Michelle Orange (credit: Helen Coltrinari).
“Beirut Rising,” Michelle Orange’s contribution to VQR’s Summer 2009 issue, entertains with its amusing depiction of the Lebanese passion for plastic surgery, but the essay also penetrates deep into to the sadness at the city’s core. I recently corresponded with Orange to get her thoughts on Beirut’s political future, travel writing, and reporting in territory where journalists are suspect.
1. In “Beirut Rising,” you struggle with the question that everyone asks: “Why Beirut?” Now, more than a year after your trip there, is it clearer to you why you chose Beirut and what you hoped to observe there? And did you see what you expected?
The best answer I came up with is that I went to Beirut to figure out why I was in Beirut. Travel impulses are often mysterious; I’ve learned to just trust them. A few years ago I went to spend a month in the very south of Italy and attend a language school. I was there a week before I realized I had actually made the trip so I could try and track down the Calabrian village where my great-grandparents lived and solve the mystery behind my family’s name—I wound up writing about it for McSweeney’s. Initially I had a vague notion of researching a short story idea in Beirut, but ultimately, along with my friends and family and every single person I met in Lebanon, I was very confused about what I was doing and why I was there. Along with brute curiosity and a real need to confront and be immersed in something complex that had nothing to do with my own little life, it helped that I was shiftless enough to book a flight because I felt like it and had a couple of weeks free. What else does one do in January?
In a longer version of this essay I talk about the fact that Lebanon’s war, more than any other, is the one that I grew up with, the one I saw on the cover of magazines and on the news at night, and I think it took a very specific and yet nebulous place in the imagination of my generation. If you say the name to a lot of people my age, on this side of the world, their eyes will still widen: Beirut means bad. But in the mid-sixties my dad was offered his first teaching position at the American University of Beirut—it was considered a kind of swinging French playground—and Lebanon was, by several orders of magnitude, the most progressive and hopeful of the middle eastern countries. To think that I knew it only as a blighted place, if one that was reportedly experiencing a kind of renaissance and renewal before the latest war, seemed like a failure on my part. I thought it might be the best place to start trying to gain an understanding of the region. As for whether I saw what I expected, I was a pretty woefully clean slate—the only expectations I had were from the one or two people I knew who had been there in the last few years. And those were not met because the city was seized up with political and military tensions and this truly striking, abiding sadness. If anything I was more prepared for the former than the latter.
2. You describe being treated with suspicion throughout your stay in Beirut. As a journalist, how do you navigate such a situation to find people willing to give candid answers?
I think you develop an instinct by traveling alone, particularly as a woman traveling alone, about the people you encounter. You intuit how to defuse suspicion or have the good sense to just move along. The situation in Beirut was incredibly tense during the period when I was there, and the environment itself was harder to navigate—it was extremely disorienting—than the people, when I could actually find them. I was there as more of a sad person trying to get a grip than a journalist, though, and in speaking to the people I met I think my general harmlessness came through quickly, and my curiosity was recognized for what it was: a genuine desire to gain an understanding of what was happening.
If you have the luxury of time, you can build relationships just by showing up consistently, sticking around long enough for people to get a sense of you—going to the same restaurants and shops, chatting up the same fruit guy. I was also lucky to have a couple of contacts who were gracious enough to show a stranger around and facilitate introductions—being a known quantity always helps. In a general sense I think the amount of time I have spent traveling by myself has given me the ability to navigate both natural and unnatural suspicion, and that comes in handy as a journalist. I must admit, though, that by the end of my stay in Beirut the really bizarre, fraught, socially barren atmosphere had me deeply paranoid: I stopped taking pictures, I wouldn’t write in my notebook in public, I even started feeling weird about my hotel room.
3. Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister, just became the new prime minister of Lebanon as his pro-western coalition recently gained a majority in parliament. Is this a hopeful sign for the future of Lebanese politics, or does it signal a period of increased tensions with Hezbollah?
It seems that it is both of those things. Though Harari campaigned on a call to disarm Hezbollah and possibly address the open wound that is the stalled Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of his father, his statements since the election are less direct. It is a positive sign that Saudi Arabia and Syria have apparently come to an agreement about the power structure in Lebanon, and that there is hope for a unified government, but it remains to be seen whether Hezbollah will retain its veto power—a huge and dangerous point of contention—and whether the parties will indeed work productively together in parliament. It was also a very close election, and the rising power and will of Hezbollah and Aoun’s Christian coalition should not be underestimated. To forget that would be to forget the brutal lesson of Rafik Hariri’s murder.
4. Your work often deals with travel, most notably your epistolary travelogue The Sicily Papers (Hobart, 2006). How does travel inform writing?
Well, on a basic level it gives one a tale to tell, with a narrative framework in place—I went here, this happened, I left—that one can take or leave. I was struck in reading the letters of Graham Greene by his very early gravitation toward the literary synthesis of travel experiences: at age sixteen he wrote a letter to his mother from a Mediterranean cruise that was almost exclusively a description of his shipmates at a shared dinner table. He created characters and sketched a sort of chamber piece for her out of the unlikely configurations of people and place that travel creates. Those new arrangements, combined with the unfamiliar thrill of your surroundings, are very inspiring, they shake a writer out of complacency, she is forced to a heightened level of attention and the world is new again. You’re tested constantly, you get to see what you’re made of, you spend a lot of time literally trying to understand the people around you—in a way all of the metaphors of life are amplified—and then you grapple with a way to communicate what you have learned and seen and felt. I used to feel more at home or at peace among strangers, and I’m losing that, which is probably a good thing personally—there can be an unhappy measure of cultivating your “aloneness” to it—although not as great professionally. I think travel provides a particular frame for the question all good writing struggles to answer: What is it like to be here, to be human?
5. What are you currently reading?
I am making my way through The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll, and just finished Mary Karr’s new memoir, Lit. On the summer docket I’ve got some catching up to do on early James Salter and Joan Didion, Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This, and I think it’s time to re-read Middlemarch, a book I loved so much in university I’d shove it up my shirt and take it to bed at night.
6. What are you working on now? Where are you traveling next?
My hope is to travel to Riyadh some time in the fall to write about the University for Women being built there now, and I’m toying with the idea of visiting a friend in China as part of my research for a book on the history and future of the family name.