Lebanon Through Ramzi's Eyes
The ravaged country's best hope is a new political culture based on fresh views of its beauty and heritage
WHEN we left Lebanon in the summer of 1984, our youngest son, Ramzi, was barely two years old. Even then, one was aware of his fondness for music and dance. Rhythmic movement, miming, even a bit of burlesque were unmistakable.He indulged his passions with abandon and exuberance, oblivious to the havoc raging outside his own enchanted world. Like whistling in the dark, dance was perhaps his own beguiling respite from all the scares and scars of war. The enchantment was not, though, a mere flight of fancy. Over the past seven years, he has pursued his flare for dance. Thanks to the supportive milieu of Princeton - as well as the allures of Broadway, HBO, MTV, the Disney Channel, and Princeton Ballet - he has had ample opportunity to cultivate his talents. He is, as a result, an avid reader and listener. For a child of nine, he has developed a rather critical and discriminating taste for the performing arts. He choreographs his own dance routines, writes school sketches and lyrics and acts out the parts. He scans daily the reviews of new releases and events. He longs to entertain and be entertained and seems, while doing so, buoyed by a blissful mood of intense rapture. No wonder he greets his days, often at the break of dawn, with spirited bouts of dancing! As a doting but baffled father there is little I can do, I have come to realize, to mute or redirect such impulses. His world is largely a fantasy world of "secret gardens witches, ghosts, animated cartoons, superstars and entertainers. His room is cluttered with posters and mementos of his idols: Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Angelica Houston, Baryshnikov, Fred Astair, the Bangles, Expose, Debbie Gibson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Belinda Carlisle, and, off and on, Madonna. As of late, in fact, Madonna has been more off than on. Somehow, the notoriety over her latest shows "Blond Ambition" and "Truth or Dare" has cooled Ramzi off. When I inquired about the soured relations with his onetime idol, he replied that he is now "old enough to understand what she is all about"! With or without Madonna, Ramzi's fanciful world, a product of his imagination, remained until recently largely intact. Little has happened since his exile from Lebanon to challenge the props and symbols which sustained his attachment to its wonders. An episode a few days ago signaled the first symptoms of a change in his self-image, with portents, perhaps, of a more felicitous reshaping of interests and loyalties. We had gone to the Lebanese consulate in New York to renew our expired passports in anticipation of our trip to Lebanon this month. The encouraging upturn in security conditions after 17 years of turmoil prompted us, like throngs of other expatriots, to revisit our beleaguered country. We harbor no illusions other than the faint hope that, by exposing our two boys to the few as yet unravaged features of their country - its captivating scenic beauty and geography, the warmth and compassion of family and friends, its prehistoric sites, colorful folklore, delicious produce and cuisine - we might rekindle their longing for Lebanon's threatened and defiled legacy. Alas, to them Lebanon has been reduced to an ugly and accursed metaphor: a mere figure of speech to highlight the most foreboding encounters elsewhere in the world. In media shorthand, "Lebanon" or "Lebanonized" conjures up images of the grotesque and unspoken. Equally poignant is the way the Lebanese have been maligned and humiliated as things that were once sources of national pride and resourcefulness have been made to seem futile, trivial, and pathological. Consider what happens when a child's most precious possessions - things around which he weaves fantasies and make him a bit different from all others - are redefined as worthless. In a sense, this is what has been happening to the Lebanese. Their country's geography, its plural and open institutions -which as sources of tolerance and coexistence had once set it apart, for better or worse, from its repressive and monolithic neighbors - are now dismissed as aberrant. We didn't have to wait long to redeem, in part, that maligned image, at least for Ramzi. The moment he walked into the consulate and saw posters of Lebanon - the usual glossy mounted portraits one sees in tourist offices and travel agencies - he was overtaken by amazement and wonder. There was a sparkle in his eyes, as dazzling and consummate as the entrancement which overwhelms him while dancing or simulating the fantasy world of his favorite fairy tales. To him, the scenes from Lebanon where juxtaposed against the ordered, flat, dull, antiseptic milestones of America - at least the America most familiar to him, the America of suburbia, manicured lawns and parks, shopping malls and mega-highways. They seemed out of this world and much closer to Ramzi's world of make-believe. The ancient Roman monuments Baalback, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Anjar; Phoenician mosaics and amphitheaters, Crusaders' castles; Ottoman souks and bazaars; feudal estates; fortresses, caverns, tombs, and quaint villages with their picturesque red-tiled roofs huddled in deep gorges, on hilltops, or hugging the Mediterranean shore - they all seemed like idyllic backdrops to the fantasy world he conjures up and plays out in the backyard of our Princeton home. He was awestruck. The Lebanese consul, touched by Ramzi's reaction, graciously offered him a poster. He picked a view of Sannin, with the highest snowcapped ranges and rifts of Mt. Lebanon peaking in splendor against the blue skies. It is this same view, incidentally, which captivated generations of Orientalist painters and engravers (Roberts, Taylor, Bartlett, Wilson, Van de velde, Harper, and Woodward, for example) and inspired native poets and writers. It is also this view which is etched vividly in the collective memory of emigrants as they long, nostalgically, for the old country. When Ramzi got home he furtively dismounted one of Madonna's portraits and replaced it with his new acquisition and his reawakened longings to reconnect with a disinherited past. He now counts the days to the moment he will behold the same riveting view from the window of the plane taking him back home. Ramzi's rediscovery of his country's natural and historic endowments should not be dismissed as an infantile gesture. It carries an instructive message. Just as an intuitive young boy is willing to part with his ephemeral, often catchy symbols and embrace those of a higher and more enduring order, so his besieged compatriots in Lebanon (young and old) could do likewise. Now that many are seeing or revisiting parts of their country inaccessible to them before, they too, it is hoped, will renounce the alien and borrowed ideologies they had embraced to sustain their belligerency. They could begin by disarming themselves of the instruments of collective violence. Lebanon has long been plagued by disharmony between its natural beauty and its boisterous political culture. An awakened sense of geography among Lebanese, sustained by an ethos for preserving the edifying features of one's habitat, could be sobering and enriching. Moreover, in a postwar period it could inspire needed tranquillity and vitality. ECOLOGICAL concerns, for legitimate reasons, are also becoming generational issues. Today's so-called "Eco-smart" children are most incensed by the damage done to their environment. It is, after all, their future abode which is being violated. For the disinherited children of Lebanon, almost half the victimized society, such concerns could serve as the rallying call for their active reintegration and involvement in healing their damaged environment. As a people, the Lebanese have been homogenized by fear and grief, but they have little else to hold them together. Yet, if stripped of their bigotry and intolerance, geographical entities could become the bases for articulating new cultural identities. Under the spur of visionary leadership and enlightened planning, communities can be resocialized to perceive differences not as dreaded symptoms of distrust, fear, and exclusion but as manifestations of cultural diversity and enrichment. Here lies the hope, the only hope, for transforming the geography of fear, which has beleaguered Lebanon for so long, into a new political culture of tolerance.