Saturday, July 22, 2006

Q & A with TONY

This is a Q & A i did with Time Out New York today. I am publishing it here because I tried to answer as unemotionally as i could. Here in Beirut, those of us who are staying are learning how to disconnect. In war you need to disconnect. I am trying. But now as i write i hear jets flying overhead. the nerves grate.


For years, the name “Beirut” was synonymous with “war torn” and “dangerous” for a lot of Americans. That began to change the last few years as people began hearing about the cultural revival of the city, especially after the Cedar Revolution. It’s hard to sum these things up, but can you describe what Beirut had become before the bombings began?

How to put it? Beirut. City of vibrant culture, brilliant, talented people, food, nightlife, designer bars, up and coming bands and DJs, globally recognized artists, beautiful rebuilt and old architecture, a cosmopolitan city of all religions, all cultures living together side by side. This was a city where East met West in the most perfect of affinities. A gateway to the region certainly, the Mediterranean’s worst kept secret witnessing a booming tourist sector inspired by the movement in all sections of urban life, art and literature, inspired by people who wanted to build the leading city of culture and lifestyle in the Middle East. There are so many examples of brilliant cultural works but how can I describe them so briefly here. The point is that there was a life, an energy, an in your face attitude of living life to the full and showing the world exactly what Beirut represents - a city that has and will always capture the imagination, a city with a symbolism that will never die.

What was that first day of the attacks like? What did you see?

I was enjoying a drink or ten with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain last Wednesday evening who had conducted an interview with me for his Discovery Channel programme ‘No Reservations’. We were in the newest, trendiest bar on its opening night. The summer was just kicking in and the people were beautiful. Anthony couldn’t get enough of it. Then the Israeli jets starting circling the city, flying sonic booms over the city, terrorizing the people. A phone call and I am told the airport has been bombed. I leave Anthony and frantically check if my flatmate and former colleague Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, a New Yorker and the Cultural Editor of the English language Beirut daily The Daily Star had left on her summer holiday back home to NYC. As I rushed to the airport her boyfriend told me she had made it out. At the airport the fuel storage tanks were on fire, burning brightly. Black plumes of smoke were rising. It was a sleepless night as power was cut and the bombs rained down on the city. The next day the attacks began in earnest and the civilians began to die. I went to the southern suburbs of the capital in my capacity as a reporter so many buildings were in rubble. That was just in Beirut.

Who’s left in the city right now? Are people sticking it out?

Many, many people are leaving. There are people left. But they are mainly the people who cannot leave because they have only Lebanese passports. Everyone who can leave is leaving - especially those with children, and the elderly. Those of us who are staying even though we can leave are the people who made Time Out - the artists, writers, musicians. The talent of the city who make the city what is. People who believe that we need to be here to keep it strong, to get our voices out to stop this murderous violence. But no one can blame anyone who leaves. This is war after all and Israeli bombs have never cared what targets they hit - as demonstrated by the over 300 innocents dead. Beirut at night, usually bustling during this summer period, is a ghost town.

Obviously, “entertainment” is the last thing on peoples’ minds right now over there, but on the other hand I imagine trying to keep some semblance of normalcy is also important. Are restaurants still open, for instance? Are there any places people can go to escape or be distracted?

There are only a couple of places open. The legendary Torino Express bar in Gemayzeh, a couple of restaurants but without the people business is tough. And with the Israeli blockade of the country supplies are already running short - basics like flour for bread for example - which means restaurants that are open are trying to manage their supplies. Few people feel like going out sadly. The ones that are have lost some of their Beirut spirit, it is more about drowning sorrows. I wish I could be more positive.

I keep hearing that everyone was looking forward to this summer season in Beirut being particularly special. Why was that?

Summer in Beirut, in Lebanon, is like nowhere else in the world. Everyone comes from around the world. The vibe is so electric. I guess I should leave you here with my editorial from the July issue. I don’t know how else to explain it:
Festival season is upon us, a funny time, full of nostalgia, long road trips, magical ruins and some amazing concerts coupled with some very poor ones. Still there are few of us who don’t remember Lebanon in the summer for at least one mind-blowing gig. To make sure you only spend your bucks on the best we guide you through what to see and what not this July at the big three – Beiteddine,Baalbeck and Byblos – and preview August’s best. We provide you with tips on how to have a great festival, where to stay, tell you which inter-national acts refused to come and how to put on your own fest. Being summer, we pick our best beaches too. This month’s mag has all the tools you need to have a great July and August. Ramsay Short Editor-in-Chief

Are the bombings focused on a particular part of the city more than another part? What neighborhoods have gotten the worst of it?

