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My memory has been unreliable ever since childhood. While was a studious little schoolgirl, remembering names, dates, and places always demanded plenty of painstaking effort. And when it comes to the civil war years, my memories have become completely jumbled and abnormally arbitrary. All the events get mixed up and bleed into one another in my mind, and there’s no logic to the selection of memories left to me now.

And yet I haven’t forgotten a thing about BEIRUT AL LIKA (Beirut the Encounter). So I don’t know why I looked it up on YouTube, despite my aversion to nostalgia in any form. Probably because I miss Borhane—and that whole “slice” of our lives. Much the way we reconnect with cherished relatives in photo albums yellowed by the years, I am also plagued by guilt about forgetting and omission, about my inconstant roaming so far from where I started, that first place, Beirut.

Between then and now

What I found most heart-wrenching wasn’t the blue packet of Gitanes or the cassette tapes, the black telephones or the streets of my city. It was to see Nadine as Zeina once again, who (like me) has been living in France for decades, and Haytham as Haydar, who’s now totally cut off from the world in his village. And to hear once again the great scriptwriter Ahmed, who’s in the US now. And Borhane, who died in Belgium. And to watch this film once again, which foretold what our lives would become, the failed encounter with our own city, our own country. The first signs of trouble were already there, and yet we didn’t see it coming. We thought the film was for others, for everyone except us, because we’d already “met”: the first generation of mixed marriages, of intentional (even militant) interfaith encounters, of improprieties and antagonisms in the middle of a civil war.

The first signs of trouble were already there, and yet we didn’t see it coming.

BEIRUT AL LIKA was able to tell of the obstacles and unfortunate circumstances that sabotaged the meeting between Zeina, the Christian, and Haydar, the Shiite Muslim—both of whom were “innocent” of the crimes perpetrated by their communities—because we were safe and we had a message; in other words: hope. We hoped to convince others and stop the massacre. And because the film hoped to win the battle by arousing a profound sense of sorrow at this absurd waste: Zeina and Haydar will never actually meet. (Although we will, we already have…and we’re here together!)

Resurrected images

The second half of the film is completely inaudible on YouTube, but my memory actually came to the rescue. It’s great news for the generations to come that BEIRUT AL LIKA has now been restored. This humbly visionary film is getting a new lease on life in present-day Lebanon, where disaster has taken on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy in Beirut, a city agonizing as it watches this theatre of the absurd play itself out. These are resurrected images of the happy year (1978) that followed what we naively called the “Two Years’ War”—which ended up dragging on for fifteen years, and then forever. Watching this film today might be an exercise in painful remembrance, and yet it is so innocently topical today!

Borhane initially shot a scene to serve as an epilogue, but decided not to use it. This would-be finale to BEIRUT AL LIKA brought the whole cast and crew together in a “wrap party” to celebrate the end of the shoot. It’s a fake party, of course, a sort of parody that undercuts the myth underlying the film’s main theme, and reveals how blithe we all were, how casual about this widely hyped “national issue” while operating under a pretence of a patriotism which condemned everything that prevented the Lebanese from coming together. This was before the exiles, before Borhane Alaouié’s very last film, KHALASS (“Enough” in English), in which an encounter with Beirut had become impossible.

At the party, between the champagne-guzzling and tokes of hash, even those most concerned could sense the magma bubbling up underground, the way animals do, but couldn’t see or foresee what lay ahead!

Hoda Barakat is a prize-winning Lebanese writer who has published six novels and two plays as well as a number of feature articles.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz

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