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French Version

Lebanon does national unity its own way : with style

Pop diva Majida's audience at the grand finale concert of April 13 reflects the collective individuality of the nation's people

Those that have come are festive and the cause is uniquely Beiruti: a carnival to commemorate the beginning of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. More immediately, the people have come for Majida al-Roumi.

The Lebanese chanteuse occupies a special place in the hearts of the citizenry. Though a pop singer, the operatic flourish she brings to her songs elevates her voice to the same caliber as that of the iconic Fairouz. Being younger, though, she is closer to her audience.

Her repertoire crosses the same territory as that of Fairouz - expressing a sort of humane nationalism, a pride in being Lebanese ("Beirut," one of her best-loved tunes invokes, "lady of the world!") and a nostalgia for a day when idealists fought for the principal of Palestinian liberation ("Where are you? It's calling you!" "We are freeing them!").

She is one of those performers that is claimed by Lebanese and Palestinians alike and observers on the scene Wednesday evening are struck by the fact that Lebanese of all political confessions in this very youthful audience - Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialists, Leftists and Futurists - sing along to Roumi's lyrics.

Roumi's concert is the final event of a four-day-long extravaganza of arts and crafts, events and sales promotions that conflate a number of different concerns.

On one hand the carnival has been orchestrated as a re-branding exercise. April 13 is the day Lebanon's last civil war officially began in 1975. The idea is to recast this historic date as "the day of national unity." It may seem eccentric to celebrate the day a war began but, in the Lebanese context, it is probably better than the alternatives. Up to this point the Lebanese state has chosen to more or less ignore the fact of the civil war - in line with a policy of erasure and amnesia that accompanied the reconstruction process.

Commemorating the end of the war is difficult for a number of reasons, not least the fact that historians regard the war to have been ended by Syrian soldiers overrunning Lebanon's presidential palace in Baabda in order to dislodge then Lebanese premier and armed forces commander Michel Aoun. This is, decidedly, an inappropriate referent for a nationalist celebration.

The Ain al-Roummaneh attack is a much more convenient point in history to commemorate. Coming after two months of public mobilization in the wake of the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri (a la the "Independence '05" campground at Martyrs' Square) and one month before scheduled parliamentary elections, it allows Lebanese to demonstrate their support for the democratic process by being patriotically engaged in the civil society of consumption.

You have finally squeezed your way close enough to the stage to catch a glimpse of the performer. Roumi has decided to pass on her ball gowns this evening, in favor of a pair of sequined jeans, a white jacket and a blouse that - depending on the lighting - might be red or pink.

She is backed by her usual oriential-ish ensemble of strings, oud, qanoun and the like. The wall of black-clad male voices amassed behind her is strangely evocative of the security detail that accompanies a certain Lebanese political figure during his speaking engagements.

The audience is a mixed group, mainly youthful, many waving flags. Though there are only a couple of party flags - LF, PSP - there is still a marvellous heterogeneity in this evening's national symbolism.

In its basics the Lebanese flag is a simple enough creature - bands of white and red with a green cedar in the middle. As has been noted before, though, the rendering of that cedar has long provided Lebanese with a tremendous range for individual expression. This evening there seem to be as many species of Lebanese cedar as there are political groups. In fact those adorning the two large flags at the back of the stage are completely different from one another.

As a demonstration, in fact, this "day of national unity" is a magnificent expression of Lebanese particularism. The Independence Revolution has a popular performance aspect that has been characterized as an emulation of Kiev's Orange Revolution. In subsequent weeks, however, the expression of this popular mobilization has been localized to Beirut's unique tertiary-sector dialect.

To use World Bank lingo, this carnival allows Lebanese to take advantage of their "natural economies of scale" - both the talents of the events organizers and graphic designers who make up the backbone of the "Independence '05" organizing team and the famous capacity of Lebanese to enjoy themselves under the most arduous circumstances.

This business is nothing to be sniffed at. To talk to people who lived it, wartime Beirut was the land of Scylla and Charybdis. On one hand there was the routinized terror of car bomb and sniper; on the other was the soul-destroying boredom that comes from being too terrified to leave the house.

Beirut is replete with tales of citizens who spent their wartime evenings in one bar or another. The evening might begin and end quietly. It could be that a few hours of shelling would come between the clients and the end of the evening - in which case the obliging publican would roll down the shutters and keep serving until the danger had passed or the boys with the mortars got tired or bored.

So there is a certain brilliance in the events leading up to this 30th anniversary. The question lingering in many brains in the wake of the recent spate of bombings in East Beirut and the northern suburbs was how the leadership can maintain the momentum of popular participation and do so without bankrupting the businesses of the BCD - that have been suffering a severe case of the doldrums since Hariri's assassination.

The politicians may not have any answer for this question - among others. The events' organizers - who, for want of unitary political leadership, have had particular influence in shaping the look of this Independence Revolution - did.

The driving dabkeh rhythms of Roumi's program have inspired ten or so of her backing singers to step forward in an unusually orderly and graceful rendition of Lebanon's national dance - one the country shares with Palestinians and Syrians as well.

The waves of audience members surging to the front of the stage finally exhaust you and you retire to the tents of Martyrs' Square. Here, with more room to breathe and move, revelers have taken up the music's challenge and have linked themselves in discrete groups to perform their own versions of the dabkeh.

Back in the early 1970s a learned British anthropologist researching in northern Lebanon noted that when the village shabaab tried to dance the dabkeh, most of them didn't know what to do. This evening suggests that any pre-war fears that the dance would go the way of the dodo bird were unfounded.

It is a dance of beautifully chaotic order, the dabkeh. The group leader initiates an ever-more-elaborate sequence of steps, leaps, twists and bends. Those who follow in the semi-circle do their best to replicate his improvisations, though the beauty comes not from robotic emulation but the dancers' earthy variations.

No surprise, then, that each region's dabkeh is different. Nor that - though it seems each dancer here, man and woman, is remarkably nimble - every dabkeh this evening is distinct.

No better way, perhaps, for the Lebanese to remember a war that cannot be repeated.

Beirut 18-04-2005
The Daily Star

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