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Roseanne Khalaf: Preface to "Beirut: Writing the City"

Some years ago the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa invited me to participate in a conference held in Morocco. The assignment was to write about my own city, Beirut, and later about the old cities of Fez and Casablanca.  It proved a challenging and thrilling experience--one that has forever altered the way I view workshops and writing.
One evening in Casablanca I shared with Chris Merrill my dream of introducing gifted Lebanese students to professional creative writing workshops. To my delight, a year later, he visited Beirut and together, with the support of Provost Ahmad Dallal, at the American University of Beirut, we organized a two-week workshop conducted by American novelist Claire Messud and poet Tom Sleigh.
In 2011, a second workshop was hosted by Solidere, the Lebanese company charged with renovating and developing the Beirut Central District, and sponsored by English Speaking Union- Lebanon, in particular supported by its Chair Youmna Asseily. Held in the heart of down town, it afforded fourteen gifted students from six universities throughout Lebanon the opportunity to fully explore the city’s history as an overarching theme, whether in fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  Angus Gavin, lead architect at Solidere, provided insights into the master plan for the Central District; archaeologist Hans Curvers illuminated Beirut’s rich, multilayered heritage alongside the challenges facing his teams while excavating and preserving ancient sites in a burgeoning, modern city.
It was an extraordinary and delightful happening.  Chris thought it pure pleasure to explore the central district with students, who fearlessly turned their impressions into polished sentences: “They saw the city anew, and in their writings so did I.” For me, the importance of bringing students from diverse backgrounds and universities together to revisit their city and share in the creative process was a truly enriching experience. 
I was alone, meanwhile, recollecting weekly excursions with my teta (grandmother) to the vibrant, ancient and colorful souks of Beirut, teeming with life and the deafening hum of activity. Jostled by shoppers and vendors we made our way along dusty, narrow cobblestone streets, accompanied by the scents of exotic spices, a pungent waft from the fish market, and the clip-clop of donkey’s hoofs. My child’s imagination was fuelled and my senses awakened to the enticements of a city nourished by a mix of people and cultures; teta, by contrast, never failed to caution that an unresolved, violent past would inevitably disrupt the future.  For me, that remembered cityscape has become the space of unfiltered experience, of things seen, and absorbed, before being understood. Its transformation now into a upscale hub, updated for more global tastes, confines any revisiting to my imagination.  Not having that old city to return to fills me with an intense sadness; and comparably, the post-memory generation of young writers represented here can only connect to the past virtually, for their memories are not shaped by lived experiences of the historical Beirut but rather by stories, photographs, images, and others’ recollections of it. Not surprisingly, these young people feel simultaneously connected and distanced as conflicting sectarian accounts thwart all attempts to create a unifying narrative.  This absence of historical memory contributes to shifting, fragmented, and ambiguous accounts and recollections, often viewed through the prism of separate social settings and political circumstances.
In prewar Beirut commercial and cultural exchange encouraged a cosmopolitan, bustling city center, a contact space for the country’s many religious and ethnic communities. During the horrendous destruction wrought by almost two decades (1975-1990) of civil war, Beirut’s center was the most devastated part of the city. Today, Solidere’s reconstruction and renewal of this highly contested space continues to be an enormous challenge, and a highly controversial urban regeneration project.  Meanwhile, the immediacy of interaction and the innovative texts created in our workshop acted as a bulwark against destruction and fragmentation, offering the participants a deeper connection to Beirut’s fast-changing heart, and a better understanding of how that space continues to shape Lebanon's pre- and postwar realities.

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