You're Either With Us, or Against Us… - [Part 2]
a little tale

by Leila Mroueh

© Leila Mroueh 2010 -2022

If the below article was an item of clothing it would be akin to the snood, if it were an accessory it would be a scrunchi (hideous elasticated hairband) or some other fade that captures the mood of the moment, and dates in a cringingly spectacular fashion. It would be the item of clothing that you would really love to throw away but somehow you hold on to it in case it comes back into fashion as nue retro or because your attached to it for its ability to pull you back to an exact moment when things were different somehow. I wrote in following my departure to London from Beirut at a time when I was celebrating the fact that my surname suddenly didn't matter and I could feel the first flush of independence, away from the watchful eyes of a suspicious city. It was written in the heat of the moment, full of bad spellings and dated references (did anyone hear the word mini disk?) and was published within hours of completion.

I never wanted to re-read it as I was afraid of what I would find out about my 6 years younger self who wanted to shout out and boldly declare she didn't want to be part of Beirut's sunny landscape. Yet before I dismiss my youthful, awkward and naive ramblings perhaps I should share with you that although some of the finer details that filed my early ramblings may have changed, I still feel the premise and the spirit of what had frustrated me so much at the time of writing in 2002 sadly still ring true and all though the references to conversations are now over 8 years old, they could be happening this week. So although mini disks never made it onto the world platform (thanks to the wonders of MP3 players and iPods), the reality is that the scratched and broken disk is still blipping under the precise weight of an invisible stylus that has sadly stopped Lebanon from growing and re – inventing itself.

The countries population is as divided now as it was when I first stepped foot in it in the 1990's and what you read, where you spend time and the location of your address still act as an invisible sorter and technically brands you. It's like a barcode scanner except you don't need any equipment – just a few questions. Despite my paperwork, I still seem to find myself heading in the opposite direction – unwilling to acknowledge the need that the majority of people have to take sides and box you into one side of the fence or another. My in-ability to read Arabic may be inconvenient on occasion but just as not understanding Arabic had saved me from inappropriate questions, my lack of reading ability shields me from the visual bombardment on the streets – from the badly executed banners, billboards and ad hoc street posters preaching modern day rhetoric & featuring unfamiliar faces.

On the more positive flip side however, you may be surprised to hear that I do go back to Beirut. Quite often actually and sometimes, when there is an amazing project or mission instigated by likeminded souls, I even work there and am thrilled to feel Beirut's beat, spend time with missed friends and sooth my brows with my Aunts homemade cousa mihshe, so perhaps I can be with them and against them at the same time, and as I suggested in a later short story I went on to write called 'no place like home' (Found in Transit Beirut- Saqi Press) perhaps I can start my own cultural party. It will be a party that is isolated from every other. It will preach self-efficacy and solutions focused thinking. It will empower every citizen who joins it and ensure it meets all of its own human needs without harming or cannibalizing itself. It will have a manifesto that encourages growth and contribution and makes people swear blind allegiance to the power of community, encouraging joined up thinking and asking questions… Oh dear... seems I have started to ask that dreaded question again... Are you with me or against me?

 

 

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Looking back now, It seems ironic that it was an institution like Tele Liban that initially seduced me to stay in Beirut and that same institution that played a huge part in my reason to leave Beirut. After Seven years of head banging, even the most resilient lover is pulled away from that which was previously seductive.

Allow me to refresh our collective memories.

The year was 1993. The War as we knew it from our TV sets in London had been officially over for few years and the country was enjoying a new found optimism after years of intense fighting. The war cooks had traded their usual vests and 70s haircuts for crisp suits and well healed shoes.

Beirut at the time was displaying sighs of a serious love affair with life. The streets bore witness to this affair with bold ad campaigns, pasted haphazardly on whole-infested highways and bullet sprayed buildings. My own seduction with the city took less then 3 months. The decadence and self indulgence of the culture around me was so alien and new that I took it on as a challenge and vowed to do all I could to contribute to the city’s physiotherapy if offered the opportunity. I found it a usual place. People seemed to be drinking even when they were not thirsty, eating when not hungry, speaking, when they had nothing to say. When people in the UK took drugs, it was a bid to bring them together in a united sense of community that everyone is always searching for. In Beirut, People took drugs to stand out from the crowd and to proclaim their individualism. These cultural differences are a whole other article, suffice to say that moving from the familiar to the Bush was to be a life altering experience.

It was only a matter of days before the opportunity to "Do My bit" presented itself, in the form of a chance interview at Tele Liban with the Fouad Naim curtsey of a different chance meeting with a wonderful woman called Rim who I would later call mum!

Being slightly naïve, and very keen to flex my academic muscels, I took on the job of assisting Rim in the newly appointed creative department. I wonder sometimes, how the story would have changed had I asked a few more questions and spent a day getting to know what I would be dealing with. At that point however ignorance was bliss, and having a job in a National TV station, when I was fresh out of collage was such a buzz, I thought I could move mountains. So there it was, a golden opportunity, that had presented itself without the need for a wasta, or kissing ass. Too good to be true.

