It is easy to talk about “then.” The “now” is far more difficult. Memories confronted with that “now” take on a sense of fantasy and unease. A strange light is shed over the inner landscape by the changes in the outer. Since I speak of Lebanon, the light is also lurid. I am not sure what shadows it casts back onto the “Lebanon” of a dozen or so years ago. Nor do I quite know how to write out vertigo onto the page, or that almost stifling feeling of arrest, the lurch into a time where suddenness and absence of movement come together to create a dreamworld of rushed and still impressions. In the three days of my return, that dreamtime never left me. Inscribing it now, already a different now, I take refuge in a certain distance. I am trying cautiously to place things, to put them on a site. That site had been established in my mind, but the return whirls everything around, blows walls down and bodies through the air and I have to start again.

Impressions on this return were intense but purely superficial. They were formed by absences: dead friends, émigrés, faces that now exist only as words that become shockingly intangible. They were shaped by new presences and outcomes: that 8-year-old now 20, that powerful notable now half paralyzed, that quiet adolescent become a hero.

The three days spent in Berqayl, the village of memory and notebooks of 1971-72, and of publications which are the only places where “my village” actually exists, is abruptly another and very problematic kind of memory and record. The strategy I adopt here for these reflections is to go as shallow as possible, give the superficial its due, attend to the surfaces of a place and its people.

The site is a strategic one: at the very base of the Lebanese mountain as it tapers towards its northernmost point, controlling the major route linking the summits and the high plateau, with their settlements of sheepherders and cultivators, to the foothills and coastal plain of the Akkar province of north Lebanon. The village is an articulating point, well placed to cut communications to and from the mountain and to dominate the plain. “The mountain” has always been effectively outside state control. This is the region of the Jurd, of strong clans (‘ashiras), sheep wars, banditry and fierce localistic loyalties and feuds in the accounts of others, and indeed in some native accounts as well. The plain was ruled by large landed estate owners who cultivated it with seasonal share-cropper and quasi-servile laborers. It is sparsely settled, with scattered small clusters of shacks and lean-tos known by the name of the place and qualifying as kinds of rural bidonvilles, certainly never as qarya or dai‘a (not least because the pashas and beys did not permit them to have mosques or cemeteries).

Berqayl was a dai‘a in local terminology (Hans Wehr defines it as “landed estate…domain; small village, hamlet”). Inhabitants spoke of it accurately as the center of the quasi-feudal (iqta‘i) power of beys and pashas of that region of Akkar. Its last ruler, dead some 14 years at the time of my fieldwork, had been the most famous and politically significant of all the Miraabi lords of his time. His son, murdered before the father died, was briefly minister of finance. This notion of being the hinge of a whole system of domination, and the size of the place relative to other settlements in both numbers and extent, make any translation difficult, but I opt for “village.”

Berqayl was visible, but only just, as you came over the first line of low foothills from the coast. It lay in, rather than on, the landscape. As you drew close, you would see that the main road up the mountain (a track until the 1930s) began its very steep, winding ascent just behind the small and barely noticeable main mosque, bisecting the dai‘a as it passed behind the cemetery.

To the left, on the higher ground and looking down on the other houses, a very important expression of power, were the 18th and 19th century stone fortresses of the beys, later joined by the chateau of the great lord and his son’s huge “townhouse.” A little below were the square stone houses you would later discover belonged to the intermediate stratum of retainers and “men of honor.” To the right and on the other side of the road and the cemetery lay the often tiny mud and rough stone shelters of the fellahin or laborers.

Most of this and other details and variations the traveller would see when within a hundred yards or so of the small mosque, the ground and path before which was the entrance to the village. There he would confront “the dai‘a.” He would still see little enough of it, though he himself would be all too visible. At this point was the crucial area of passage and transition, and of security or danger. Now he was “here.” No longer “outside.” He would have to choose among several very separate and clearly distinct directions. Here was the zone of entry and exit, a frontier that might be closed against police or army or traffic in either direction between mountain and sea.

