The Wonderful Inventiveness of Us

I am away from Beirut, again. A month of solitude and repose, summer friends and reads, early morning writing and walks, afternoon research when the pen is no longer willing, and open sea swimming.

These are not small mercies, and for that I am forever grateful to a fate that decided I should be so lucky. It hasn’t been a good month for many in the Arab world, certainly not for us Levantines. Neither Palestinians, nor Syrians, nor Lebanese, nor Jordanian, nor Iraqis, in their majorities, dare look forward to a kind summer, fall or winter, for that matter. The same goes for Israelis, who perhaps are finally discovering they are as much of the region as they are in it; not exceptional, not insulated, not immune, not different.   

But life by its very nature is never without reminders of the eternal resilience of the human spirit and its resourcefulness in fostering camaraderie and hope and progress in the midst of hate and turmoil.

Look at her! Um Kalthoum in all her majesty as if singing to Israeli and Palestinian writers, editors, and translators discussing Arab literary works being translated into Hebrew. “A movement of love,” Derrida said of translation. To this ensemble, it’s equally “an act of resistance.”

The Maktoob Project, Palestine/Israel

The series is called Maktoob (written), “a nod to the Islamic concept that at the time of birth, everything that is supposed to happen to an individual and how it will happen is already decided and written.” But such is the human spirit’s playfulness with destiny, that what was foreordained may well not come to pass. The Maktoob project itself is a testimony to that, I’d say.

Old Beirut and its old buses

There are many photos that depict the old Beirut in all its riotous glory: grand, labyrinthine, charming, green, hedonistic, an alluring mélange of east and west, ancient and cutting-edge. Recently, an ever larger whatsapp group of us Beirutis has been listening to Tarek Kawa’s Beirut Stories, Zikrayat Beirut. Each day, the good gentleman, a Hakawati (storyteller) of the modern age, shares a vestige or two of this hoary city: its once marvelous 35 souqs, their origins, trades, geographies, and idiosyncrasies; the Beirut tremouille, its routes, fares, and whistle stops; the first plane that landed in Beirut, the airports that once rose in different parts of the country, the first class of pilots… Politics, history, architecture, culture, and folktales are woven into three minutes of storytelling.

I’ve been sending the recordings to my mother back home. After each listen, she sends me her own recollections of these souqs and places and landmarks. She is 93 now, and all I know is that the Beirut she lived is a total stranger to mine.  

It’s not always the case that we hang on for dear life to a precious thing when it’s about to slip away, but I suspect that, for us Beiruti listeners, it’s the sentiment that has motivated us to join the group and listen religiously to Kawa. Beirut long ago began to fade. War, relentless construction, avarice, neglect, corruption, have all conspired to erase much of what has made the city so impossibly beautiful to all those who are born or come to it.   

Ya ma taht al-sawahi dawahi (almost always catastrophe lurks below obliviousness) goes an old Palestinian proverb. These photos of Beirut, courtesy of Kawa and his team, are the finest expression of this saying. For the longest time, we thought all looked well, and so all must be well. And here we all are hanging on for dear life to every photo and word of Kawa’s. (If I have managed to perk up your interest and you understand Arabic, email me for the whatsapp link.)

As I delight in these bits and pieces of Beiruti history, I am invited by Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions podcast to contemplate Humanities in Artificial Intelligence. Harrison and his guest, Elena Ilievska, two Stanford professors of Italian and French literature, debate the mysteries and promise of AI as it proceeds to upend our very mode of life­–or not? The day after, with the help of Ezra Klein and Google DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis, I start to understand the revolutionary achievement of AlphaFold in predicating and mapping the shape of 200 million proteins. I allow myself to be giddy because at the heart of this meta technology lie answers to our most intractable problems.

Disease, climate change, the way we learn and educate, think and feel, collaborate and compete, is wide-open to a complete rewrite. The downsides are not elusive, nor are they few. But from where I sit and walk in solitude, barely keeping up, I am, if ever so tentatively, reassured.

I even find myself wondering if such a “Promethean moment” for humanity at large might hold a special gift for the Levant.


On Another Note

You wouldn’t think that Egyptian hip-hop had its place in the Egyptian revolt of 2011 but, as  Yasmina Rashidi asserts in her usual eloquence, it very much did. And now that the uprising is all but extinguished, at least in this first round, hip-hop is the space where many Egyptian youth dwell and vent.

Within this political climate, it is telling that Egypt’s independent music scene – and particularly Arabic hip-hop, or mahraganat – has been thriving. Borrowing from US artists such as Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Eminem and Jay-Z, and from the earlier history of hip-hop, these Egyptian artists write lyrics that are grounded in deeply personal, political, sexual and socioeconomic realities – everything the government would prefer citizens not to speak about, and the kind of material that citizen patrols love to report.

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