the post-blast period has been a weird one for every lebanese person, even the diaspora ones with a less-than-mild attachment to the motherland. for the first few weeks after it happened, i had friends texting and calling me from all over the world, people i haven’t spoken to months or years, some people i haven’t even spoken to before but who just know me to be from lebanon through social media. as lebanese people, we’re used to being scattered; we’re used to growing up being taught to travel, we’re used to having a somewhat global consciousness, to being a little culturally savvy, knowing a little bit about everybody. what we’re not used to is anyone knowing about us. we’re not used to the attention. we’re not used to the pity. and, i think, on behalf of all lebanese, i can safely say, we don’t like it.
if there’s anything that gives lebanon and the lebanese people their general, effortless charm, it’s the mystery of who they are and how they function. even we aren’t sure how the hell we keep on living, laughing, and dreaming given our circumstances. the mystery of the lebanese spirit is a mystery to the lebanese people themselves. and it’s always been that way, since the phoenicians, those icons of obscurity, the people whose ships the mediterranean world marveled at, the people who the greek named after the royal color they brought to the world’s elite, the people who invented the alphabet. one of the oldest examples of modern civilization, culture, writing–and we barely know anything about them.
and then there’s the bible, where lebanon is mentioned over 70 times, and yet it remains a mystery to the protagonists of the old and new testament. the northern border to moses’s kingdom, home of the famous trees, god’s trees, “which he planted”: the cedars. “take all you like” god said, “everything south and east of the trees. those are my trees”. lebanon is mentioned for its beauty, brought up as a touchstone comparison. when someone smells beautifully, they smell like lebanon. when they are an honest, righteous person, they are upright like the cedar of lebanon. when they are kind or resourceful or productive, they are like the blooming fields of lebanon. and the only real intimate look we get is when solomon comes around, and marvels at the temple of melcarte. so awestruck is he that he wants one exactly like it, and finally we’re introduced to hiram, the great king of tyre who has come to solomon’s help.
mystery is the essence of lebaneseness. its our saving grace. it kept us safe in those ancient times when hebrew colonizers came for the levant. “stop at the trees” god said, “those are my trees”. and when someone attacked them, they were punished. because this was the holy land. not the famous, propagandized holy land that everybody’s heard of and pillaged and destroyed and that’s seen nothing but death in the last 2000 years. but the secret holy land, that obscure, enigmatic place of luscious green valleys, snowy mountains and flowing rivers that god decided to keep for himself. it’s silly to believe too strongly in myths, maybe even superstitious, but i have always felt that there was some kind of blessing in our anonymity that has kept us from falling or fleeing despite everything we and our ancestors have been through. we are cursed to be who and where we are, and yet, we are protected. we leave, but we always return. we are crushed, over and over, but we always rise.
recently, i came across another little lebanese mystery.
a few days after the explosion, many of us took to the streets to protest and demand a legitimate investigation of what happened at the harbor. of course, the protest itself was not as successful as we would have hoped, as protests almost never are, and to this day we aren’t sure what caused the blast. and we may never know.
while i was at the protest, i met a filmmaker named nader, a man in his mid-30s with a great sense of humor who, like me, spent most of the time walking through the street aimlessly, watching people yell at soldiers, chanting along sporadically with the crowd. we were having a smoke at some point, at the edges of the crowd, talking about the hopelessness of the protests and the october revolution. we both asked each other the same question only to get the same answer:
“if there’s no hope, why are you here?”
“just in case there is,”
he took a dramatic drag of his cigarette, and looked out at the smoke rising amidst the crowd that now had a golden-brown hue in the setting sun, with a sort of twinkle in his eye. “this would be a good shot,” he said, “it’s very elpidian. the whole revolution has become very elpidian,”
i had never heard this term before, and was a bit hesitant to ask–i didn’t want him to know how bad my french was. but i also didn’t want what seemed to be the wisest thing i’d heard that day to elude me.
“what do you mean?”
