Thursday, July 27, 2006

Life Before Wartime in New York Magazine

This article just came out in New York Magazine. I get so damn sad to see all our dreams destroyed. The link is :

Life Before Wartime
Beirut as a case study in the fragility of cosmopolitanism.

By Liesl Schillinger

On Wednesday, July 12, the day Hezbollah raided Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers, Ramsay Short, the young British editor of Time Out Beirut, was at the opening-night gala for the new rooftop Sky Bar nightclub in the Beirut waterfront exhibition center called BIEL. Ricky Martin, 50 Cent, and Paul van Dyk had performed at the center over the previous months to thousands of lithe, sweaty Lebanese fans. “It’s a fantastic place, very Miami, very Fashion TV–style glamorous,” Short said. He was in an exuberant mood that night, chatting with the chef Anthony Bourdain, who was there on his first visit to the Middle East to film an episode of his show No Reservations. The city Short had lived in since 2001 was enjoying a vitality it hadn’t seen since the early seventies.

But even amid the fizz at Sky Bar, there was a mood of unease. As fireworks lit the harbor and hundreds of guests gorged on free food and drink, Israeli jets flew watchfully overhead. The next morning, Israel launched air strikes on Beirut and southern Lebanon, and soon after, Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel. By the end of last week, southern Lebanon and southern Beirut had been devastated, and several northern Israeli cities had been hit by rockets, killing fifteen civilians; over 350 Lebanese civilians had been killed, and thousands of Americans were in the process of being evacuated, including Bourdain, who was holed up in a hotel called Le Royal until Thursday morning. “We were treated with incredible hospitality and pride everywhere we went for the first two days we were there,” he said. “In a moment, it turned to shit.” And a notice went up on the Time Out Beirut Website: “Beirut’s favourite entertainment and listings magazine is now suspended. Lebanon is being, once again, used as a battleground for a war that neither its government nor its people want. They are killing our city.” Or something more than a city: In a country that had been experimenting with becoming a cosmopolitan Middle East democracy (albeit one with Hezbollah in the government), much more was at stake than the nightlife.

To many Americans, the word Beirut is synonymous with warfare, not “Fashion TV–style glamorous.” U.S. citizens were forbidden to visit Lebanon for a decade after the horrific suicide-bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in 1983, and when the ban on travel was lifted in July 1997, the bulk of visitors were Lebanese-Americans heading to see relatives. But in recent years, a new lifestyle began to rear up in Beirut. Kids from Dearborn and other Arab-American enclaves came home with reports of Mediterranean sunsets, decadent discos, fabulous food, high-end beach clubs that were “L.A. times ten,” Roman and Phoenician ruins, red-tile-roofed hill towns, and snowcapped mountains. Curious travelers went to see for themselves, and journalists soon followed. It was a sort of exotic, frayed Utopia.

Warren Singh-Bartlett, Wallpaper’s Middle East editor, lives in Beirut. He’d stopped through eight years ago when backpacking and ended up moving there. “I love Beirut because it’s the most improbable city in the world,” he says. “When you think of where it is, when you think of the deep divisions in Lebanese society, when you think of the wildly different ways of living life here—it doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t work. But it does. There’s a kind of anarchy here that’s beautiful. It’s creative, it’s so different to anyplace else in the Middle East.”

A Wallpaper-ish design culture was blooming. Architects like Philippe Starck and Steven Holl have projects there, and American magazines feature homegrown talent like Bernard Khoury, Nabil Gholam, Annabel Karim Kassar, and Nada Debs. In the current issue, Singh-Bartlett described Beirut as “a real-world Legoland.”

The Manhattan architect Joe Serrins had been part of the boom. Three years ago, he took on a million-dollar job designing a 5,000-square-foot apartment by the marina. Beirut took him by surprise. “I didn’t expect there to be camels roaming around, but I didn’t expect it to be so much like Miami,” he said. “Or Cannes.” He was supposed to fly there last Thursday to wrap up. Needless to say, the trip did not happen. ”It’s incredible now to think that they’re blowing up the airport,” he said. “It’s so tragic and frustrating. They put so much energy into rebuilding, and now this?”

