Monday, July 17, 2006

What we have lost... so far.

For last five months I have been Editor in Chief of Time Out Beirut – the international magazine of arts and culture in the most happening cities around the world.
In our zero edition - I published this story. This is what we have lost, this is what the Israelis are jealous of. This is what the Israelis are destroying.

Beirut Revealed - city of culture

It’s hip and it’s happening. For nightlife, art, literature, theatre and film and yes food too, Beirut is the capital city of the Middle East despite what we sometimes may think argues Felix El Hage.

The most vibrant cultures, like the most vibrant economies and political systems, are ones in which people are as free as possible to define and choose what is valuable and meaningful to them.
Lebanon may not have a vibrant economy or political system but if the last year and a half has revealed anything here it is that there is a deep-rooted intellectual tradition, a relative freedom of expression and a people who are willing to express themselves.
And when it comes to the ‘scene’ - musicians, artists, writers, performers, filmmakers and even actors - there is a quality and a vibe that feeds off the city, its inadequacies and all its dirty beauty. Just take a look through this issue of Time Out.
Though some writers have claimed that ‘Beirut Redux’ is in substance a shadow of its former self - a city with preoccupations that were regional and international in the past but which now despite a tri-lingual and well-traveled populace is merely pretentious and provincial - others are of the opinion that the city’s contradictions, passion and paradoxes make it a cauldron of creativity.
This is no cultural wasteland of a city. There is something happening here. Barcelona, Los Angeles and Tokyo all have identities and vibes of their own going - chic, stylish and kitsch. Beirut embodies all three.
Where to start? Perhaps with what scholar Saree Makdisi calls ‘one of the largest urban development projects in the world’ - Downtown Beirut. Local architects with high profiles like Nabil Gholam, for example, are building new skyscrapers along the sea front - Platinum Tower, Marine Tower, Walid bin Talal’s Four Seasons Hotel. The French-mandate style restorations take the city back to its glorious past. New bars, restaurants and shops are springing up throughout the city with innovative architectural designs that, though not necessarily definable as Lebanese in style, convey a cultural awareness defined by concepts such as integrity, sensuality, quality and warmth - equal to any in Europe.
New boutique hotels, contemporary living arrangements - see the Convivium developments in the Williamsburg-esque neighbourhood of Gemayzeh - fashion couturiers’ headquarters and even designer gas stations are popping up faster today than at any time in the last 15 years.
As trend-setting architect Bernard Khoury (BO18, Centrale) said in a recent international magazine article, ‘Beirut has become an extremely interesting context where interesting projects are possible. The city is moving. Things can be done in a city that hasn’t reached its maturation, that hasn’t reached its saturation point. It’s more pragmatic than jumping to full capacity. Do today what you can’t do in the future’.
This attitude is reflected by its artists, musicians and filmmakers for whom the city gives life and inspiration like no other place on earth and creates work that embodies the conflicting emotions of the city, sometimes impulsively, but almost always with intelligence.
There is a thriving hip hop scene consisting of crews like the 961 Underground, Aks’ser, Kitaayoun and Kitaa B amongst others who are taking the form of Arabic rap to new levels with often inspired comment of what is going on around them.
There are new record labels appearing and publishing more than the trashy, lovable Arab pop - which itself was created here by entrepreneurial producers and musicians as only it could have been. Mooz Records, for example, spearheaded by veteran musician Zeid Hamdan is producing the new sound of Lebanese alternative rock and electro with a European edge. Forward Productions exists to promote a more classical and contemporary Lebanese pop sound of traditional instruments and popular song. See all these performers play at bars like Club Social, Bar Louie and at cultural spaces like Zico House.
And what of the movers and shakers in the contemporaryarts scene? Leading the pack is the Ashkal Alwan Association founded and run by curator Christine Tohme. She chronicles and practices Lebanese art in all its forms in her critical Home Works Forum on Cultural Practices, a biennale on a par with anything in Europe bringing local writing, theatre and plastic art to the people. Last year’s event saw fights with the censors and provocative questioning by the likes of artist Rabih Mroue and the Atlas Group’s Walid Raad - controversial, passionate and necessary stuff affecting our society and growing our society.
Galleries are blossoming and the capital’s artists are responding - from the five-year old Espace SD, an indispensable platform for visual art, fashion, film and music to the Sfeir-Semler Gallery that is bringing leading artists from Europe and beyond to Beirut and exhibiting the best of Beirut’s talent.
All of these barely scratch the surface of what is going on. There are ripples and vibes moving amongst the educated and younger generations as we speak.
In the realm of film the visual artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige document today’s Beirut and the legacy of the past on Beirutis in their new feature film ‘A Perfect Day’. Ghassan Salhab whose long awaited next movie is due out later this year, also works to capture the city as it lives and breathes, a mark of his skill and success and the city’s effect.
‘I’m interested in what it means to live in Beirut’, he has said. ‘Beirut is still in its history, it’s still boiling, the peace isn’t in its stomach yet… I don’t think I’d like this city if it were in harmony’.
Which sums up exactly why this city still feels so alive and so happening in all its forms, with a scene is born of a melee of inherited experiences, history and colonial influence; of education, language and religion; of emigration and immigration.
Like New York and London, the world’s arbiters of style and cool we have incredible restaurants and unbeatable local food, we have shopping (overpriced its true) to satisfy any designer fanatic or thrift shop lover - check out local designer labels like ‘If’ and craft shops like the Artisana du Liban. No other Middle Eastern capital has the mix of modern and past in such an eclectic fantasy of east meets west as the Lebanese capital.
Everyone parties hard. The over-the-top bars like Crystal work as well as the smaller haunts of the bohemian bourgeois. The thriving nightlife is the envy of the region. And it’s addictive. And in part why the city is alive today.
Partying in Beirut is like taking crack-cocaine. Once you have tried it you can’t get enough. It sucks you in, gets you high on its multiple charms, digests you and spits you out. The glamour, the good looks, the large drinks and the apparent desire to “do it to death” seduces visitors and residents alike.
But it’s all part of what we love.
Beirut is a hip city and it will continue to be so, a place that its people are growing into an authentic, east-west interface, made possible by the mixed Muslim-Christian culture of 18 different sects.
Who wouldn’t want to be in a city like this. The secret’s out. We can’t keep it quiet any longer.


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