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Port Eliot is a literary festival with a reputation for fun and games. Well known writers are invited to sing, for example; the definition of writing is broad (Immodesty Blaize with her ‘reverse striptease’ burlesque routine is another guest ‘author’) and there is a tent devoted to dressing up. I am warned that people wander in and out of the events, there are many to choose from, and that the whole thing feels more like a rock festival than a serious literary event.
Then, in the days before the festival, the bombing of The Lebanon begins.
Beirut, destroyed and re-built so many times, scarred, divided, populated by those who have survived horror upon horror, decade after decade. Beirut, the city I visited when I was writing YES, to look and learn, to search for locations. I hoped to return with a cast and crew but in the end we were unable to film there, for we became uninsurable when Iraq was invaded and the zone was deemed unsafe for ‘foreigners’.
It becomes impossible to contemplate doing anything at all on a public platform that ignores what is happening there.
I delay my trip for a day in order to read as much as I can find about the background to the current events (I re-read Robert Fisk’s “Pity the Nation’, the most comprehensive account of The Lebanon I have found; an even-handed eye-witness account over a long period plus a meticulously researched description of earlier history; the book begins in Auschwitz – his point being that you cannot understand Israel’s foreign policies unless you understand the effects of the holocaust). I search for a poem by an Arabic writer that will express something of the Lebanese experience. John Berger sends me a letter he has written, together with Harold Pinter, Chomsky and others) against the attacks on the people of the Lebanon and in support of the struggles of the Palestineans.
The next day I delay my trip a few more hours in order to join an emergency march that has been called to protest the bombings, the deaths of civilians. As I walk with my friends we find ourselves depressed, as so often on these vitally necessary marches (there has to be a public expression of opinion that runs counter to the policies of government), by the confusing plethora of placards and crude slogans, the relentless chanting and facile equations (a poster relating a swastika to the Israeli flag, for example).
I long for a sober, silent demonstration, perhaps one simple banner with something we can all agree on: an end to the slaughter, for example. An end to violence. An end to retaliation. An end to invasions, more blood, more trauma, more generations of the bereaved, the fearful, the legacy a lust for revenge. I long for language which will express concisely, without jargon, what is at stake.
Nevertheless I am glad to have swelled the numbers on the march by one.
YES Beirut recce - before the last bombing
Simon Abkarian in Beirut
Text © Sally Potter. All pictures © Adventure Pictures unless otherwise indicated