Even before the current crisis, Lebanon teetered between competing realities. In 2005, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who’d been behind much of the newfound openness, was assassinated in a car bombing. Most put the blame on Syria, and, in fact, international outrage at Hariri’s death helped Lebanon achieve what it had not been able to do in 30 years: get Syrian troops to withdraw from the country.

Meanwhile, many Americans still thought of it as unchanged from the eighties. Maha Chehlaoui, an actress who lives in New York, is astonished at how few of her American friends have asked her how her friends and family in Lebanon have fared over the past two weeks. “I’m convinced it is because they think Beirut has been under fire nonstop since 1975,” she says. “Ten years of peace is a blip on the radar, I guess. After all, ‘those people’ are always bombing each other,” she adds ironically.

Last Wednesday, Leila Buck and her husband, Adam Abel, a young Brooklyn couple, interrupted their holiday in Beirut and escaped to Damascus. Abel, who is a nonpracticing Jew, said, “Being American has been very difficult this last week, because just in a simplistic way, you’re hearing and feeling bombs dropped and you know they’re stamped with MADE IN AMERICA.” He continued, “In Lebanon, because it’s such a layered culture, people are going to ask you where you’re from, and not in a dubious manner; it’s done in a very cultural way. So when people would ask me where I’m from and conversations would become more intimate, I would always tell them I was American, and if they asked further, I told them my family was Jewish, and I was always embraced. There is a clear distinction between the feeling about the religion and the feeling about Israel.”

Singh-Bartlett was in Dubai on assignment when the bombing started. He flew to Damascus on Saturday and paid a driver $100 to get him home. They had to use the side roads since the highway was bombed out. Singh-Bartlett lives in Ashrafiye, the Christian section of Beirut, which contains the Rue Monot, lined with nightclubs and cafés. Much of the Israeli bombardment of Beirut has been concentrated on the poor southern suburbs, but last Wednesday morning, bombs dropped on two trucks in Ashrafiye that had apparently been mistaken for grenade launchers.

Singh-Bartlett does not defend Hezbollah—far from it. He points out that Lebanon is not Hezbollah. “Hezbollah could, with a single action,” he said, “determine the domestic and foreign policy of an entire country independently of that country.”

He was appalled that the city that had been stepping jauntily into the future was being so rudely pushed down. “Everywhere you go in the Middle East, they all want to be Beirut,” he maintains. “That’s exactly why it’s so disgusting that it’s being dismembered in front of me, why it’s being destroyed in front of me. People think of Beirut as a dark, scary place full of dangerous people. That’s not the city I live in. This is the place all the Arabs come to be free, this is where they come to think, this is where they come to play. This is where they come to try new ideas. And then if they like them, they take them home with them. Beirut makes things possible.”

The question is whether this sense of Beirut itself is still possible. Time Out Beirut’s first issue had only come out in April. “Time Out is a magazine about arts and culture,” Ramsay Short says. “But everything has been canceled and half my staff have left the country.” Last year, he published A Hedonist’s Guide to Beirut. “Maybe sales will go up,” he says. “It’ll almost be a collector’s item of what was this high point, what now seems like a dream.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In there it said the American people looked at the middle east as "those people who are always bombing eachother"...this is true actually.

As an American, that is what I see. I am in my 30s and have never even heard what a bomb sounds like.

Every cheer for a militant group drags the fighting on...those cheers are what we see. Meanwhile, we here are watching our kids learn, grow, and have choose your own lives.

If you call people launching rockets at other people "heros" and then claim to seek peace, don't expect the world to believe it. If you were to stand up and say you want freedom, and peace, and denounce Hezbollah and other military me, the rest of the world including America would be there to help you find that peace....and keep it.

1:56 AM  
Blogger Anon said...

A typical office worker in London had been thinking how to use some of his hard earned (?) holiday having done the standard excursions around the US, Europe, the Urals, China, South East Asia and Australia. A colleague recommended Lebanon (having already visited), and after a long chat the decision was made.

So on July 10th, this typical office worker in London went into an STA to enquire about a direct flight to Beirut airport. A lot of choices, and certainly not a unique request.

