Culture

Learning Lebanon’s organized chaos

BEIRUT: “What a gorgeous view,” Martjin van der Kooij murmurs to himself. Nestled within the Dutch Embassy, on the 10th floor of the Netherlands Tower, he’s admiring the perfect chaos unfolding on Charles Malek Avenue below. A Dutch journalist and political commentator, Van der Kooij visited Lebanon for a short few days recently, paying homage to the people and sites documented in his new memoir “Alle Dagen Libanon.”

“Ah, that’s very difficult,” Van der Kooij comments while pondering the English translation of the title. “Literally, it translates to ‘All Days Lebanon,’ but this doesn’t make any sense in English.”

The Dutch author takes his time, turning to his friends in the room for help. “In Dutch, there is an expression ‘all day party,’ meaning there are always things going on. ... There’s a lot of life and it is constant,” he attempts to explain. “It’s a positive message, and that’s how I wanted to refer to Lebanon in my title.”

Having grown up in the Netherlands from the mid-1970s through the ’80s, Van der Kooij was surrounded by news of this small country. The gruesome nature of the Civil War had earned notoriety abroad, making an impression on the aspiring author.

“Every day on the news, it was Lebanon. Actually, you can compare it to Syria now. Today, the young people grow up now and see Syria in a bad state ... all the atrocities, the rubble,” he says. “When I was growing up, that was Lebanon. I grew up with that idea in my head.”

After a few decades of observing the country from abroad, Van der Kooij finally bought his tickets in 2006. Unfortunately, his plans were cut short by the Israeli military’s 34-day war on Lebanon.

This delayed but did not deter Van der Kooij from finally making his trip. “I really developed this curiosity,” he explained earnestly, “and I wanted to go to this country that I saw on the TV all the time.”

Van der Kooij finally did arrive in 2012, with not much more than a backpack, ready to explore physically what he had only experienced through media.

“Like I described in the book, I was so surprised by Lebanon. All these images [of war] were still in my head. I couldn’t get rid of it, you know?”

Like many Western tourists visiting a foreign country for the first time, the Dutch author was confronted by a reality that did not mirror preconceived perceptions. This awakening served as the initial inspiration for his book, as he embarked on a “cultural journey” through the unique and comically contradictory country full of “wonder.”

“The [culture shock] for me was enormous,” he recalled. “The way people drive, it’s crazy! The most crazy things happen [here]. You can be scared of it, but it can also make you think, ‘Okay, these people live in organized chaos.’ ... There is some harmony in it. People know what they can do, and cannot do.”

Written like a collection of nonfiction stories, “Alle Dagen Libanon” documents the people and experiences Van der Kooij walked himself into after stepping off the plane in 2012. He documents the fortuitous friendships made, an eye-opening trip to Mlita, and unanticipated run-in with authorities in Tripoli.

“As a Dutch person, it was an interesting cultural journey to see if [the Dutch] do it all well or if maybe we are too organized and regulated. We can learn something,” he suggested. “Bottom line, I wanted to show the diversity in Lebanon. There are so many different communities here, and I wanted my Dutch audience to consider Lebanon in a new light.”

“Alle Dagen Libanon” will be released in English in the coming year.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 24, 2016, on page 16.

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