ntil I first visited in 2013, I knew Beirut—and Lebanon—mainly from images or impressions from Lebanese-French or Lebanese-American friends, and from the Lebanese poetry and prose I had read in French, in English, or in translation from Arabic—notably the novels of Hoda Barakat and Rabih Alameddine (in English), and the poetry and prose of trilingual Etel Adnan. I had translated extensively the work of Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, but I did not know her home country. Living in Paris then, as I do now, I had been invited to give a poetry reading at the American University in Beirut, an invitation that became a turning point for me. It led to, or deepened, many important connections and transformed my vague and abstract view of the country into one that is embodied by both the people I met and the city of Beirut itself.
Beirut was at once overwhelming and welcoming. The tower blocks, traffic, and uncollected trash were everywhere, and yet the sea was always in easy walking distance. Down a hill and there you are on the Corniche beside the Mediterranean. In the midst of the high-rises and disorder were trilingual bookshops and cafés, open at all hours, for eating, drinking (coffee, arak, mint tea, beer, or fruit juice), game-playing (chess or trik-trak), and conversation. The daily newspapers—one each in French and English, several in Arabic—had more to say about contemporary literature than most papers in France or the United States. Of course I discovered most of this through new Beiruti friends and acquaintances—trilingual Lebanese academics and writers, and Americans, Syrians, and Europeans as well. At the time, an Iraqi academic friend, whom I had not seen for two years, also had a temporary post at the American University, teaching Arabic-to-English translation—a reunion! Lebanon has often been a refuge for writers, artists, and scholars from repressive regimes: Adonis, Mohammed al-Maghout, and Sania Saleh come to mind, and one of the poets in this issue is a refugee doctor from Aleppo.
After that first visit, I went back several times, including a stay of two months in the summer of 2018, during which people I had met more or less briefly became real friends. Later that year, I put in an application for a one-year chair at the American University of Beirut, and, to my great surprise, was accepted: I would teach American poetry and creative writing to Lebanese students.
That academic year saw the beginning of the popular uprising in Lebanon, in which tens of thousands participated in peaceful protests in response to economic crisis, political corruption, and a new series of taxes. This was followed by the COVID-19 epidemic the next spring, cutting my academic year short. I was sorry to leave but was sure I’d be back in a month or two. Just six months later was the August 4 ammonium nitrate explosion in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and injured—and left homeless—many thousands more. The US Geological Survey compared the strength of the blast to a 3.3-magnitude earthquake, and it damaged or destroyed at least 300,000 buildings and homes. I spent that day on email and WhatsApp, trying to connect with friends—where were you? how are you? The glass on someone’s terrace had exploded around her; someone else was doing all-nighters in the emergency room . . .
Even at a distance, the connections I made in Beirut are still very much alive, via those same means of communication (even before the crisis, paper mail to Lebanon was a dubious proposition). And since then, many of my Beirut friends are now themselves in other countries, other cities—London, Oslo, Milwaukee, Berlin, Berkeley, Dubai. It has been a privilege—as well as a kind of virtual Lebanese homecoming for me—to gather for this feature the work of these polyglot and heterogeneous writers of all genres (and genders), including Lebanese and Palestinian refugees living in, or who grew up in, Lebanon.
Zeina Hashem Beck, a Beiruti poet barely forty and the author of three full-length collections and a chapbook in English, is now writing hybrid poems using English and Arabic together. Hilal Chouman, equally young, has just published a fifth novel, Sorrow in My Heart, set between Berlin and Beirut, juxtaposing Beiruti gay men’s life with medical emergency and the aftermath of war. Milia Ayache, a playwright, director, and actor, studied drama in Moscow, co-wrote the play in this issue with German-raised Lebanese emerging writer Amina Hassan. Fouad Mohammed Fouad, poet-physician, is a refugee from Aleppo and author of five books in Arabic; he now teaches in the American University medical school. Taghrid Abdelal and Yousif Qasmiyeh are both Palestinian refugees: she writes in Arabic and is still in Beirut; he is a doctoral candidate at Oxford whose first book (in English) is about growing up in a refugee camp. Ritta Baddoura is the poetry critic for the French-language daily newspaper L’Orient le Jour. Others of these fourteen writers and seven translators are also professional print and online journalists—in Arabic, English, and French—and three are practicing medicine. Some are dual citizens, of Lebanon and the US, France, the UK, Syria, and the UAE, or they are Palestinians whose citizenship is not recognized in either country, as would be just.
Some of these writers and translators are people I know; others I’d read and reached out to; still others were discoveries, thanks to another writer or translator who emailed me: You ought to ask for work from X . . . Some were written in English, but most were originally composed in Arabic or French and translated here—by an equally international cohort—for the readers of the New England Review.