By the end of the week things had changed.

This typical office worker must be indicative of countless Westerners, it is indeed a shame that circumstance paused the possibility. Yet this typical office worker now awaits the next opportunity.

So have things been cancelled or merely postponed? Admittedly I sit here in the British summertime detached from the realities of the damage, hardships, tragedies and separation from others. Nor am I cognisant of the requisites, time, conditions and financial requirements of repair...not to the mention the healing required and the return of the populous.

“People think of Beirut as a dark, scary place full of dangerous people.” On and before the 12th July a straw pole of office types around the Euston area found this not to be the case. This sample can surely be extrapolated. Any reservations related more to the surrounding geography’s instability. In fact it was recognised that Lebanon, and Beirut, has the highest levels of literacy in the world.

Yes things are bleak and steeped in adversity at the moment but inexorably there will be a return to the setup of pre-July 2006 and beyond...


3:32 AM  
Blogger Lilu said...

Reading this, I was amazed at something:

"In a country that had been experimenting with becoming a cosmopolitan Middle East democracy.. to many Americans, the word Beirut is synonymous with warfare.. reports of Mediterranean sunsets, decadent discos, fabulous food, high-end beach clubs that were “L.A. times ten,” Roman and Phoenician ruins, red-tile-roofed hill towns, and snowcapped mountains.. I love Beirut because it’s the most improbable city in the world, when you think of where it is, when you think of the deep divisions in Lebanese society, when you think of the wildly different ways of living life here—it doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t work. But it does. There’s a kind of anarchy here that’s beautiful. It’s creative.. design culture was blooming. architects like Philippe Starck have projects there.."

If I just change the words Beirut and Lebanese into Tel Aviv and Israeli, it is my perfect description of Tel Aviv. Funny, that.

5:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Israel is truly launching a war against Hezbullah then it has no business bombing Beirut...and let us not mourn Tel Aviv whose pictures currently boast citizens partying and sunbathing while innocent Lebanese are being killed, injured, or least of all displaced

11:40 AM  
Blogger Lilu said...

Point missed - I wasn't mourning. I was making a point of how much the two are similar, in peaceful times.

Do everyone a favor, take a second to breathe before you lash out.

12:20 PM  
Blogger dobegs said...

well hence anonymous reamined anonymous as the yare scared of facing similarities.

2:09 PM  
Blogger mrtez said...

The only thing i do wish is that one day you would have the opportunity to visit our beautiful country to understand why we love it so much and why it was always loved so much.
i simply dont hope that the visit would be - as one Israeli told me once in NYC - on a tank en route to South Lebanon...

3:16 PM  
Blogger dobegs said...

TAREK - I Love you! this is so nice to read what you just put there..... this is hope and understanding and dreams... and I like it!

I hope you too can one day visit Tel Aviv and see why people love the place so much its buzzing and really fun city

8:24 PM  
Blogger Lilu said...

I don't think I need to visit Lebanon to understand why you love it so much. I think I get it already. Probably for the same reasons I love Israel - it's not an easy place, but it's such a wild, beautiful, amazing and surprising place you can't help being in love with it. I hope you get the chance to experience that too.

And you know, I really would love to visit Beirut. As a travel-loving person, It really peaked my interest. I even ran this imaginary scenario in my mind of going there on my student exchange program next year, just because it sounds that interesting.. not sure if it will in fact be on a tank though as I am a girl after all, but I may flirt my way to hitchike with an F-16 :)

2:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would say Beirut is a commopolitan city, not because of its business and crazy nightlife and cultural scene only... but mainly because of the variety of people who live and interact in it! when ur partying in Beirut, you meet people from different places and backgrounds and different religons and you learn a lot...
i'm really curious to know how do you consider Tel aviv to be cosmopolitan when i'm quite sure that the overwhelming majority of people there share the same belief which is the reason they are there? am i welcome to live and work in your city if i was a Palestinian muslim? i'm sure i would only upon lots of conditions!
where is cosmopolitan here?

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm I love the idea behind this website, very unique.

4:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm I love the idea behind this website, very unique.

7:32 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home