I know him only by face, this Italian filmmaker who, for months, has haunted my stay in Beirut, repeatedly souring my attempts to sink into the city.
I’ve been away for so long I’d forgotten what the city was besides a name; a clogged pore on the surface of a congested territory; a metonym for dysfunction. It’s easy enough to know what Beirut isn’t, and what it resembles and mimics. But what lives, breathes and heaves beneath the comparisons and similes, derogations and curses – that’s much harder to pin down.
I can smell it though, when I’m here. I can pick up an unusual scent to follow. Maybe because I’ve spend so much time away. Maybe because I’m so much of something else – so much America, so much 'expatriatehood', so much mobile elite – that I can sniff out the subtle differences; that my skin can pick up the undercurrent of an excess that discourse has yet to organize and categorize; that I know this was, is and will be home not for the usual nationalistic reasons, but because it is some kind of elsewhere that draws in those identitarian victims of globalization – deterritorialized, de-nationalized, post-culturalized in the still enduring age of the nation-state.
But a specter haunts my hunt for the more of Beirut, for its otherness that isn’t Other – the specter of the inquisitive Westerner.
In Lebanon, public art and culture events are regularly disrupted and reconfigured by the presence of Westerners – both tourists and residents – who insist that their gaze be accommodated and mediated through a language their ears can comprehend.
By way of example, I recently found myself inadvertently trailed by an Italian filmmaker keen to examine the Beiruti ‘scene’. I first saw him at an alternative cinema space, for the screening of a Lebanese film. He requested that the Q&A be carried out in English or French, interrupting the Lebanese filmmaker’s Arabic commentary. I later ran into him once again at a ‘toxic tour’ of a landfill, organized by a local museum and advertised as an Arabic language event, where he yet again asked that his ignorance of the native language be catered to, his assumption being that all of the Arabs present should be comfortable enough in English for the change not to inconvenience anyone.
The absurdity of asking Lebanese art and cultural practitioners to exile Arabic from such spaces seemed to escape the Italian filmmaker, as it does many other Western patrons like him in Lebanon. What is it that allows the Western tourist in, or temporary resident of, a city like Beirut to feel entitled enough to request that a foreign language communicate a Lebanese cultural or artistic experience? I can’t imagine myself walking into a gallery in Rome and unabashedly demanding that a curatorial tour be run in English. The idea wouldn’t just strike me as rude, but farcical, as it surely would the rest of the audience.
Why is it that, in Lebanon, we are not only expected to be capable of speaking English, but of regularly employing it in our local context at the expense of our native tongue? When did English become not only a neutral but a national language, free of the colonial baggage burdening French and believed to be more accessible than Arabic? What does this tell us about the classism plaguing our art and culture scene, that we not only assume, but reluctantly acknowledge that the types of local patrons it draws will most likely be more comfortable in English (and to an increasingly lesser degree French)? What does this tell us about the less conspicuous demands made of the postcolonial subject, who is made to feel that her subjectivity counts for nothing if it’s not seen, acknowledged, and consumed by a Western outside?
He didn’t ask, the Italian filmmaker, he reminded – reminded us to speak in English, the way someone might remind you to pick up milk from the grocery store. Don’t forget your true audience. Don’t forget who you’re doing this for. Your local doesn’t matter. Your local doesn’t exist. You are a performance for an elsewhere.
What happens to the Lebanese subject when she’s taught that educated means fluent in a Western tongue, knowledgeable means well-traveled in Europe and/or America, cultured means caught up on Western cinema and literature? I won the US history award in high school. I’d never been to America. No one asked if I knew the history of the Arab world. No one taught me the history of the Arab world. What happens when we can only communicate ourselves in the language of our oppressors? We forget that we are still a minority. We forget that there are other ways to live and speak and think. We forget how to speak to the audience we’ve objectified, the local subjects we’ve petrified into relics of the bygone, stripping them of their dynamism in order to translate and commodify them for the West.
And, when we generously remember and decide to turn our mouths towards this audience, we do it in an Arabic we have invented – an unfamiliar language in the guise of a familiar one, marinated so heavily in the flavors of other tongues that its original taste is hard to pick up. Our Arabic is always in translation, synthetically parochial, unable to detach from the other languages that dominate it. This is the violence of language. This is the tragic character of postcolonial elites. How do we decolonize our tongues?