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Lebanon Adrift – A book by Samir Khalaf

From battleground to playground

by Ellen Hardy

Something strange often happens to first year medical students, confronted by textbooks listing reams of sinister symptoms: they all come down with galloping hypochondria, seeing brain tumors in every headache and consumption in every cough. Something similar might happen to a Beiruti reading “Lebanon Adrift” — though instead of physical ailments, readers will look up from the pages and see, in every poster, traffic jam or flutter of false eyelashes, a society in torment. “Lebanon Adrift” is a wide-ranging diagnosis of Lebanon’s contemporary pathology as a culture of unrestrained excess, narcissism and escapism, indicative of political, moral and social alienation.

Author Samir Khalaf is a distinguished sociologist and professor at the American University of Beirut. “Lebanon Adrift” is a book full of “personal indignation and outrage” — the sum of a lifetime of observation of a land he loves, in which he attempts to theorize those grating features of Lebanon’s social landscape that will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the country, from pervasive littering and smoking to the gaudy wedding season with its antisocial firework displays. Via a whistle-stop tour of Lebanese history and politics, peppered with social thought from the Frankfurt School to Zygmunt Bauman, Khalaf explores theories of modern consumerism turned to mindless commodification of kitsch and prestige items in the pursuit of social status.

Lebanon’s post-war society, Khalaf suggests, rejects the usual trappings of restraint and sobriety typical for countries recovering from long periods of civil conflict. Rather, the Lebanese, with their history of mercantilism and aptitude for playfulness, have responded to political inaction, social and geographical stratification, unresolved tensions and an uncertain future by unreservedly embracing the numbing attractions of conspicuous consumption. With everything from ‘super nightclubs’ to the latest Porsches, they are replacing creative industry and functional social cohesion with a Durkheimian “social state in which society’s norms can no longer impose effective control over people’s impulses,” resulting in a damaged landscape of environmental degradation, corruption and incivility.

By designating a range of social features as part of Lebanon’s movement from a battleground to a “playground”, where the dark sides of the nation’s Janus-faced liberty, playfulness, enterprise and conviviality are taking over, Khalaf is offering a constructive way of thinking about social malaise. Through consumption, he suggests man gained freedom, “but not the positive sense [of] freedom to mobilize this liberation in creative and purposive forms of participation in the public sphere.”

But like those medical students, the temptation to see everything around one as the manifestation of an illness can obscure other realities. Khalaf proposes the use of “ideal types” to pin down “essential elements” of a social reality as a constructive “tool for analysis”. Yet in his scattergun and often rambling tour of the tribulations of contemporary Lebanon, his “average Lebanese” is invariably hugely wealthy, indolent, monstrously superficial and male. That such people exist is indisputable, but to give them the status of standard-bearer for the modern Lebanese identity is dangerous. There is little attempt to differentiate his central analysis by class, age, gender, religion or geography, and at times his personal outrage reaches the point of parody, decrying Lebanon’s “houses of ill-repute, casinos, gambling parlors, nightclubs, discos, bars, escort bureaus and other abodes of wickedness… Such aberrant features blemish the country’s national character.” Further, by identifying a general and unattractive tendency of the Lebanese for excessiveness and locating so many evils within it, Khalaf neglects a rigorous taking to task of the politicians and lawmakers who are allowing so many damaging transgressions free rein. 

There is much to admire in “Lebanon Adrift”, which also sees possibilities for redemption, making an assessment of non-governmental organizations, architects and political movements that give hope for an active and engaged civil society. Khalaf sees within consumerism possibilities of creativity and resistance. With luck, the debate over Lebanon as a “playground” will act as a spur to action and an encouragement to the “avant-garde and counter-culture” who are sidelined by Khalaf’s “average Lebanese”.

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Ellen Hardy

Ellen Hardy worked in digital media in Beirut, London, and Paris before returning to Oxfordshire in 2016 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, graduating with Distinction in 2018. She joined UEA in 2019 as a CHASE-funded postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing. Her writing has appeared in various publications, and her research project is a historical novel based on a 17th-century cabinet of curiosity.

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