a Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City and is working on her next book Boho Brooklyn