With Mazen el-Zein, a rich gallery of characters for one love, Lebanon

The cover already announces the color: you will have to climb a dilapidated staircase to see the panorama with your eyes – and understand everything. From the first lines we find ourselves in an old Lebanese house, which was elegant, just like the district of Khandaq el-Ghamiq on the outskirts of where it is located. Here we are at what was a bloody wound where brothers fought: rue de Damas. On the first floor of this house, a psychotherapist has opened a clinic. On a desk in the waiting room, she has placed a “large book” with white pages inviting patients and passers-by to write down their thoughts.

This framework is simple in appearance and allows Mazen el-Zein to write a collection of stories full of poetry, but also of historical, philosophical, social, economic, political reflections and so on over the period that followed the release of the thawra on October 17, 2019. Each of the stories is an element of the “Lebanese mosaic” as he tries to understand the dizzying complexity.

Initially, the story was to revolve around the district of Khandaq el-Ghamiq, whose name means “deep trench”. The author writes that he had chosen to take a closer look at the history of this district in an attempt to understand, in addition to the simplified clichés, why those whom he nicely calls the young “gavroches” who had been among the first revolutionaries before they finally fought them, came from there. He believed he understood the scope of the question by telling the story of this once so cosmopolitan district, from its golden age to its decay with the war of 1975. But this scenario did not fulfill his desire to reflect on all facets of the problem.

Thanks to the lists in the “big book”, the author manages to use a talent for storytelling that is all the more remarkable as this is his first work. Here he is on his side a psychotherapist, a passing traveler, an activist, a young Muslim who takes the hand of a young Christian in the human chain, a governess in a feudal lord’s palace, a photographer, a street merchant, a diplomat to a confidential cable, a parent to a martyr , soldier against protesters, Palestinian refugee, committed mother … A bustling gallery of characters that the author embodies with the talent of a belly puppet master. We believe in it, and not just because it is carefully thought out, well thought out and told with an impressive depth of field; not just because it is scientifically realistic: we believe in it because it comes from the heart.

The little window of imagination

After studying abroad, Mazen el-Zein went into catering and entertainment. He was the cause of several success stories about Beirut at night. His journey eventually led him to Dubai, a destination on which he bet everything. Unfortunately, the experiment was interrupted, with the man suffering a painful financial liquidation, combined with an entry ban. And this is the most miraculous thing in this work written by an exile prey for “the misery of loneliness, the humiliations abroad”, and who wonders: “What is this fateful trick of being forced to leave a country like Lebanon? Frustrated at not being able to physically participating in the thaw, he transported himself there “through the little window of the imagination.” And we are impressed both by the complexity and by the thoughts, the doubts, the questions that enliven each of these characters that you will necessarily find yourself in.

But across the pages, the feeling of despair that gripped us the following year returns to the point that we end up annoying the author a little. Because if it puts us back in the crazy mood of the days from October to December 2019, then it also follows the decline that followed. We believed so much in it, and as we celebrated in this noisy, multicolored, and so unexpected melting pot, where a nation was finally born while we looked elsewhere, the greatest economic robbery in history unfolded, an irreconcilable counter-revolution, and an epidemic were on the way. , that would lock everyone at home, the symmetrical opposite of the revolution. And then, on August 4, 2020, Beirut exploded. This event, which in a way constitutes the end of the illusions, is interpreted as a story with biblical dimensions by the despairing author. How else to explain the inexplicable?

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We remain on a bitter feeling by closing this book, as after an unfinished dream. Yes, our happiness was too short as we had been waiting for it for decades. But does that mean we have to despair and run away? If the author does not clearly answer this question, he provides clues. And these clues are summed up in love: “My island exists, he writes about Lebanon, it is in the mind and conscience of every Lebanese. And he still believes in it after all. Because after the explosions on August 4, the same young people from Khandaq hesitated el-Ghamiq, who had attacked the protesters a few months earlier, failed to help transport the victims to the hospital.

The book does more than dissect the ills we suffer from. We know them all: communitarianism, the absence of the state, “imports of cultures and practices from abroad”, corruption. It also suggests ways to remedy this. And first of all: to have confidence in young people, “the greatest treasure our country has, far more than the riches buried in the seabed, which seem to be our leaders’ only concern”. For the author, revolution is inevitable, but it must first take place within each community.

One is tempted to ask him if he thinks he will still be there when that happens. But for Mazen el-Zein, this is irrelevant: “Deep down, there may be the germ of a national collective consciousness buried in every single soul; a silent and slow revolution holding its time, carefully weaving the connections between the citizens who still is in the transition, the passers-by waiting on every single bank for the bridges to be erected, which will close the deep gaps that separate us.In the meantime, from the depths of his forced exile, Mazen el-Zein continues to flee through his imagination to his country, which he misses so much.

* “The Great Book … and Passersby” by Mazen el-Zein, Antoine Editions, 2022, 351 pages.

The cover already announces the color: you will have to climb a dilapidated staircase to see the panorama with your eyes – and understand everything. From the first lines we find ourselves in an old Lebanese house, which was elegant, just like the district of Khandaq el-Ghamiq on the outskirts of where it is located. Here we are on what was a bloody wound where …

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