Claire Messud's Road to Beirut

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In 2010 novelist Claire Messud was invited to teach for two weeks in Beirut, Lebanon. It was an enticing offer. Her father had lived in Beirut as a boy and she wanted to see the city for herself. She went, but it wasn't an easy decision. At the time, her father was in a hospice in Connecticut and didn't have long to live. Messud writes about that experience in the current issue of Granta magazine. It was important for her to visit Beirut before her father died.

Claire Messud: I had in my head some almost novelist idea, some fantasy that I could bring something back for my father from Beirut, even if it was an intangible something. He had been a child there and had not been back, except very briefly, he hadn't been back his whole life. My father when they went was five. They were there because my grandfather was the Naval attache to the French consulate in Beirut. So some of his earliest, very early memories from the age of 5 to sort of 9 or 10 were of Beirut, that was his childhood, and especially because the end of the time in Beirut coincided also with the war. And his childhood thereafter was the war.

Werman: World War II.

Messud: Yeah.

Werman: Interestingly though before going you asked your father to draw you a map of the city, and based on that map I'm just wondering what did you imagine your father's Beirut would be like and how did that map kind of like square with the reality that you saw when you were there?

Messud: Again, this sort of fantasy. He was so certain when he was drawing things, and he drew the outline of the coast, and he drew the American University, and he drew in different neighborhoods. And a Lebanese architect friend of mine said it's a perfect map, but he also put in things that no longer exist because they obviously were as much a part of the landscape when he was there, you know, a central department store and the Souks, an airbase, a French airbase that was near where they lived. And those were all on the map, and of course, not only do those not exist anymore, but I couldn't even find anybody who remembered when they existed.

Werman: Wow, I mean your fantasy that you could go to Beirut and bring something back for your father, was there anything that you felt you could bring back that he would recognize? Or even a memory?

Messud: Well, what I did eventually find was the street where they had lived and I took lots of photographs, but of course, because of the civil war so many things had been destroyed and rebuilt and changed; and not just the civil war, even before the civil war, just the natural growth of the city over time. So the combination of all that history just meant that I think I thought I was gonna run back with photographs where he would at least say I remember that curve in the road, or I remember...but no. And also by the time I came back he was very sick and I think it wasn't so important to him.

Werman: I mean cities are like people, that's a really interesting point you kind of make. They evolve, they grow and change over time, and sometimes after a while, quite often they don't look anything like they used to. What do you think the Beirut of your father's years may have survived the decades and is still there today?

Messud: Well, I think there are definitely certain buildings or certain neighborhoods. The neighborhood where they lived was then the Christian neighborhood; all through the civil war it was the Christian neighborhood, a neighborhood called [inaudible 03:06] and it is still to this day the Christian neighborhood. You know, there are things that are the same, but Beirut is actually fascinating because they made the decision to rebuild the downtown as it had been. And so the old town as it were is magnificent and is rebuilt and looks exactly as I believe it did in 1965 say, only cleaner and brighter. But I think that for people who knew the city over all the time must be both wonderful and strange.

Werman: Yeah, the way you write about your visit to Beirut in 2010 it kind of seems almost surreal. I mean the image that really struck me was your architect friend telling you about how the year before there had been this Middle East Bear convention in Beirut; as you said, big hairy gay guys from all over the Arab world. I doubt your father saw anything like that when he was there, but for you was that kind of representative of the past disappearing or just new layers of the present that seem incongruous added on?

Messud: Well, I actually think it's not so incongruous with the Beirut of old because Beirut was always sort of a cosmopolitan, fun-loving, worldly city with fabulous food and nightclubs and glamorous people.

Werman: A party town...

Messud: A party town, right, so the idea that a party town today is slightly different than a party town of then is not so weird. It's still a party town, people just have slightly different parties.

Werman: You're not the only person, Claire Messud, to be drawn to the city because of somebody else's experiences there. Is the lesson that it's just hard to track down memory?

Messud: I think that's one of the lessons. I mean in some way the impetus for me in writing the piece was me trying to come to terms with the fact that when somebody dies, everything that's in their mind, everything they remember goes. And if they haven't told you, you'll never know. And even with the little fragments that I had been told and with my father although barely still alive, I somehow thought I could go and find more, and that I could take those fragments and almost like dehydrated vegetables you know, I could reconstitute them. And in fact, that's not possible and you can imagine things or invent things, or you can have your own experiences, but I think the limits of what can be share became painfully apparent.

Werman: Write Claire Messud's piece in the current issue of Granta is called The Road to Damascus. Claire Messud, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Messud: Thank you, Marco.