By the time of my arrival in 1971, a school had been built out on its own in a field below the village. There were small groupings here and there of houses on the fringes, like minor satellites of the body of the place, but “coming in” was not too different from what it must have been earlier. Two roads converged at the small mosque. Car and lorry traffic, now the dominant mode of transport, had to pass right through the village. Who was going up and down that mountain was always known. The village dominated the road and not vice versa.

Where the road turned in front of the small central mosque, you unmistakably came up against Berqayl as a full social force and entity. The army and police might find, as they did once in 1972, that faced with this strategic situation and what was already a vast arsenal of handguns, Kalashnikovs and Czech rifles, only negotiations by the qaimaqam, and at one remove the provincial governor, could open the road (after volleys of rifle fire had been exchanged, all aimed high, I think). That was ostensibly for a dispute over school organization. Territoriality, identity as “Berqayl,” violence and security were integrally linked.


Closer inspection in 1971 already showed changes in construction materials and sometimes in the plan of the houses. Breeze blocks, reinforced concrete and cement were being used quite widely. Where the house of one person had more than one room, the relations between the spaces were not what they had formerly been. There was already an autrefois, or “old style.” For the fellahin, this meant the mud and stone in which their fathers still lived if they were really poor. Such dwellings had become objects of shame both for external appearance and for what was presented as the condensed, undifferentiated domestic universe of animals, storage, cooking and family space. The principles of separation and classification and practice within these houses were collapsed by the children’s generation into a predominantly status reading of disprivilege and social insignificance. These dark hovels represented a past, a shared and rejected memory, what was left behind, a marker beside which the new two-room house represented an accretion of economic and symbolic capital. They measured the difference between what a fellah life was and how it was represented to itself and to others.

For the aghas (as the intermediate stratum was styled) the “autrefois” meant the elegantly pointed arch and porchway leading to the reception room, the separate room or rooms for the family and the cooking space. This “formerly” is also the time before “furniture,” decor or notions of decoration, or the idea of a facade. It is a time before electricity, radio and much more recently, television. The houses here were falling into a standard pattern of square spaces built adjacent to or one upon another to make a previously unknown second story. Repetition and aggregation seemed to be the principles, and the distinction with the houses of the fellahin of the same period was far less than that between the fathers’ generations. Buildings and furnishings and decor might cost more in straight money terms, but that accomplishes a very different kind of superiority and distinction, of a rather precarious kind. In any case, we do not make any comparisons with “them.”

Distinctions were everywhere. In a place so divided and stratified, where points of honor, verbal competition, almost theatrical deceptions and elaborations made my head spin, and where reality appeared infinitely malleable according to individual needs and strategies for obtaining advantage, everything seemed directed to asserting difference. How to find a way to stand out, to be utterly oneself, “needing no one,” that was a man’s problem. Those who could not because they were fellahin or lacked the social resources were consigned to social anonymity or, worse, to humiliation and an all too present sense of a world in which they could have no significance.

There were so many tears and breaks in the social fabric, now that I look back on it. But there was also a vividness. Not necessarily a vividness that brought a joy to life; very often the reverse. But a bright energy, a dramatic impulse, a cruel and bitter comedy above all, like an Irish melodrama, and some latter-day Playboy of the Eastern World. Risk was always in the air, and that gives a sting and zest to life even when it is a life full of callous manipulations and the exploitation of others.


I have often been ashamed to think that in some deep sense I was thrilled by this universe, at the very same moment as feeling alienated and not seldom disgusted both with myself and others. The brutalities of power, usually mundane and everyday, which renders them far worse than the spectacular moment, went into our daily lives. A glorious fancy, a genius for ad-libbing imaginary accounts, an intuitive gift for wordplay and embroidering reality were all caught up in those brutalities, and woe betide the one who for an instant forgot it.

I have never anywhere else experienced quite that sense of radical existential uncertainty. Sometimes all things appeared to be totally upside down and I no longer knew north from south or left from right. People said, supposedly in praise, that I spoke the truth. They meant in general that I was too unskilled, too outside, and too slow to do otherwise.

Friends worked as night watchmen in the olive groves on what frequently turned into raucously humorous and blasphemous evenings, rehearsing exploits of theft and trickery. They ran tractors whose tires were permanently smooth and always being patched up. They bought second-hand threshing machines which broke down far more regularly than they worked. Above all, they drove cars, dump trucks, taxis, tractors, combine harvesters, trailers, lorries, the Buicks of the lords and the diesel Mercedes obtained as blood money for a murdered cousin. Chauffeurs all, mechanics all.

