BEIRUT: Feeling down about Lebanon's exacerbated political instability and perpetual existential dread? Two just-published books offer effective antidotes to the latest outbreak of the Beirut blues. The first revels in caustic humor, the second in the do-good spirit of encouraging the next young generation to appreciate its history and culture - ancient culture, that is, because contemporary culture is as down in the dumps as everyone and everything else.
As adept at irony as they are prone to narcissism, the Lebanese love nothing more than to see themselves reflected on screen (witness the phenomenon that was Philippe Aractingi's film "Bosta") or in print and to laugh just a little or a lot while doing so. The sequel to Michael Karam and Peter Grimsditch's uproarious book "Life's Like That!" is likely, then, to find a healthy audience.
"Life's Like That!" was published late in 2004 and was tagged "Your Guide to the Lebanese." It was a runaway success, necessitating a second print-run and lodging itself onto Virgin Megastore's bestseller list in seeming perpetuity. The book featured 50 hilarious character sketches that put 50 character types under the scalpel of fine satire.
There was the plastic surgery addict, the fashion victim, the aging singer, the Corniche jogger, the parking-lot attendant and the cash-point machine man, among many other outrageous caricatures, all illustrated with earthy visual humor by Maya Fidawi, a graduate of the Lebanese University's Institute of Fine Arts.
"Life's Even More Like That!" suggests that the Karam and Grimsditch formula could be never-ending. Fidawi's cover image depicts the raucous, oh-so improbable societal microcosm that is the interior of an aging, creaking red Lebanese Commuting Company bus. Inside one finds Pierre Sadek's exacting introduction: a drawing of a fat old man who may have been a basketball champ in his youth, accompanied by the line "With all modesty, I am the world ... and the world is me!" (Exclamation points are clearly a hallmark of the series.)
"Life's Even More Like That!" introduces another round of 50 caricatures. There's the gym fanatic - "part of the mutual non-aggression pact between Rana and her husband of 15 years was that he never complained about or even questioned her simultaneous membership at Beirut's two top sports and fitness clubs" - who puts in hours and hours on the machines to impress her Pilates instructor, never suspecting in the least that he's gay and doesn't give a toss for her feminine physique.
Karam and Grimsditch have taken recent events in Lebanon into account, thus the punch of the NGO girl (wickedly funny and on point), the red-faced aging foreign correspondent who writes for "Cluster Bomb Quarterly" and the twerpy, flaky young foreign correspondent who hasn't a clue where he is or what Lebanon is about. To bring everything closer to home, there is also the Martyrs Square demonstrator and the Sunday party activist. The potential here is literally endless.
On another trip entirely, though no less relevant or illuminating, is Nina Jidejian's "A Young Person's Guide to Ancient Lebanon," with photographs by Tony Farraj. Jidejian is an eminent historian who has written countless tomes on Lebanon's archaeological heritage. "A Young Person's Guide" brings readers through 26 artifacts in the National Museum, each corresponding to a letter in the alphabet, the spread of which was one of the Phoenicians' gifts to the world. As such, this bright, colorful book tells a historical narrative that stretches from the Neolithic age (5000 BC) through the late Islamic era.
The letter A, for example, corresponds to Ahiram, a sarcophagus for the 3,000-year-old King of Byblos and one of Lebanon's finest historical treasures. For E, there's Eshmun, the healing god of Sidon, illustrated by a monument from a temple erected by King Eshminazar II and his mother, the high priestess of Astarte.
Jidejian is Lebanon's leading authority on all things related to the National Museum, and in book after book she endeavors to inspire enthusiasm for the country's grand though vastly underused institution for very, very old art. The thoughtfully produced "A Young Person's Guide" is by no means restricted to young readers. Enjoy.
"Life's Even More Like That!" is published by Turning Point. "A Young Person's Guide to Ancient Lebanon" is published by Yuki Press. Both are now available in bookstores throughout Lebanon.