Everyone has a past, but it seems that Lebanon has an extraordinary big one. Perhaps most importantly, the past is a major part of the present. History seems to be everywhere. For example, when walking the small streets, it is inevitable that you come across old abandoned buildings. Some are brutal monuments and leftovers from the civil war, reminders of a difficult past. Others are empty but beautiful family homes with framed windows and small balconies. Your friends might spend hours telling you about these buildings, about those who lived there once and what happened. In Lebanon, everything has a story, and the locals seem to keep them as treasures. I can’t count how many stories about the past I have heard during the last years.
History is alive in other ways too. How many times have I walked by one of those tiny handicraft shops, in which an old man is making customized wooden furniture like they used to do it or a woman is working on a sewing machine from the last century. There are plenty of small antiques shops too, and the weatherworn sign at the grocery shop on the corner seems to have been there forever. Even the book shops are filled with books about “the good old days”. Even when asking for directions, the Lebanese might make reference to the street of the blabla pharmacy or the blabla gas station, which were actually demolished decades ago. Oh, and in politics of course… Try to read a newspaper, understand elections or analyze a political decision without having an idea about Lebanese history – I say good luck!
There is more. On the radio, the songs from the past are still played and are still popular, everyone knows the lyrics too. This goes for the old French classics, but even more so for the old Lebanese stars such as Fairuz and Sabah. I am not familiar with all of them, but what I do know is that they sing about their country and countrymen with beautiful voices and true dedication. There are a lot of sad songs made during the civil war, but also songs dreaming about better days. There are plenty of funny songs too, with stories about traditional life and love in the small villages. To most Lebanese I know, these singers are more than just artists. They are national symbols, and there are paintings and murals of several of them all over the country.
Keeping the past alive is an art, and brings with it a sort of collective identity when it is shared. In Lebanon, there is however not just one history everyone agrees upon, but many versions of it. In addition to Lebanon having a big past, it is awfully complicated too. Not to forget, it is personal. Very personal. Being a foreigner, I will never be able to fully understand it all. I have to accept that I will only collect some pieces of the puzzle.
However, if you are willing and open to it, you are warmly invited to share the nostalgia. I was at a concert once in UNESCO concert hall where a Lebanese guy sang a collection of old songs while playing the traditional instrument aoud. I had the luxury of having someone next to me who translated most of the texts. The lyrics were quite heavy but poetic, and described sacrifice, love, war and peace – the big stuff in life. The atmosphere in the room was electric, a sort of joint emotional tension you don’t experience often. I felt I had accidently crashed into society’s most private and sensitive collective memory, it was pouring out all its vulnerability with such honesty that it felt like a train just hit me. Although I was the only natural blonde in the room, I felt welcome and somehow connected with everyone. When we left I felt I understood the Lebanese a tiny bit better, and I remembered thinking how lucky they are to have so many able to express history with so much passion.
I find this nostalgia to be beautiful, but it can of course also be a trap. How can you create a future, if you are constantly dreaming about the past? It could function as a defense mechanism, enabling you to forget about the challenges of today for a while. Perhaps the nostalgia is also a way of survival. The Lebanese have certainly found their own beautiful way of doing just that.