Pessoptimism: A New Member

November 11th, 2009

Pessoptimist: Coined by Emile Habiby in his book The Secret Life of Saeed, the Pessoptimist. Saeed, a Palestinian in Israel could not decide which exactly he was:

Take me, for example. I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him it was no worse. So which am I, a pessimist or an optimist?


When I found out that I won a job at AUB and would be moving to Lebanon, it was on the morning of a lovely sunny Chicago day, and the last day of the semester. It was an e-mail: “We are pleased to inform you…” It invoked in me an ephemeral feeling of utter joy. What had been a sort of fantasy for me – teaching at this prestigious university in the motherland – would be real, and the actuality of this fantasy in light of my pessimism and doubt was the main reason for this joy.

As I anticipated, the joy dissipated into a deluge of anxiety. It was soon after I had confirmed my acceptance of the position when we were driving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for my brother’s graduation. I began placing objects and memories into my new future context. In jest, I said about an old service-style Mercedes that drove by: “I’m gonna buy one of those when I get to Lebanon.” My parents, who were excited about my move to their balad, laughed. But then my dad, being an avid LBC viewer, broke the news, “It hasn’t been calm there these last two days.” The war in Nahr el Bared had begun.

And I begun making my phone calls, chats, and e-mails to my Lebanese family members and friends. They assured me that the fighting was isolated and it’s far and that life was “normal.” That one couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary – everyone was going to work and all. Furthermore, everyone was “against” this loose terrorist faction. On the morning of my departure, aunts and uncles came to say goodbye. As I had become obsessed with the news, I ran up to check the latest to find the headlines. The war was over! Hooray! The army had seized control of the camp! At the time, my knowledge was limited to what I read in the news, which was never critical of the operation. From my vantage point, the Lebanese army had defeated these terrorist elements, and taking down the entire Palestinian camp was just a necessary evil in the process. And I would have fewer terrorists to fear. It was that simple.

On my second day in Lebanarmyon I took part in a parade in Sassine Square celebrating the army’s victory over the terrorists in Nahr el Bared. Everyone raised her flag for the army in praise of their “success” – it had been awhile. Having just hatched from my Lebanese shell, I might as well have been perched on top of a cedar tree, crunching on kri-kri nuts holding a round of cards in one hand and a peace sign with the other; I might as well have been whistling the national anthem too. My national pride was at a peak, and no person, street, or tree was beyond my adoration or cradling arms.

This was also the year, 2007, that Lebanon would experience a presidential vacancy for months. The night in November when Emile Lahoud left Baabda palace without a replacement, I was in a local ex-pat pub during its weekly Friday happy hour. There was a buzz about the impending vacancy. But the only person who seemed fazed was a man who warned us to buy milk, as all hell was about to break loose at midnight – Cinderella Lahoud was leaving and there was no glass slipper in sight. But I was perched at the bar with a student who I escorted there to conduct her primary research on Lebanon’s inhabitants’ “mysterious love for Lebanon” despite all the bloody trouble. All of the white-skinned drinkers boisterously praised the food, the hospitality, the kind people, the liveliness, the feeling of feeling alive. The presidential vacancy, the random bombs, the recent war in Nahr el Bared nor the obstructive tent city had deterred the ex-pats who could live anywhere of their choosing, but chose Beirut. And my student, a Lebanese who had lived in Saudi Arabia for most of her life, excitedly took notes, sighing with intoxication from the energy, that everyone could be so jubilant and careless in the face of so much stress. We lifted our huge mugs of Almaza and clinked them, none-the-wiser.

In the meantIMG_0048ime, the tent city erected by the March 8 opposition party was alive and well in the downtown center. The tent city looked like a littered village, full of men pulling on their hookahs. They were not budging until their demands were met. Everyone had an opinion on the situation and they ranged from spitting disgust to fiery revolutionary cause.

Then came the May 7, 2008 events when Hezbollah militiamen and others and their guns took the streets of Beirut in protest of the government’s proposed deIMG_0003cision to remove Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and resign the airport’s head of security after finding surveillance cameras there set up by Hezbollah. I was in De Prague Café in Hamra when the first shots in Hamra were spent. We spent the rest of the night in the café, drinking rose and eating, digesting our anxiety. When I and others were finally able to take the streets the following morning, escorted by De Prague managers, who apparently had “friends” out there, I arrived to my apartment where the fighting reignited. Militiamen came into the apartment building; they thought we were harboring a sniper. My neighbors, who were all hiding in the basement of the building, in between workout equipment, thought it was the “end” when they saw the barrels of the guns first, even before the tall men who followed. I was in the bathroom at the time.

After the gunpowder settled, my grandfather charged through the door and whisked me out of Hamra, southbound. I spent the rest of the week in the village where people played cards and drank beer, and fussed over the situation. I understood why many people say, “The days during the war were the best.” It was a time when people could be close and coop up without guilt and argue and eat lots of chips. And my story of being stuck in the bathroom when the militiamen came in was told over and over. My uncle said that was worse than their stories during the war because it was so invasive. Ironically, I did not think it was such a story. I would tell it while I laughed, sure that everyone around me had suffered much, much worse.

Then came Doha. After about 9 days of fighting, that had spread throughout areas of Lebanon and left hundreds killed, the Lebanese politicians put theirIMG_0151 suits on and hopped in a plane to Doha, Qatar. This materialized into the Doha Agreement (Details: Blogging Beirut). On my way to university, the news filtered out from the open door of a taxi driver’s car. We had a president! The tent city collapsed! The restaurants downtown opened over night and the celebrations began! I went to one of these restaurants and shook Fouad Siniora’s hand. Haifa and Majida el Roumi took the outdoor stages, and I went. I sang in the crowd with Majida el Roumi, and I felt a rush of excitement and joy that we had a president and the tent city would be no more. In the same Hollywood happy ending fashion, Sarkozy called the Doha Agreement a “great success for Lebanon and all the Lebanese, whose courage and patience never failed despite the ordeals they have been through.”

As a result, the summer ushered in new store fronts, pubs, and restaurants, and hundreds of thousands of visitors. One year later, we had relatively fair and successful democratic elections. And this week, about 6 months after those Lebanese politicians were elected, a government has finally been formed (Details: Qifa Nibka). The politicians have reached compromise. And today, Hariri presided over the first meeting at the Grand Serail. This is relatively good news. But, as for me, I know a few things now. I think I’ve joined many in becoming an “alternative” pessoptimist; even though I’ll admit it could have been worse, I am not praising god, and I am certainly not celebrating.

For an interesting point of view on a self-proclaimed pessoptimist at the following blog: “Informed Comment: Global Affairs”

Leave a Reply