Post-American musings on Beirut

Beirut & Back, Nick Boke

BEIRUT: There is risk in writing a memoir. Everyday conversations, flights of fancy or convoluted histories may seem relevant to the author but, when recounted to the reader, present a bewildering – worse, boring – obstacle in the narrative. This risk is amplified in self-published works, where the more self-indulgent passages have not been exposed to the prudent trimming of an impartial editor.

Soul-searching questions and lengthy ruminations upon subjects from politics to world poverty risk quickly alienating readers unless handled with finesse. If an author gets it right, though, these can help to snare readers – causing them to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs and how they intersect or contrast with those of the writer.

In “Beirut and Back,” Nick Boke’s self-published memoir exploring his lengthy love affair with Lebanon, the U.S. author braves the pitfalls of self-reflective writing, and for the most part succeeds in striking the right balance.

Boke was uprooted from the suburbs of Washington in 1957 – at the age of 10 – and transplanted to Beirut, where his mother was offered a job with the organization now known as USAID (The United States Agency for International Development). During the four years they lived here, Boke explains, Beirut “got inside him,” and, almost six decades later, the author lives here once again, this time of his own free will.

This lengthy memoir, published in March, leads readers down memory lane, beginning with Boke’s childhood in Lebanon then moving on to explore his feeling of alienation upon returning to the U.S. and subsequent years spent abroad, both in Africa and on his multiple return trips to Lebanon.

The book is divided almost clinically into chapters with such scintillating titles as “Arrived,” “Settling In” and “Making Adjustments.” Luckily for readers, the content of these chapters is, for the most part, not limited to a naturalist’s field notes on the mundane minutiae of Boke’s life. Skipping engagingly from present to past, America to Lebanon, changing tense and person as it does, the memoir conveys an entertaining, if slightly schizophrenic, impression of the author’s life.

Indeed, Boke sometimes seems to be writing more for himself than for a public audience, striving to delimit the impact of his early Beirut years on the adult he has become.

“We all live in the thick of our worlds,” the author observes, “but we barely notice, until one day we lift up our heads and begin to wonder: who am I? And how did I get this way? How could I unearth the things that made me, me?

“If we can,” he continues, “we go home, hoping for hints.”

There seems to be something about Beirut that invites this sort of prose.

Lebanese-American author Salma Abdelnour also spent her early years in Beirut before relocating to the U.S. midway through the Civil War. In her recent memoir “Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut,” she describes her relationship with the city as “like yet another one of the on-again off-again romances in my life.”

Boke also personifies the city as a dysfunctional partner, writing, “My feelings for Beirut are sort of like being married to the wrong woman: she’s beautiful and exotic, but she’s also dangerous and complicated.”

“Beirut and Back,” however, does stand out from the crowd of “Why do I love Lebanon?” works by virtue of its broader perspective.

Boke’s focus is less why he feels so drawn to Lebanon than it is the thorny question of what it means to be an American, more specifically what it means to be an U.S. citizen who is happier living abroad.

The first part of the book, which recounts what little Boke remembers of his childhood years in Lebanon and charts his years working in sub-Saharan Africa, seems to be included primarily to demonstrate how different Boke is from his fellow countrymen.

What it boils down to, it appears, is that they like football and know how to fix cars and he doesn’t. In chapter three, in fact, he recounts with evident pride how a Swiss colleague in Nairobi once told him he wasn’t American, because “You listen. You engage. Americans don’t do that.”

This sense of alienation from American culture and social values is a recurring theme of the book. It is perhaps overemphasized at times, though Boke’s longer rants on the evils of consumerism and U.S. arrogance are saved from self-righteous pomposity by his willingness to show himself up.

He recounts an email to friends in Brazil explaining that he and his wife were moving to Lebanon because they wanted their lives “to entail more than listening to leaf-blowers and getting season tickets to the local symphony orchestra.” In response, his friends gently pointed out that these were little pleasures, born of prosperity and security, for which they longed.

Boke is clearly deeply enamored with Lebanon, and explores every detail of life in Beirut in its minutia – from the way eggs are sold in different denominations in various local supermarkets to the complicated political system.

He exhibits a childlike delight with even those aspects of Beirut life that most people consider wearisome – getting stuck in an elevator when the power cuts, encountering endless red tape when trying to cash a check. He devotes several pages to a mysterious several-day-long absence of milk in the city.

Though aware of Lebanon’s larger problems there are times when Boke appears to be looking at the country through rose-tinted glasses. Repeated criticisms of the surfeit of unnecessary SUVs in America, for example, may make local readers wonder if he has ever stopped to study Beirut traffic – peppered liberally with black SUVs, their tinted windows implying the silent self-importance of whoever lurks within.

Overall, however, the work provides some interesting insights into life in Lebanon. While the author doesn’t share many answers to the nature of identity, he does raise a plethora of worthwhile and thought-provoking questions.

“Beirut and Back” strikes a pleasant balance between introspection, simple narrative and entertaining anecdote that will have expat readers nodding in recognition and may allow Lebanese readers to see the familiar through a stranger’s eyes.

What American audiences, safely ensconced back home in some suburbia with their leaf-blowers and SUVs, will think of Boke’s memoir remains open to speculation.

“Beirut and Back” by Nick Boke, 344 pages, is available from Librairie Antoine.





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