"It’s the official government station, bit like the BBC of Beirut" I found myself explaining to friends back home who thought I had gone mad and been kidnapped into staying by some bearded men with kelishnicovs. In my mind it was going to be great.
NB: (The BBC comparison gives you an indication of just how naïve I truly was)

Armed with an open-mind and general fascination with finding my roots and hanging out with the wonderful Teta Leila, I, like many before and after me, found myself clutching a 3 month open ticket in what was soon to become home...

Within Months, Rim and I had set up our office (at that time this consisted of paper, coloured pens and glue). We had access to all areas and were seen as the Golden children of Fouad Naim. I found this status both confusing and amusing. After all, I knew that Fouad Naim had offered Rim and Myself the job based on his instinct, and apart from Luck, and being in the right place at the right time, there was no magic Wasta. Yet everyone around us was convinced we must be the grandchildren of some special branch Intelligentsia or the daughters of politicians or even that we were employed to act as spies for the heads of the TV to tell of any strange goings on, and report on just how bad things really were. A retainer from Uncle Harry perhaps. That would have been nice, because in truth, I would have loved to be an undercover agent.

A Typical report would have gone something like…

Asked to book a camera at 9am. Was sent to 6th floor for approval. Was then sent to 2nd floor for another approval that came with 15 minutes worth of signatures and an insistence that I drink coffee wile grilled over my religious leanings, family connections and background. Sent back down to Camera men’s room (sweaty oppressed highrichy of men) and made to wait for more signatures before finally being offered a slip of coffee stained paper confirming the camera man booking.

All staff showing signs of suspicious behaviour. Bad Management and nepotism combined with sloppy work has created a catastrophic working environment that will surly lead to bankruptcy or insanity.Thankfully, My inability to communicate in Arabic, and there inability to understand a word of English protected me from a lot of the time wasters who attempted to get some dark secret they were convinced I was harbouring. Even 7 years on, when they had seen me, worked with me and got on to know me, there was still the feeling that somehow, someway, There was something not quite right about me.

It wasn’t just the paper pushing fossils (the 55 + mature employees that made up the vast majority of Tele Liban's key staff having been put there by various militia over the years) who found my presence confusing, but also my contemporary’s and other younger members of staff.

I looked a little too scruffy to be believable and was regularly told ….( Yeeee, sho Style inte, Leh ma bit zabte sharatik ? ) As if having the right Hair do would put an end to all the confusion. What never ceased to amaze me with the younger set was that they talked about working for TL as the perfect Wasiffeh for life. As though they were older then there time and were sorted for there pension as TL was Government and Government jobs were highly desirable as they meant little work, lots of holidays and regular money. The other thing I found fascinating was the way that like the rest of the city that I was getting to know, they all had very set notions on Regious loyalties. That was perhaps why the Sheit Muslim employees felt more relaxed when talking to me (the suspect one) then the other religious groups. The fact that I had grown up in a Christian school and was raised with a wonderfully open awareness about all Religions thanks to the benefits of an inter racial school where you could learn Hindi if you wanted) seemed to be irrelevant to all sides. I was a Moslem and therefore I was either an insider or outsider depending on who was dealing with me. I had hoped that over the years as the country mellowed its religious tensions, TL would mellow with it, unfortunately, neither one was interested in letting go of there insecurities. In fact, in some ways as politicians came and went I would say it got worse. How else could you explain the fact that in 1998 I was actually engaged in the following dialog with other members of the now expanded creative department that had been moved to Hazmieh.

Other staff - who did the break in promos for Xmas
Me - I did. Did you like them?
Other staff - We knew it, that explains why your Ramadan work was stronger and better then the Christmas ads, what do you know about Christmas?
Me - Try me. I probably know more then you do as I grew up in a Christian school that respected all religions.
Other staff - Really?! But I bet you haven’t ever really experienced Christmas, and had a tree etc….blah….
Me - Well, actually, I should confess that I still believed that Santa came down the chimney and ate my mince pies that I would put for him by the tree every year till I was 9! (Sad but true) so I guess that may qualify me somewhat to having tasted a Christmas experience!
Other staff - (No Comment)

Sitting comfortably in my east London Office, dabbling in media campaigns for great Brands and working with people who I both respect and learn from, its hard to imagine what kept me in the strange working environment that comes with the Lebanese urban experience for so long. Perhaps it was the perfect place to cut my graduate teeth in, and at least working under such conditions has left me stronger, and at a professional advantage as most people in England dare good at one thing. In a place like Beirut, where job descriptions are fluid landmines of trial and error, it was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me.

What is heartbreaking is that Beirut is a city of broken people. Like old 45 inch disks that sit on shelves in dusty second hand stores, tired, scratched and unpractical, it has a sad future unless its willing to look ahead at the wonders of the mini disk era. Till then, our generation has been forced into 2 camps. Those who stay, and those who leave and it is with this thought that I’m reminded of a strapline that has been engraved into our minds.
"You're either with us, or against us". Those loaded words that come together are the best way I can leave this chapter.
I will leave you to fill in your own gaps…

 

Leila Mroueh

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