Writing’s a pleasure. But it isn’t always easy—not for me, at least.
It’s downright vexing to be a writer. (Again, perhaps that’s just me.) Creativity drains. Energy runs low. Originality and truth struggle in the mind. A host of commitments interfere. Distractions—women, wine, and especially women armed with wine—do too.
And then there’s risk. All of us have ideas, opinions, or analyses. Writers share those, and their own secrets, with the world. Rarely secure in their own labor, they’ll face the disapproval, dissent, and scorn of others. Unsettling.
Many toil in relative obscurity. (Many of you, for instance, don’t know or know of me—and probably couldn’t care less. Anyway, you’re the lucky ones.) These writers relish experiment, words, and sparring (intellectually, of course).
Others also receive creative recognition and financial gain. The lucky become portals to the world, enjoying its charms and sharing their experiences with readers intimate and unknown.
A precious few risk much more: Life. Their voice invites praise. Their self-assurance attracts and alienates. And the weight of their words draws harm.
Gebran Tueni comes to mind.
The son of Ghassan Tueni, a titan of pre-war Lebanon, the younger Tueni inherited the family business in the early 1990s. (The indefatigable Ghassan died earlier this year, aged 86.) While others in a similar position inherited bakeries, law firms, and sovereign states, Tueni took over An-Nahar, a popular and liberal Arab-language daily based in Beirut. Generally unburdened by political responsibility, Tueni wrote brazenly about the illegal and unjust Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
Behind the scenes and in public, Tueni was active in the Cedar Revolution that led to Syria’s withdrawal in 2005. On December 12 of that year, Gebran ignored the usual warnings and returned to Beirut from Paris, where he’d been in temporary, self-imposed exile. He never made it home.
Like many Lebanese of a certain view, Tueni died in a car-bomb explosion. At the time, half of Lebanon was high on the Cedar Revolution and the other half was cowering in its shadow. The critics were quiet.
In the years since, however, vultures have nipped at Tueni… His views weren’t shared by everyone. Sometimes rabid, he could lose a perfectly valid point in the excess of his expression. Though prestigious, his newspaper remains a family heirloom. And he ignored the warnings.
By historical accident, Christopher Hitchens—who died a year ago—also comes to mind now. His life a spectacle, Hitchens lived spectacularly. An atheist, rascal, and wordsmith, he provoked and grated—but was fun about it.
Hitchens had his taste of Lebanon in 2009, when he visited the country to speak at the American University of Beirut (AUB). While in Beirut, he bantered, drank, bought shoes, and took two beatings: One was figurative and appropriate; the other was literal and ultimately undeserved.
AUB’s crowd roughed him up first. Well, he roughed himself up. While fielding a question, Hitchens identified Walid Jumblatt—neo-feudal chief of Lebanon’s Druze and head of a centuries-old political dynasty—as one of the Middle East’s “true revolutionaries.” (Jumblatt does wear jeans, and did so even before the Soviet collapse.) He drew the appropriate scorn, effectively admitted he was wrong, and moved on.
Hitchens later suffered worse. Walking down Hamra Street, a bustling place that had by then recovered some of its old cosmopolitanism, he ran into the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Once a sophisticated political movement, the SSNP now merely consists of garden-variety thugs masquerading as members of a sophisticated political movement.
Hitchens spotted one of the many SSNP signs that dotted—and, last I checked, still dot—the area, protected by party partisans and allies embedded in Hamra since their assault on Beirut in 2008. Apparently, Hitchens didn’t care for the party’s insignia: the zubaiyaa. (The zubaiyaa’s basically a spinning swastika. However, party intellectuals claim it invokes the cross and crescent of Lebanon’s spiritual families. Never mind the party’s name!)
His sensibilities offended, Hitchens began defacing the sign. He’d completed the “C of a well-known epithet” before SSNP youths assaulted him—slapping, scratching, punching, and kicking him—and nearly dragged him away for questioning in broad daylight. Hitchens survived, but their intent was clear.
In a superficial way, those who take risks deserve their fate. Tueni probably should have stayed in Paris. He should have argued nicely. Hitchens should have researched Lebanon better before speaking at AUB. And he was arrogant—and plain stupid—to deface an SSNP sign in a neighborhood dominated by its thugs. Who could question that self-contained logic?
At a deeper level, the surrounding environment—in Lebanon, a pervasive climate of permissive injustice that engenders and allows violent responses to expression—matters most. Writers and other dissidents aren’t the problem. Those who fight thoughts with bullets, confront words with bombs, and reward dissent with death are.
At AUB, Hitchens was in a public forum where he had agreed to speak and defend his convictions. (He later admitted, in a way, that he was fair game.) Tueni routinely engaged his counterparts on television screens, in backrooms, and in public squares. He won some rounds; he lost others.
By contrast, the thugs that killed Tueni and assaulted Hitchens used violence to gain silence. Tueni died because he, perhaps haughtily, said Lebanon wasn’t theirs. Hitchens was mugged because he, perhaps unknowingly, said Hamra wasn’t theirs.
Without an intimate knowledge of the Levant to burden him with baggage, Hitchens put it best: Those in Lebanon “who inconvenience Syria by their criticisms are bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view.”