How many hours did we spend behind Abu Nadim’s house trying to get that damned East German car to run? He could repair any vehicle you could name, but not that one. “People watching make him nervous,” his youngest son would explain to the audience, which he of course made absolutely no move to disperse. That son was best for jobs involving pistons; a cousin was the one to go for if you were worried about the gear box; no one could beat this one when it came to body repairs or that one if the suspension was causing trouble. The machines always went wrong, were always put right and then stuttered to a halt again. The process was endless and gave a rhythm to economy and life.

The fund of practical expertise was enormous, but it never seemed quite to translate into a move into a new level of life. There was no real sense of capital accumulated, of something consolidated, a foundation laid. Even those whose flair amounting almost to genius had taken them into high crane work and the erection and maintenance of difficult and dangerous construction machinery could never quite build themselves a firm base of operations. People would unexpectedly go home, or clientelist politics would get in the way just when you thought something was guaranteed and the job would go elsewhere, or a cousin simply got fed up with driving the dump truck and you couldn’t replace him with another cousin because family ties forbade taking his place.

Young men did ploughing and harvesting when it was there to do, turned their hands to selling from carts in Tripoli when not, or merely sat around for 200 days a year agreeing with a kind of relish with the common perception of them as useless and without a future. A cheerful self-denigration went curiously with the boasting and performance, and the same man who had told you the place was worthless and that he himself wasn’t worth a cent would be the one bragging and showing off over by the mosque in front of a privately skeptical and disbelieving audience, none of whose members would challenge him to his face. Above all, there was no future. That was the phrase people used: No future.

Ten Years

To return to this setting 10 years later (but what an inadequate rendering of time “10 years” is in this context) was to confront my own past in that place as a “formerly” in more senses than one. It was, in a phrase borrowed from Italo Calvino, to fall off the margins of my own text.

The approach from the south (the direction of Tripoli) passed through several frontiers, Palestinian and Syrian. Passage is now a multiple series of closures whose predictability and operation is difficult to determine, impossible to be quite sure of. Nowhere on the map is neutral or indifferent or anonymous or static. Passage depends on knowledge, savoir vivre and savoir passer. Borders and boundaries spring up and move; they represent instabilities and micro-politics of which no one dare be ignorant.

The major road from Beirut, much expanded since 1972, now makes the capital far “nearer” just when actually getting there has become far more difficult. Distances are measured in car time, something that probably began to be the dominant mode only in the 1950s in the region of the north. It is car time depending on all other circumstances and hence unsure. “Beirut” and going to and from “Beirut” are quite different experiences, in which security, danger and self-help are structuring factors. “The north” is frequently effectively out of reach and thrown back to its older orientations—to Tripoli, Tartus, Banyas, Horns and Hama. Syria controls the region.

Now, after 10 years, as you come over the first line of foothills, passing large areas given over to intensive cultivation of vegetables under plastic and glass, where previously wheat was grown, Berqayl appears. It is precisely this appearing over the horizon that shocked me. It can be seen upon the landscape and no longer more sensed within it. Elevation and verticality predominate in clusters of large two-story houses built along the roads, on what was cultivated land, or inhabiting areas that were before the maquis; a many layered expansion is at once obvious. Berqayl now physically dominates and centers the whole landscape (which it had done historically for a long time, but in another way that was the semi-feudal system).

The scale is different. The relations of built, cultivated and “natural” environments are shifted. The markers of 10 years before, primarily the minaret of the lord’s ostentatious mosque, his son’s palace, the Hajj’s villa, are reduced, diminished, and in the case of the villa actually invisible. The sense of a “there” is concretely, physically established in a very directly perceptible way. This physical manifestation in construction also immediately dissolves the rif or countryside of its ruralness. “There” is a town.

