In Praise of Being Cut Off

ROGER COHEN – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
June 16, 2008
About a quarter-century ago, I was in West Beirut at the Commodore Hotel, once described as a functioning telex machine surrounded by 500 broken toilets. You lined up to use the telex. There was a war on in a divided city. There was also plenty of Black Label.
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It was hard to get in, harder to get out. The airport was closed. You sailed from Cyprus to Jounieh, a village north of Beirut. The ship couldn’t dock there so you transferred at sea to small fishing boats that took you ashore. Jumping from one to the other across a yard of heaving water caused some women to scream or balk.
We were comfortable enough at the Commodore. You got used to the shelling. Some Beirut kids, it was said, could not sleep without the sounds of war because that was all they had known.
It was good to be cut off. As a journalist, that’s what you wanted to be: cut off, except for that telex line.
I became a journalist because I wanted to tell stories. To find stories you must give yourself to the moment. Time must weigh on you, its lulls, accelerations and silences. The life within, the deeper story, does not yield itself with ease.
Beirut gave you time. Most of war is sitting around. I watched kids on the sidewalks, facades of buildings blown away behind them, constructing elaborate castles of cigarette cartons, flimsy creations that defied shelling as the spirit defies measurement.
At the Central Bank, I met a young woman. I was waiting. There was a lot of that. Her name was Sana. Later she took me to her family’s shuttered apartment. All but she had fled to Europe. There were heavy drapes over the ornate furniture and the airless, opulent rooms spoke of a rich life eclipsed.
I felt like a trespasser on family secrets, gazing at formal portraits. But perhaps we story tellers are trespassers. There is something indecent about what we do, plunderers of others’ lives. The faster we move on, the more indecent it is. I’ve been the unseemly chronicler of too many tears.
That abandoned apartment taught me something essential about Beirut’s cosmopolitan soul, a truth deeper than all the labels of the war’s militias, Christian, Shia, Druse and the rest. Sana taught me about the defiance of loss. The universal in the particular is all we can aspire to.
It helps to be cut off, to have nowhere to go, nowhere but your story, and no excuse for not telling it. I would gaze at the blank sky and think of kids that smiled at me. Gulls swooped.
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