Friday, November 28, 2014

Golden years - Sabah’s death reminds us of the merits of nostalgia

The death of the singer Sabah this week prompted Walid Jumblatt to tweet, “Sad news today .the legendary singer Sabah died.with her passing away an entire beautiful past of Lebanon passes away.” The typographical errors notwithstanding, Jumblatt showed that even hardened politicians are as vulnerable to nostalgia as the common man.

The generation that dominated Lebanon’s golden years, those of the 1960s and early 1970s, is dying out. With this has come a renewed yearning in Lebanon for a period characterized in the popular imagination by glamour, success and style. Doubtless there is always a tendency to idealize the past, but compared with the country today, where most of the celebrities and public figures are cheap knockoffs of their predecessors and where vulgarity and exhibitionism pass for panache, there is some truth in that idealization.    

And yet glamor is really in the eye of the beholder. Many years ago one of my neighbors in Beirut was a famous television star. When he would stand on his balcony during the early 1970s, the children in the school bus picking me up would run to the windows to wave at him. Rather foolishly I bathed in the reflected glory of living in the same building as he.

When the war started, he and his family became our close friends. I saw a great deal of them and watched as they faced the vicissitudes of life in wartime Lebanon. They grew older, had no work, saw their mountain home burned, and then passed away. Yet today, knowing the reality of their life, I still feel powerful emotions when watching reruns of their television shows as their celluloid life displaces their real one. Many dismiss nostalgia, but it can pump us up with new oxygen.

That is why it is worth exploring a project, perhaps sponsored by the Culture Ministry and financed by Lebanese expatriates, to establish a national institution to display Lebanon’s cultural past and evoke nostalgia. It would include films, documentaries, newsreels, plays, magazines, books and photographs, and could organize exhibitions, film festivals and more.

What would the advantages of such an effort be? Above all, pleasure. But beyond that it would represent an occasion for the Lebanese to look at their country with a less jaundiced eye, and create a common memory in a fragmented society that seems to share so little these days. Such an objective may not seem important, given Lebanon’s myriad other problems, but initiatives of national revival and stimulation are common.

And they usually happen to be very popular. Youths may be less sensitive to the programs or singers their parents loved, but everyone is intrigued by how Lebanon once looked, especially when it represents such a striking contrast to the dysfunctional country of today. Perhaps in that way we could learn that Lebanon once stood for something culturally — whether high-brow or popular culture — in which we can take some pride.

My own preference goes to the foreign films shot in Beirut. They tell us more about how foreigners viewed Lebanon than how the Lebanese viewed themselves. And yet those films very much reflected an image that Lebanon itself sought to project; one of cosmopolitanism characterized by beautiful scenery and intrigue — all sunlight, blue sea and scotch and soda.  

One of my great delights was watching David Niven in Where the Spies Are, a 1965 takeoff on the espionage genre, directed by Val Guest. Niven is booked at the old Hotel Alcazar, today the HSBC Bank near the ruin of the Saint Georges Hotel. With him we rediscover various locations in Beirut and Byblos, carouse with Francoise Dorleac, escape thugs and undo conspiracies.

Beirut’s reputation was reflected in several other films from the same period, including George Lautner’s La Grande Sauterelle from 1967; Twenty-Four Hours to Kill with Mickey Rooney, from 1965; the silly yet entertaining Agent 505: Death Trap Beirut, from 1966, whose first scene is shot at the Sporting Club; and this less-than-sterling effort titled Secret Agent Fireball, from 1965. None are especially good, but I challenge anyone to remain indifferent to the physical backdrop of the stories.

Surprisingly little has come out of Lebanon’s war years. One might challenge the notion that war can provoke nostalgia, and yet some of Ziad al-Rahbani’s most beloved plays were produced during the war, and have war as a theme. These include Film Ameriki Tawil and Shi Fashil, while two of the most enduring films of the late Maroun Baghdadi also had war as their theme: Little Wars (1982) and Out of Life (1991).

That’s why nostalgia can also be a pernicious balm over the past, making one view previous horrors in a more forgiving light. But forgetfulness is the essence of renewal, and is why Lebanon has time and again come back from its worst crises, when others might have been overwhelmed.

This was the calculation when the postwar political class passed a general amnesty law for crimes committed during the war, a decision that provoked outrage among many people. But ours is an impressionistic Mediterranean culture, where ambiguity is the norm and truth relative, so pressing certain issues will often provoke undesirable consequences.

That’s why a center for cultural memory should be designed in much the same spirit. Let it be devoted to nostalgia and nothing more. Let the aim be to evoke the memory, or the illusion, of a former time. Let’s smoke the myth of Lebanon as the national opium for today. Nostalgia, our refund on a salary paid to age.

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