An industrializing town. The more imposing separate buildings that the eye is drawn to from the approaches are two large factory constructions that look like medium-size aircraft hangars. They stand on their own, occupying what was a wheat field some 300 meters or so below the old mosque; one learns that they produce construction materials for export to Syria and Saudi Arabia. They are surrounded by high walls, and heavy machinery is parked on the road in front of them. A line of more than half a dozen of the largest long-distance Mercedes trucks is on the other side of the road, with trailers scattered here and there almost at random. Two hundred yards down again is a somewhat smaller building; a work force of eight people is producing jerry cans as olive oil containers with machinery imported from Germany and Italy.

So the place induces in me a kind of vertigo and disorientation. It is now so much present as a place, so very built; the scale of relations within the site and between it and its surroundings are transformed. “Berqayl” faces me as soon as I reach the foothills’ crest and is powerfully self-defining. Yet, paradoxically, it is in some ways less graspable, more difficult to take in with a look. There is a kind of confusion. Is there a center? Where are the boundaries? At what point are we approaching it, passing into it, in it?

The key zone of entry is no longer the small mosque, unless you wish to go up the mountain. In that case, the road still has its old, and in fact far greater, communication and political significance. It is a vital artery in a war zone. Mountain and plain and the confessional-social nature of surrounding villages give the landscape a more intensively geopolitical meaning that has to be constantly interpreted and acted upon. Whole villages may be attacked or attack others. “The village” or “the town” as a geopolitical-military constellation and part of wider constellations is more important. One is always looking at a more problematic and dynamic military space, armed space as it were.

There is at least one sense in which Berqayl is instantly recognizable, in another way. It seems to be a town “like another.” Its new distinctiveness and scale are at the same time familiar and anonymizing. The large two story houses with their windows on all sides, shutters, balconies, painted doors and so forth are the same as in any other Lebanese town. The Hajj’s villa is no longer unique, merely now the first and one of the smaller examples of what everyone who can, does. Everyone who has money. The houses differ in size and that is their individualizing power, but not in distinct styles of facades to any marked degree. They all have front doors, something unimaginable, even socially illogical before. This apparently tiny detail in fact marks an enormous change in the form of life.

Cash is all you need, not status, honor or genealogy or the other cultural weapons of stratification. War has opened the place up in its political, economic and cultural dimensions, as it has also reinforced a local identity and the importance of the violent “old” loyalties. The brothers who still frequently build next to or joining on to each other can do so because they have worked in construction and with heavy machinery in the Gulf or Saudi Arabia, something hardly anyone did 10 years ago. The rule of the lords being effectively suspended, a generation has turned with great swiftness to work, to jobs, something that was relatively new in 1972. Work and money transform the landscape and are powerful solvents of hierarchies and deference.

“The house” is a totally established category. But the siting of the houses usually obeys the older kinship rules that have an all too vivid importance in contemporary Lebanon as a military reality and means of mobilization. Yet it may well be the younger brother who has the more splendid dwelling. Internal hierarchies of father-son, older-younger male can easily be violated, at least tacitly. Moreover, the show of wealth derived from industrial construction work is a necessity. This is what one does. There is an appearance to claim, and once claimed to be sustained. Spatial rhetorics or status and consumption oblige such statements at such cost. The most well-off among the younger agha stratum had two enormous salons, the second marginally less grandiosely furnished than the first.

Wealth, Status, Power

At the same time, the rhetoric does not automatically indicate either influence or power, or “family” and an honorific history, whose importance for fellahin it is intended to make irrelevant as part of the way the formerly dominated groups now proclaim themselves. There are disjunctions between formerly inextricably linked elements. The appearance of status, and wealth, and power are separated. The first two cannot simply be converted into the last, even assuming such a conversion to be the aim, which it clearly very often is not. There are those to whom making money is quite unlinked with patronage and politics and its attendant expenditures and social demands. They are transforming their lifestyle in highly visible ways, but not in terms of the old system.

