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Story | Education
4 September 2020

Op-ed: In Beirut, the wailing of the ney remains


Lebanon is still coming to terms with the huge blast that devastated the city one month ago.

Image source: REUTERS

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine, a Professor of Arabic Language and Culture at QF partner university Georgetown University in Qatar, speaks about the painful memories the Beirut explosion one month ago evoked in him, and the diversity and contradictions of his home country.

“Neighboring the star and occupying the clouds”: this is how we thought of our homeland Lebanon as young children. We used to imagine its mountain in our innocent minds when we heard the second verse of a poem by Bulis Salama saying, “a mountain that paved the way to the gates of paradise”.

This explosion in Beirut’s port came as the culmination of the suffering of Lebanon, and the Lebanese, over the past 10 months, as if it was a cinematic novel written by an obsessed writer

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine

And this verse was the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the white cloud rising in the Beirut sky following what seemed like a nuclear explosion – it occupied the clouds and opened the door to paradise for its martyrs.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine.

This explosion in Beirut’s port came as the culmination of the suffering of Lebanon, and the Lebanese, over the past 10 months, as if it was a cinematic novel written by an obsessed writer, whose thoughts are fond of pain, torment, blood and destruction.

But is it only 10 months of suffering? Or is it 30 years? Or maybe 100?

In 2020, Lebanon has already completed 100 years, since Greater Lebanon was declared in 1920. And it might be the time for us, the Lebanese, to do what is called an ‘inventory of accounts’, to see what we have been able to achieve a century after the founding of our small, beloved country.

What really makes Lebanon special is the same thing that wears it down and disturbs its peace. It is special for the huge diversity and differences that exist in a very small area

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine

Lebanon has no oil wells, no aircraft manufacturers, nor significant plant and animal resources. There is no doubt that Lebanon has a fascinating nature, the power and smell of which we can feel in its morning scent whenever we listen to Fayrouz, but this is not what distinguishes this country. What really makes Lebanon special is the same thing that wears it down and disturbs its peace. It is special for the huge diversity and differences that exist in a very small area.

People go to the trouble of traveling and moving between continents so they can get to know a new culture, meet new people, with different religions and sects. in Lebanon you can find all this through a one-hour car ride. As the coast lies close to the mountain, you are not only able to swim and ski on the same day, as we’ve been taught in geography books, but to also learn about several religions, cultures, and dialects in one day. However, the corrupt and deceitful have turned this blessing into a sectarian curse that has destroyed the country and killed its people.

The first memory I can recall goes back to 1982, I was born in 1977, so I belong to a generation born with war, I was very sick at this time with mumps, a disease that no longer exists. My mother laid me down on a small mattress in one of the shelters in our neighborhood, to escape the death that came from bombs, shelling and destruction. I remember very well the moment when my youngest uncle came in crying; he was the commander of the fire brigade in our city, and he embraced me tight to his chest and wept with bitterness, I thought for a moment he was crying because of my sickness and fever, I didn’t know he was carrying the devastating news to my father, that 13 members of our family were killed: my grandmother from my father’s side, my aunt, her husband and their three children, my uncle’s pregnant wife and their five children. Nobody except my uncle, Ahmed Chamseddine, came out of their shelter alive, and his now well-known story was told through the book Pity the Nation by the American journalist Robert Fisk, as well as being recently mentioned by the writer Radwa ‘Ashur in her novel Tanturriya.

I remember so well how men stood in a circle around my father, who was lying on the floor after receiving the shocking news which hit him like a thunderbolt. I still wonder to this day: how could someone endure such a thing? How could my mother stand beside him when she had lost her own mother only six months before in a devastating explosion in Sidon?

The problem of corruption, which is deeply rooted in the Lebanese political scene, was and remains a major issue in our political structure

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine

This was the first thing my eyes saw. And this memory came back to me, 38 years later, when I saw pictures of young children injured by the Beirut explosion.

I recalled the sight of my father manifested in the image of Lebanon, this exhausted, drained country, which doesn’t know how to heal its sick and in which shelter to hide them. A country that is trying hard to treat its children infected with COVID-19, whose people are trying to retrieve their lost money after long years of effort and struggle, and which is trying to host its neighbors who are fleeing from the terrors of their own countries but does not have the room to shelter them.

We are worn out from hearing about the rampant corruption in our society, whether it’s the corruption of the regimes have torn out the flesh of our lives, or from the arbiters whose fantasies and fertile imaginations we are still suffering from, or from those parties that are almost buried by the dust of history, or from the institutions that show us virtue but call for the destruction of all those who oppose their views.

The problem of corruption, which is deeply rooted in the Lebanese political scene, was and remains a major issue in our political structure. Clientelism, patronage, quotas, and subjugation of the state apparatus have all been formulated upon the ruins of the citizen's relationship with their leader and with others, and the relationship between sects.

However, there are many authors and thinkers who have tried to link these ‘results; to various political factors: such as foreign influences, colonialism, ideology and major agendas. Of course, all these readings have origins closely related to global political theories and approaches.

Across Beirut, buildings bear the scars of the explosion at the city’s port last month. Image source: REUTERS

Among all these thinkers, the historian Kamal Salibi and his House Of Many Mansions remain present in our minds and in the image of our Lebanon despite corruption and its affiliates. The men of these houses, Muslims or Christians, were able to paint for us a unified picture of a land which their hearts were drawn to and attached to. But it is important to conclude from their stories, with their different orientations, that it is not possible for a conceivable history of one group or clan, as Salibi states, to overshadow another.

Why insist on playing this cacophony? Is it because the musician only plays one note? Or is the problem with the instrument he plays?

Dr. Abdul Rahman Chamseddine completed his undergraduate work, with honors, at the Makassed Institute of Islamic Studies in Beirut, before studying comparative religion and Islamic-Christian dialogue at St. Joseph University in Beirut. Later, he enrolled in the History Department at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where he received his Master’s degree. He taught Arabic language and social studies at AUB, before joining the doctoral program at Georgetown University where he received his PhD. He currently works as a Professor of Arabic language and culture at Georgetown University in Qatar and is conducting research on the Arabic terminology of early Islam.

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