Culture

Missives of bittersweet nostalgia for a season that never was

Review

BEIRUT: "A Lebanese guy rushes to the dentist in a panic: 'Please take out my bridge before the Israelis bomb it!'" "After Saudi Arabia decided to donate half a billion dollars to rebuild Lebanon, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the capture of six Israeli soldiers at the border."

"An Israeli arrives at London's Heathrow Airport. As he fills out a form, the customs officer asks him: 'Occupation?' The Israeli replies: 'No, thanks, just visiting!'"

These jokes - which made the rounds during the war in Lebanon last summer and come courtesy of Karim Imad, Wael Ladiki and Hady Dbouk, respectively - are just a few of the more irreverent bits of material that fill a striking new book of images and texts entitled "A Lost Summer: Postcards from Lebanon." Their punchy humor lightens up what is an otherwise heavy subject - the dashed hopes and dreams of a generation that thought the summer of 2006 would be one to remember in terms of sun and fun rather than doom and gloom.

"A Lost Summer" was edited by Maureen Ali, designed by Anna Ogden Smith, published by Saqi Books and compiled - both delicately and forcefully - by Souraya Ali, Manar al-Chammas, Dyana Najdi, Tarek Sadi, Tala Tayara and Muna Wehbe of the group Lebanon United.

The first run of the book was printed in the United Kingdom, and all proceeds are going to the Sustainable Democracy Center, an independent, non-partisan organization that was established in 2002 and fosters human development in Lebanon through initiatives based on democracy, citizenship and human rights.

The second run of the book is set to be launched locally at the Arab book fair in Beirut next month.

"When the war broke out in Lebanon last summer, young Lebanese in London came together to form a group called Lebanon United," recalls Maureen Ali. "A lot of them didn't know each other before. They were born here or there. They were all in their mid-20s and 30s and included bankers, lawyers, computer geeks."

They had initially gotten together for a demonstration held in London against the war in Lebanon. "But they were unimpressed with the older generation," explains Ali. So they decamped to Hyde Park and Lebanon United was born.

"I sent out an email to a few friends who I knew were feeling as frustrated with the situation in Lebanon as I was," recalls Muna Wehbe. "One, that it didn't seem to be ending and was only getting worse. And two, that no one seemed to be doing anything about it. They forwarded the email onto others and a group of about 20 of us came together ... That meeting took place on July 20, 2006."

Over time, the original group of 20 mushroomed into an affiliation of 850 people, all arranged around a core of three who have been organizing numerous and creative fundraising events for Lebanon - including pool tournaments, poker games, pop quiz nights and mini-film festivals. All told, Lebanon United has raised about $235,000.

Though it could have been - and would have been justified - "A Lost Summer" isn't a record of Lebanon United's work. Rather it is a document of that acute time period in which regular people - young, old, in Lebanon and abroad - reacted to the war that in one way or another came crashing down all around them.

In the beginning, recalls Wehbe, "it was just an idea to pull something together in a book that would celebrate Lebanon and that could be a coffee table book that would raise money. The idea," which originally came from Lebanon United member Tala Tayara, "was mulled for a while, and started to develop as we started receiving more and more of the emails [and] stories from people during the war.

"We were so moved by the pieces we were reading that we thought it would be great to put them all into a book. So we gathered every piece we could find," says Wehbe, who was born in Lebanon in 1975, lives in London and returns to Beirut two or three times a year.

"A Lost Summer" takes excerpts from emails, blogs, letters, anecdotes, jokes and quotes and throws them into a heady mix of photographs, drawings, signs, stamps and symbols. The basic spine of the graphic design is that every page is a postcard. But Anna Ogden Smith transformed the material into a treasure trove.

Ogden Smith, 22, was born and raised in Beirut and left Lebanon - reluctantly - for London about two weeks into the war. When the idea for "A Lost Summer" came up, "they needed a designer and I was starved for anything related to Lebanon when I was in London," she recalls. A recent graduate of the American University of Beirut's department of architecture and graphic design, Ogden Smith says: "It was an amazing experience. Everyone was very keen to do whatever was possible."

Ogden Smith took the material that Lebanon United had compiled and began to work the design - matching texts and images, developing the postcard idea into something much more densely textured and digging into her own archive of old letters to come up with design elements that would run through the book and hold the material together. "I started scanning everything I had," she says, laughing.

"I didn't want to just work on the war. No, I didn't want anger. I wanted something light. I let my own emotions go and worked with the rationality of the book," she says, and on the symmetry of 80 pages and 40 spreads (two open pages which Ogden Smith mined like a dance or a dialogue), and all of which peak in the middle with a blank postcard for readers to make their own.

According to Wehbe, the intended audience for "A Lost Summer" was Lebanese living abroad. "We knew they would be the obvious target, but ... the book has also really appealed to those in Lebanon, which has surprised me a little ... I thought they would be sick of being reminded of the war. But I guess what has spoken to people universally is the message of unity, of solidarity and of the spirit of the Lebanese when we stand together. We all felt it so strongly this summer and that inspires people to remain hopeful for the future. And to be thankful for all that we do have, that we can be so proud of."

"A Lost Summer: Postcards from Lebanon" is published by Saqi Books. A project that Saqi's late publisher, Mai Ghoussoub, was intimately involved in and deeply supportive of, "A Lost Summer" has been rededicated in her honor.

 

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