The bombings so far have been concentrated on the southern suburbs, mainly poor Shiite Muslim neighbourhoods where Hizbollah have some strongholds. These areas have been leveled by the bombs. But they are not the only areas. Many bridges, many communications and infrastructure have been bombed. The lighthouse of Beirut on the normally bustling Beirut seafront was hit with a precision missile to knock out its radar - how that is an attack on Hizbollah no one here is clear. And they have hit the port right next to my house here in a Christian neighbourhood of Beirut. I have woken up to bone-shaking bombs. The airport too of course. So targets all over the city have been hit, making nowhere completely safe. The mental strain is telling. No human is prepared to live war.

The news now is that Israel is planning on bombing for another week or so. If/when it does stop, how long do you think it will take to rebuild Beirut?

It will take some years to actually rebuild the city in terms of building, homes, construction. The cost economically alone will run into the billions of dollars. Where that money will come from is yet unknown. But buildings and objects can always be built. The worry is rebuilding the spirit of the people who rebuilt the city’s culture and scene and vibrant life in the 15 years since the Civil War ended. The people who are leaving who will not come back, the tourism and the international performers who will not come back anytime soon. In the space of a week a decade of work has been destroyed. The mental spirit of the people will take a lot longer to recover, if at all.

What are the prospects for Time Out Beirut, right now? I understand that you’re talking about keeping a digital version going online.

Time Out Beirut is currently suspended. Half my staff have left the country, the others are living in fear or have gone to the mountains to stay safe as they can. How can you publish a magazine of art and culture and entertainment at a time when a humanitarian crisis is massing, 500,000 displaced people from their homes, and civilians dying all the time. What is important in these circumstances. Culture will survive, it always does. We are thinking of publishing a printed issue of interviews and portraits of the people who remain the city, Time Out people, artists, bar owners, DJs, writers etc. and how they are coping, what they think they will do. There would be no listings really but maybe information on where you can go, a few bars etc that are open. Information that people need in time of war. And if can a digital edition would be a possibility. For now things are sadly still uncertain.

If people here want to help, what can they do?

They can write to their governors and political representative calling for this Israeli aggression to stop. We need a ceasefire immediately. The American senate voted to allow Israel to continue their operations and effectively give them the green light to continue killing civilians. International condemnation needs to be heard. Don’t allow Bush via Israel to commit more war crimes. Alternatively people can donate money to the UN to help manage the massive humanitarian crisis here. The point is that the situation in the Middle East will not be solved by war. Only a diplomatic process will bring peace. And surely, surely children on every side do not to deserve to die so easily, their lives to mean nothing.


Blogger Lilu said...

Thanks for that last line. My sentiments exactly.

Ramsay, any thoughts on all of the Israeli-Lebanese talk here (inspired by the Time Out Tel Aviv article)? would love to hear your reaction..

4:12 AM  
Blogger dobegs said...

very good point Lilu

be very good to see and hear some good and positive comments on the process this blog is going through. two people on the both side of the fence but actualy seem to be on the same side of the fence!

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why can;t we get these dan 'his' ballas out of our country?
they are a menace!

4:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree. these 'people' have been asking for this for a long time. why did hezbolla let us die like this? at least stand up and speak your voice!

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hezballa = coward

4:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

at least isreal has some balls

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The UN resolution to disarm militias in Lebanon did not happen. Hezbollah has made a terrible miscalculation by cross border attacks on Israel including kidnapping and killing IDF soldiers. These are acts of war originating from Lebanon and the Lebanese Government is responsible to control what happens from its territory. The destruction and loss of innocent lives in both Lebanon and Israel is a terrible price for allowing Hezbollah to take actions without consent from the Lebanese Government.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very pretty site! Keep working. thnx!

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very pretty site! Keep working. thnx!

7:38 PM  

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