VIEW: Nostalgia in Beirut —Munir Attaullah - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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VIEW: Nostalgia in Beirut —Munir Attaullah
The once jaunty cockiness of youth that deemed nothing as impossible has gradually given way to a certain weariness and resignation characteristic of someone who has come to terms with defeat in his life-long quest

I sit on the spacious balcony of my hotel room in Beirut, idly smoking a cigar and sipping steaming black coffee. A Lebanese friend of old standing has promised to come by.

On a perfect spring afternoon I have politely excused myself from going shopping with friends. Is the Ashrafiah district any different from the fashionable Bond Street, rue Saint-Honoré, or the Via Condotti? Have I not seen them all, many times before? Besides, what do I really need that I must have at my stage of life? And do I have that kind of money?

As my slowly drifting gaze wanders aimlessly back and forth, from the forested hills of Beirut suburbia on my right, to a lazy, shimmering Mediterranean in front, I ponder such questions for the umpteenth time in life. And — as always — that effort again turns out to be a largely muddled and futile affair.

Why this should be so is not a matter I am up to discussing just now. Anyway, given my simple assumption that we humans are intrinsically not very different from each other, I suspect you too have probably struggled with similar thoughts, and so instinctively understand what I mean. If not, let Omar Khayyam have the last word: “Ah, Love! Could you and I with Fate conspire/ to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire/ would we not shatter it to bits, and then/ re-mould it closer to the heart’s desire?”

Confused I may be, but one thing has never been in doubt; as far as I am concerned: such periods of contemplative solitude are to be cherished. Even when aimless, you return from the experience mentally refreshed and with renewed zest to face the relentless pressures of fast-paced modern life. And, at its productive best, the wandering mind can make those unexpected connections that bring a certain coherence and perspective to facts and opinions that otherwise seem unrelated, and only vaguely perceived.

And so I remember how, some three decades earlier, another friend, Salmaan Taseer, and I similarly sat on the balcony of another Beirut Hotel, doing what I am doing today. He had come to stitch together a deal for the young and upcoming Godfather with the Lebanese CEO of the Middle-East Division of an American multinational. And, as all I have ever needed is a half-decent excuse when prospects exist for a good time, I had simply come along for the ride.

Those three friends — supremely practical worldly men of ambition, and blessed with restless energy and boundless enthusiasm for the good things in life — went on to make fortunes in due course, in their differing ways. Only I have somehow contrived to remain impecunious. Why? Did I not have an abundance of golden opportunities? What was it that I lacked? Or, is it all a matter of ‘luck’ (whatever that may be)? Could it be — horror of horrors — that the good wife has got it right again when she scathingly rattles off a dozen glaring character flaws that explain everything?

Over the succeeding decades, all three friends teased me endlessly over this failure on my part. Salmaan especially — who was a master of both manufacturing a good story from trivia, and then lacing it in the telling with such delicate embellishments specially tailored for the occasion that would have the listener in stitches — was pretty relentless. And who can forget that mischievously wicked sheepish smirk, with pursed lips and twinkling eyes, as he finished such stories? The cat had eaten the canary again.

And where, figuratively speaking (forgive my nostalgic license), do those three musketeers and this D’Artagnan stand today? For the Governor, life’s race is already run. Of the three friends, he was the one I had most in common with, and so could relate to the most. He understood better than the other two (and therefore was less dismissive of) my great obsession: the desire to know. My Lebanese friend now tips the scales at 20 kg, has a double chin and a bald pate, and all he wants to do now is discuss his grandchildren and his latest toys (such as his new private jet). The Godfather is still going strong, in his characteristically unassuming and low-key manner. And me? I am grimly hanging on to his coattails, drifting along and, as always, at a loss knowing what to do.

Is there any point asking what do us all four have to show for ourselves? Surely the legacies my friends will leave behind will be tangible, what with a visible family, assets, and accomplishments to show. And me? The once jaunty cockiness of youth that deemed nothing as impossible has gradually given way to a certain weariness and resignation characteristic of someone who has come to terms with defeat in his life-long quest. I now wish one had heeded Omar Khayyam: “Myself when young did eagerly frequent/ Doctor and Saint and heard great argument/ About it and about: but evermore/ Came out by the same door as in I went.” Has it really taken me a lifetime to understand the more you know, the more you know how little you know, and ever will know; and that is before even discussing the uncertain nature and quality of what one can know?

My reverie comes to an abrupt halt as my Lebanese friend arrives. Over some more coffee, we reminisce for a while about the good old days. I then ask him about the situation in Lebanon. He just shrugs involuntarily, as if to say what else do you expect if not more of the usual. In turn, he asks me about Pakistan. I shrug my shoulders.

But to my mind there is a difference between our two countries. Sure, for some 30 years now Lebanon has been plagued with a political uncertainty deep and bitter enough for civil war to be an ever present possibility and even the occasional reality. And yet, that has not stopped the country from prospering, or prevented its people from living the good life. The Phoenician spirit of old lives on. The Lebanese do not look backwards, getting on instead, in the teeth of adversity, with doing what they have to do for a better tomorrow. Every time parts of Beirut have been destroyed by war, they have been quickly rebuilt. Politics and commerce, both with their own dynamics and undiminished vigour, co-exist here cheek by jowl.

For us, everything is subservient to politics of one kind or another, and that too of particularly delusional varieties.

I am in the Omar Khayyam mood today, so let me end another column of absolute fluff with yet another quote: “Oh, those fears of Hell and hopes of Paradise/ One thing is certain that time flies/ One thing is certain and the rest is lies/ The flower that has once bloomed forever dies.”

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

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