Beirut Follies

STORY NUMBER ONE: During a lull in Lebanon’s civil war, the Syrian intelligence service organized a competition with its French and American counterparts, sending spies from all three countries into the woods of Lebanon to find a donkey. The Americans crashed into the forest and quickly returned with not one but a half-dozen donkeys. The French took longer, and came back with fewer. Hours passed, and the Syrians were still gone. The others set out to find them and soon came across a pair of Syrian agents who were whacking a rabbit with a stick. “We’re almost there,” said the Syrians to the search team, before turning back to the rabbit and shouting: “Confess! Say you’re a donkey. Say you’re a donkey!”

Story number two: When Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction was to be released in Lebanon, the censors in Beirut were so offended by the director’s disjointed treatment of time that they demanded the film be recut to flow chronologically.

Story number three: In the spring of 1996, Israel bombed Hezbollah positions in Lebanon for sixteen days. A large number of children were wounded in the attacks, so international-aid agencies donated a surplus of tragically tiny prosthetic limbs. The wife of a prominent Lebanese politician took them all, sold them, and kept the money.

Story number four: Last year, a family of smugglers and bandits appeared on Lebanese television wearing ski masks and carrying Kalashnikovs, and announced that they had begun kidnapping foreigners in retaliation for the detention of one of their relatives. Within days, the Lebanese Army stormed the family compound. When the dust settled, both the kidnappers and the rescue team somehow had lost track of the captives. In the midst of the mayhem, the hostages had simply walked away.

All of these stories are apocryphal (the first is really just a joke). Yet there is truth in each of these urban legends about the staggering levels of brutality, confusion, corruption, and incompetence that have come to characterize daily life in the Lebanese capital. “What saves you from despair in Beirut is the very difficulty of living in it,” writes Etel Adnan in her book of epistolary essays, Of Cities and Women. “You’re caught in an exhausting game of mirrors,” Adnan adds. “There is so much uncertainty and the only truth you can hang on is pitiful. The fact that this is an unmanageable country.” What saves her readers from despair—particularly those of us who live here—are the stories to be found in the city’s chaos and jaded charm.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer and critic based in Beirut.