My piece “The Beirut That Was”

Last week, I was busy with a large number of things, including diving deep into  studies of Britain’s historic role in the West Indies for a biggish think-piece I’m working on. But my friends at Boston Review asked if I’d be interested in writing something about Beirut; and for some reason I said ‘Yes’. Of course it had been much on my mind since the ghastly explosion of August 4.

The resulting piece is up on the BR site today: here.

It was interesting to reconnect with some of my memories of and feelings about Beirut, a city in which a number of good friends still live– though not nearly as many as when I lived and worked there, 1974-81. Of course, I mourn all those who died from the explosion and wish strength and comfort to their families and to the many thousands who were wounded, lost their homes, or were harmed by it in other ways.

Probably, most Westerners who ever spent much time in the city have feelings about it that are as complex as mine, though I will say that when I lived there I was much more integrated into the local society/culture than the vast majority of the Western expats there.

Now, nearly 40 years after I stopped living in Beirut, I look at the city through a number of different lenses. One is, of course, the lens of my personal recollections about the city– both from while I was there and during visits back there in later years. One is the lens informed by the writing I have done about Lebanon as a whole since I left– both the country study The Making of Modern Lebanon that I published in 1985, and a number of articles (including at least two that I published at BR.) A third lens is my study of broad “world order” issues, and how Beirut’s once-pronounced role in Western Asia fit into the pattern of the broader influence that the “West” projected into Asia from the mid-1800s on.

I switched among all three of those lenses in the latest BR piece. While writing it, I arrived at a number of (still-tentative) conclusions. One concerned the extreme unlikelihood that the Beirut I briefly glimpsed prior to 1975 will ever return to its “regional” role, or even its “nation-dominating” role. You might posit that what I’m identifying– in the case of Beirut as of Hong Kong, as mentioned in the piece– is “the Return of Geography”, or perhaps “the Revenge of the Hinterland.”

Of course, Beirut’s hinterland is very different from Hong Kong’s…

I can see how easy it would be to get pulled into writing more on these topics, right now. But I cannot. I need to get back to the West Indies.