Suddenly, as it seems to me, there are new and quite different markers of public space. Not only are there now shops dotted here and there rather than in one line at the top of the village, but there are three gas stations, which I realize astonishes me. Before, you had to go down the coast where the immigrant who had returned from the United States after 40 years lived with his brother, sharing, it was always said, a fortune in dollars. One of the gas stations is owned by Muhammed Ali. I had left him 10 years ago as a grease-and-oil-covered 20 year old who saw himself as let down by his father, a letdown to his father, and bound for life as a panel beater or poor mechanic. Here he was now with his business, and built onto it a small drug store selling a small range of medicines, French-made babies’ nappies, and run by a Christian druggist. The latter in impeccable shirt and tie behind the counter while Muhammed Ali sprawled in a chair, still covered in grease and oil but with a wiser smile. Women came in and shopped. They were very discreetly dressed but not veiled, and they were not escorted by a male.

His first cousin now ran a private school with teachers brought in from outside the dai‘a. This man’s son turned out to have just shaved off his beard grown in pious imitation of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose portrait is on one wall of their sitting room next to a picture of the Kaaba and opposite one of the Italian World Cup soccer team on the other wall. His uncle jokes ill-temperedly with him about the Ayatollah (this is, for what difference it makes in this case, a 100 percent Sunni village): “Khomeini is an old kafir and you boys are brainless idiots falling for every nonsense.” The 18 year old replies with a rueful but unintimidated grin and defends the Shi‘is for their fighting the Israelis in the south and for being good Muslims. He tells me that quite a few of the young men are “religious” now.

When I see the young men I am more struck by the omnipresent Adidas sports jackets and shoes and jeans than by anything else. None of these were worn 10 years before. It startles me quite unaccountably to find everyone gathering for large social evenings round color television sets. There were only three in the whole place in 1971 and they were all black-and-white. And here are these hordes of youngsters who all want to talk to me about Manchester United and famous British footballers, where no town but London used to be known and certainly no footballers. As I look round the crowded room I realize that these lads, too, are fighters, or can be, and that the firepower in the place is far greater than before. Weapons are even less of a problem to obtain, and remittance money from the one, two or three-year trips to Saudi or the Gulf, which appears to be the new pattern, ensures that there is no lack of purchasing power. They are all within a couple of degrees of kinship, too. There are enough brothers and cousins in this one room to hold off any outside group foolish enough to take on Berqayl.

Most of all, there are many people in the dai‘a that others do not know. Ten years ago, an old agha might have to have it explained to him that a kid he did not recognize on the street was the son of so-and-so from the poor end of the village. People knew what others were doing at what time of day, what their patterns of activity were, always one good test for “community.”

The Rooms of the Dead

That is no longer so. The place is too big. There are too many new faces. People have moved out, in and back out again. You do not know all the younger marriages of the other groups, and it does not seem to be socially obligatory to attend the different small rituals of life that marked rites of passage and enabled precious information to be gathered. That kind of closeness, a closeness as often based on hierarchy and distinction as anything, is apparently not felt any more. It is much farther from one end of the place to the other socially than it used to be in this new sense, much farther. You do not share with them, or not the same kinds of time and memory. That is changed.

The war has made this possible. That there are now 10 separate houses in the Marouche family quarter, where previously there was a cluster of adjoining brothers’ rooms abutting one another, is due to the war. That men now reckon other men’s standing partly by how many trailers they own is due to the war. That some live in Tripoli and say they hardly know anyone in the dai‘a any more is due to the war. The football posters, the television sets, the refrigerators, all these are due to the war.

The dead are due to the war. The names come to me in a cascade. And their sons are pointed out to me, are brought to kiss my hand and for me to kiss their heads. Photos of the dead men on the walls of sitting rooms, official, frowning, passport-style photos mostly. No imitation chandeliers in these empty rooms where we used to play cards late on winter nights, or compare rifles. The rooms of the dead are empty and undecorated. Abu Walid’s widow is weeping while I stumble through all the correct ritual phrases of loss and consolation. For her the war has destroyed everything. Walid is about 14. He sits listlessly by the door, hardly looking at me from the chair while his mother catalogues the impossibilities of her life. My closest friend says that he understands every death in the dai‘a except that of Abu Walid. Why he died is something that he will never comprehend, because he never did any harm to anyone.

We leave early, after only three days. On the way down the almost empty highway from Tripoli to Beirut my friends insist on taking souvenir photographs. We stand in the middle of the road and pose. No cars pass.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "Reflections on a Village in Time of War," Middle East Report 133 (June 1985).

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