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The City and the Writer: In Beirut with Jehan Bseiso

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Beirut as you feel/see it?

Beirut is a city on tenterhooks; it is perpetually both “forever after” and “nevermore.” It is predictable and surprising, cliché and original, young and old, stable and unstable—basically everything and its opposite.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Here, violence feels inevitable; it is only a few minutes, weeks, years away. In 1982 my mother fled Lebanon because of the war, and in 2006, while I was completing my master’s at the American University of Beirut, my sisters and I crammed into a bus arranged by the Jordanian embassy and fled the city as the Israeli airstrikes intensified.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Although Beirut is not my city of origin, it is the city of my heart.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Beyond canonic Lebanese voices like Etel Adnan and Amin Maalouf, Beirut is also a necessary city for epic writers from the region, like Mahmoud Darwish. Today, young and talented Lebanese poets and writers like Rewa Zeinati, Zeina Hashem Beck, and many others capture the city, its details, its crevices.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The boardwalk, or corniche, at any time of day is my favorite place in the city. In the morning when the air is wet from the sea and the “serious 6 a.m. walkers” own it with their canes and bright-colored vests. In the afternoon and late evening, when it’s quiet and moody, it’s for the fishermen and those pretending to fish. On Sundays, the cacophony of idle chatter, hot-tea sellers, tricycles, and bare-chested men walking small dogs. I always find poetry by the corniche.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I find the campus of the American University of Beirut particularly beautiful and inspiring; it is in the heart of the city, yet green and quietly overlooking the sea. It’s full of discreet, secret corners where reading and writing can happen.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The Shatila refugee camp is hidden in plain view only a few miles south of Beirut. It is a historic site of massacre, bloodshed, and hope. Generations of Palestinians and now Syrians inhabit this half-mile square. I go there to hide from the city.


Where does passion live here?

In all the little idiosyncratic and schizophrenic details—poverty, opulence, sectarian violence, and the politics of inclusion. Even if xenophobia, macho culture, homophobia, sexism, and racism occupy the big spaces, passion for changing the status quo definitely lives here.


What is the title of one of your works about Beirut and what inspired it exactly?

I write a lot about Beirut but I always hide it in other cities.


Inspired by Levi, Outside Beirut does an outside exist?

There are so many outsides and outsiders in Beirut—that’s the whole point. It is a series of outsides and outsiders conspiring, fragmenting, and coming together somehow every single time.


Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher, and aid worker. She was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Jordan, and studied at AUB in Lebanon. Her poetry has been published in Warscapes, The Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr, among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) was nominated for the Palestine Book Award. She has worked with Doctors Without Borders since 2008 in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and others.

Published Oct 3, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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