Culture, Global

Bookstores of Beirut (and the Ploughshares)

I work for a publishing company. Last week, out of pure curiosity, I was checking out who orders our books in the Middle East. Israelis, of course, are the top customers. I was very surprised to find out, though, that Lebanon is right up there with Israel: Beirut bookstores buy a ton of English-language literature, and not just beach reading, but the real stuff. I did some more research; I’m embarassed to say that I never knew about the extensive liberal, intellectual elite of Lebanon. What a pleasant discovery! I was even thinking – I should totally go visit next time I’m in Israel. The very next morning, reading the papers, I learned about the two abducted soldiers. In the past year, I’ve been bugging my friends with questions about the nature of synchronicity. Naturally, we didn’t come to any solid conclusions, only random observations; and now, here’s one more for that bucket: synchronicity intensifies the experience it encloses. Like certain substances. I can’t stop thinking about the bombs dropping on the homes of the innocent leftists of Beirut. And on those bookstores. And about Hezbollah members leafing through Random House books.
Today, trying to distract myself from the news, I picked up the recent issue of the Ploughshares. There’s an excellent story there, belonging to the little sub-genre I call the “not-your-regular-Holocaust-story.” Not a great fan of Holocaust-related art, and generally try to avoid it as much as I can. This story, however, is exceptionally right on; here’s what one of the protagonists says regarding the Schindler’s List:

“All I’m saying is – it’s cheesy. Cheesy! Why do they have to make the guy such a hero, with the Jews all little mice? And that ending, with them singing a Zionist song. It was like it was all worth it to create the state of Israel, practically! It grossed me out. I heard in Israel they cut that part out – the propaganda was too naked for them. People can understand subtler things, Ma. They can.” Lola’s voice was beginning to shake, losing its authority – almost plaintive.

and here’s another quite:

He had been on the run for most of the war, and sometimes Americans lost interest if one did not say the words concentration camp. As if what gave the experience its importance was the form of torture one had endured, rather than the loss of everything, mother, father, family, culture, language. They preferred violence – the gory details, as Lola would say – to grief. Or perhaps people simply liked tales that matched with the pictures they had already seen.

There’s a lot more to it. The story has a “Father’s and Sons” feel to it, and not only in terms of the generational conflict: the juxtapositions of the scenes, very masterful morphing from one episode to the next all reminded me of Turgenev. Very intelligent, well written work. And sort of …timely.
Cross-posted on Mima’amakim

2 thoughts on “Bookstores of Beirut (and the Ploughshares)

  1. Speaking of war and literacy (or writing, of sorts), the New York Daily News is running a Photo Gallery of the unfolding conflict. The anthropologically inclined will appreciate the two photos (currently #3 and #8) showing young Israeli girls writing messages on shells at a heavy artillery position near Kiryat Shmona ( For added fun, read some of the scrawled thoughts. I will refrain from commenting. May god protect us from each other — and from ourselves!

  2. Did you also know they have some of the best discos in the world?
    I’d be curious to find out who buys books there though – Christians or Muslims. Hopefully both, but I’m not waging a lot of money on the latter.

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