“it’s a concept isa badak or a genre almost, in film. not formally maybe, but some filmmakers use it here to refer to a specific mood in cinema,”
“like a hopeless mood you mean?”
“yes, but not just hopeless. hopeless but beautiful somehow. hopeless but not completely. there is still a little glimmer of hope somewhere, even an irrational kind, a little bit of light. like this scene now. there are people injured, and the teargas smoke is going to suffocate us even from this far away, and the army has turned on the people, and nothing is gunna change, but we are here, you and me, two people who don’t believe in the revolution. we’re still here, and the sun is setting, and somehow this ugly thing looks beautiful and romantic, because we’re here for it, for no reason,”
in that sense, he was right. the revolution had become very elpidian. but i was so intrigued (as i always am) with the word itself, that i couldn’t help but probe him about it.
“where does the word come from?”
“it’s from a greek word i think. it means ‘hope’,”
“why that word though?”
“well, it’s a little bit of a mystery, even for the filmmakers who use it. none of us are sure exactly but there are many theories. the legend is that back in the 20s, there was a cinema in beirut for the communists. it was called castle? or crystal? something like this. and there was a film that was played there whose main character was named elpide. the film was played only once, because the next day, the whole theatre was burned down. even though it wasn’t really a communist cinema, people knew that the communists were meeting there. no one is sure who burnt it down because there was a lot of fighting in beirut then and too many people hate the communists. no one knows who the director was either, but they say he was french, and he died soon after too. the film was called ‘suburbs of despair’. it was a silent film, of course, and it was all about this little boy, named elpide, whose parents were christian communists who were hung by the ottomans. he raised himself in the streets, working for butchers, cleaning shoes, sometimes begging. finally he found a stray dog that was starving so he fed him and taught him to do tricks. then he and the dog would do little shows in the street and sleep together by the beach, until the dog was shot one day because he was barking too loud for an angry man who wanted to sleep, and elpide was alone again. but even though his whole life was nothing but a series of tragic events, elpide always stayed hopeful. in the end he found an abandoned room with a bed and bowl. he hadn’t really had a room before, or a bed, so in the last scene he sitting on the bed smiling and looking around him. he had found his place,”
“wow. have you seen the film? is it online?”
he was about to light a cigarette when he stopped to laugh at my naivety, “no, of course not. no one has seen the film. that’s why it’s a mystery,” obviously.
after that day, i searched everywhere and anywhere i could for a reference to this ‘mood’. to the film, to elpide, to suburbs of despair, to the cinema. i found nothing except an untraceable wikipedia reference to a crystal cinema in beirut where the communist party used to meet in 1925; and a reference on filmfreeway to a lebanese film produced last year named ‘elpide’. besides that, nothing. when i couldn’t find anything on crystal cinema, i decided to contact the filmmaker of the new ‘elpide’, to see if she knew anything about this genre, or if her titling was a mere coincidence.
she did. in fact, the name of her film, which is also the name her main character (who is also a young boy), was a tribute to the elpidian legend. she also knew nader.
“not everyone knows about it,” she told me, “but some filmmakers here in lebanon, like me and nader and some of our friends, we know it from some older people in the industry. i’m not sure where it came from. i don’t think anyone is sure,”
“have you ever read about it anywhere?”
“no, i don’t think anyone has written about it. it’s not an official thing, you know? it’s just something hek we just know about it,”
we talked about the legend of the crystal cinema and the film, and she told me some of the derivative legends that people talk about: that the boy actor disappeared after the screening. that the director faked his death so he could become a legend. that the dog in the film was beheaded and left at the doorstep of one of the heads of the communist party. we talked about other things too, and had a good time. she was charming, jet-black hair and eyes, nurturing smile, always injecting french words into everything she said, pulling her sleeves up nervously when i complimented her. we hit it off (i thought) and agreed to meet again, but she never texted me back after that.
i kept searching, but after about of month of finding no reference to this ‘elpidian’ mood in any french, arabic, or english book on film studies i could find, i gave up.