Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Departed

Time's Andrew Lee Butters take on Lebanese mourning rituals in Time's ME Blog.
February 21, 2008

Earlier this year, an 18 year-old boy Lebanese named Mickael Ain Malak died in a snowboarding accident on the slopes north of Beirut. His death seemed like a tragic but explicable example of the dangers facing adventurous young men who play risky sports; and it's understandable also that his family should be stricken with grief. What seems unusual however, is how they chose to express it: with a whole series of posters and billboards in several parts of East Beirut that show the photograph of a smiling young Mickael wearing his snowboarding gear, giving the viewer a big thumbs up.

Beirut is a city covered with portraits of the dead. But mostly these portraits are of martyrs. Practically every region, every town, every neighborhood, every sect and political party has its favorite martyr, who are the latter day saints of Lebanon's holy and unholy wars. And often there are more than just one. On roads leading into southern Beirut, the streets lamps are adorned with a display of Hizballah fighters killed during the 2006 war with Israel, whose individual faces have been photoshopped onto the same uniformed body used over and over in the different posters. But most of the photos are of politicians or public figures, and most of them have been assassinated.

The billboards of Mickael seem me to be one of the first examples of private grief taking on the rituals normally used to express public grief. It's true that families often post death notices on shopfronts and street corners in Beirut. But there was an overtly political tone to the Ain Malak billboards. "Who's Next?" read about a dozen of them posted on the main highway north. For inhabitants of a city living under the threat of a terrorist bombing campaign, it almost looked like someone was blaming the Syrians for killing Mickael. Leaflets invited the public to attend the boy's funeral, much as the public had been welcomed to the victims of recent assassinations.

I don't know how deeply to read into one sad event. Lebanon is a country that is full of grief, and more often than not, unresolved grief. Killers walk the streets, criminals hold public office, plots remain uncovered, victims disappear forever, and wars never really end. Perhaps these rituals are like a cultural meme, taking on a life of their own in a society that has become defined by its dead.

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