Monday, 5 September 2011

This looks like Beirut!

Examples of omens from the Nuremberg Chronicle...Image via WikipediaI have long been meaning to post this but for one reason or another the timing has never seemed quite propitious. Today, the omens augur well.

I follow an awful lot of blogs around the region. I don't always comment as often as I'd like to (comments are always nice, they let people know there are eyeballs out there), but I'm usually pretty diligent at dipping into Netvibes and seeing who's been updating.

One of my favourite treats is Jad Aoun's blog, Lebanon: Under Rug Swept. A great highlight for me is Jad's one-man campaign to stop people using the cliché 'Looks like Beirut' to describe any given scene of destruction or degradation. Apart from finding the mildly obsessive spirit of Jad's endeavour attractive (he snail mails a 'looks like Beirut' certificate to offenders, as well as outing them on the blog), I'm amused by how, over twenty years after the end of the civil war, people are still using the phrase.

It's something I have encountered in my writing life, an oddly jaundiced Western view of the Middle East in general and certainly of Beirut in particular. I have had agents rejecting the manuscript of my second serious novel, with the rather over-complicated working title of Beirut, based on the fact that people don't want to hear about war zones. (I am currently represented by Robin Wade of Wade and Doherty, who is shopping Beirut around various London publishers) The book's about an international hunt for two missing nuclear warheads and is set in Hamburg, Spain, London, Brussels, Malta, Albania, the Greek Islands and, last but by no means least, that most sexy of Mediterranean cities, Beirut.

I love Beirut. I always look forward to visits with anticipation and excitement. I don't live there, so I don't have to experience the city's everyday frustrations (and they are legion) - I can just drop in and fill myself up with wandering around the streets, enjoying Ottoman architecture and the vibrant street life. I wander around stealing locations for books or snapping vignettes, exploring the fascinating diversity of the place, from the flashy shopfronts of Hamra and Verdun to the labyrinthine ethnicity of Bourj Hammoud. The city sparkles and jostles, stretched out from the long corniche along the splendid Mediterranean up into the mountains, all presided over by the great white-capped bulk of Mount Sassine. At night it lights up, bars and restaurants serving a constant tide of laughing, happy people - Gemayzeh no longer quite the place to be it once was (and Munot before it), while Hamra is becoming busier. It feels good to be there.

So I am always pained to get reactions to Beirut like 'This gritty and realistic novel is set in a war torn city' or 'We don't think the British public would be interested in a conflicted city like Beirut'. The first comment made my blood boil even more because the book is most certainly not based in a war torn city. It's based in a sexy, modern city that fizzles with life. (The fact that much of its infrastructure teeters just to the right side of disaster just adds frisson...) The comment just showed the reader had, at best, skimmed a few bits before spurning me like one would spurn a rabid dog. What made it worse was the reference, twenty years after the fact, to the place being war torn.

In fact, thinking about it, I may well just refer any future perpetrators directly to Jad!


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5 comments:

Gerry said...

rejection slips like that are maddening, aren't they? I haven't tried to market anything set in the middle east--yet--but I expect a certain amount of friction when certain realities don't meet certain preconceived notions.

it's doubly frustrating as the everyday madness of life in the uae is fascinating enough without having to conform to outside misconceptions....

Grumpy Goat said...

"...spurn a rabid dog..."

Are you familiar, perchance, with Rowan Atkinson's 'Father of the Bride' monologue? That's from where I stole it!

alexander... said...

"Do we have a... map?"

Yes. It was a steal. Put the cuffs on, Mr Goat, and lead me away to the spanking...

alexander... said...

Oh, Gerry. One reason why I never set a book in Dubai is that nobody would ever believe it...

Jad Aoun said...

I'm honored! Thanks for the mention and feel free to send me details on the perpetrators (I think I might need to start mass producing these certificates).

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