Monday, July 31, 2006

In Beirut, Cultural Life Is Another War Casualty

The New York Times, July 31, 2006

By JAD MOUAWAD

BEIRUT, July 30 — The invitations had been sent long ago and the ads paid for and printed. Despite the shells shattering a few miles away, Ghazi Abdel Baki, a Lebanese music producer, was determined not to cancel the release of his label’s latest album at the Virgin Megastore in this city’s former opera house. For him it was also a small act of resistance on the second day of the war.

In the end he didn’t have much choice: the store was shut down after Israeli warships were spotted in the Bay of Beirut. Since then the Internet site of Mr. Abdel Baki’s production company has carried this small notice: “We are not updating our Web site because we are under siege!”

The war in Lebanon is now in its third week, freezing life in mid-flow. A summer season that looked as if it would be highly successful for tourism was suddenly interrupted, as were numerous music festivals, theatrical and movie openings and, because this is Beirut, wild parties. For Lebanon’s burgeoning cultural scene, the conflict has put a stop, at least for the moment, to the patient work begun after the civil war ended in 1990.

Now some movie theaters are opening their doors to refugees, artists are signing manifestoes against the war, commercial stations have turned into 24-hour news channels, and most restaurants and bars are closed. What was supposed to be Beirut’s first break after last year’s traumas — including the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister — has been shattered.

“This was to be a turning point for us after years of hard work,” said Mr. Abdel Baki, 36, whose label produces both 10th-century Andalusian music and modern fusions of bossa nova and Arab rhythms. “But in 24 hours your life is suddenly turned upside down. Even if this stops now, who is going to have the energy and the stamina to produce music, organize a concert or even attend a show?”

Much of what has made Beirut appealing in recent years, at least to adventurous travelers, are the handful of Phoenician, Roman and Crusader ruins in Baalbeck, Sidon and Tyre, a boisterous night life and a naughty reputation. But beyond the ruins and the rowdy image, Lebanon’s artistic expression, after years of neglect, was also blooming.

“The city was thriving,” said Ramsey Short, the British editor in chief of Time Out Beirut, a four-month-old publication that had become an indispensable tool to navigate Beirut’s busy cultural and entertainment scene.

The July issue, with its cover story on Lebanon’s summer festivals and its 114 pages, has become a memento of a time that never happened: all the events and shows have been canceled. The next issue has been postponed until further notice.

“Just like that, it’s all gone,” Mr. Short said. “And I don’t think we’ll return to that world any time soon.”

The war caught most people by surprise. Dozens of festivals, concerts and shows have been canceled, including elaborate months-long programs in Baalbeck; in Beiteddine, south of the capital, where open-air concerts are held in a 19th-century palace in the Chouf mountains; and in Byblos, a coastal town north of Beirut. Ticketholders are being reimbursed. Organizers of Liban Jazz, scheduled for September, are trying to keep that festival alive, perhaps as a charity event in Paris. Along the bombed-out coastal highway in the south between Beirut and Tyre, dozens of fancy resorts are deserted, their once-pristine beaches polluted by an oil slick.

The Baalbeck International Festival, set inside stunning Roman ruins in the middle of the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, was to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Organizers had scheduled performances by Lebanon’s national diva, Fairuz; the Ballet Theater of St. Petersburg; and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Opera of Nice in a joint production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Thousands of well-to-do Beirutis had bought tickets and were prepared to drive two hours to attend these open-air productions between the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus. Instead, in the town of Baalbeck itself, away from the historic ruins, Israeli Air Force planes have leveled dozens of buildings in recent days. Baalbeck is a stronghold of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah; the Israeli military campaign in Lebanon began after a Hezbollah raid into Israel on July 12.

“I feel stupid because I was so optimistic,” said Carole Ammoun, a 27-year-old actress who had been performing in a local version of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” called here “Hakeh Nesswan,” or “Women’s Talk.” The play, which was originally scheduled for five nights, had been extended for three months straight.

“It was such a compliment to perform in something that was successful and that people enjoyed,” said Ms. Ammoun, a bubbly woman with a large flashing smile. “We broke so many taboos talking about sexuality in an Arab country. There was a real sense that we were opening new doors.”

The performances have been suspended, and Ms. Ammoun said she can’t decide what her real role is today. “I feel frustrated, I feel angry, I feel castrated,” she said.

Some artists have channeled similar feelings into their work. Mazen Kerbaj recorded a musical piece with his trumpet and the sound of bombs falling on Beirut in the background for a duet he called “Starry Night.” He has also created a popular blog (www.mazenkerblog.blogspot.com) on which he posts cartoons, sketches and caricatures he has created in recent days. Most are about the war. One picture, called “Terrorism Is a Funny Word,” says: “Lebanon is being sold for the price of a word: TERRORISM. What a bad joke!!!”

Another shows two faces screaming at each other. The bearded one says, “Allahu Akbar” (“God Is Great”), the other answers, “Freedom & Democracy.” In the middle a tiny, shy face asks, “Can I say something?”

In Hamra, Beirut’s faded former commercial district, Hania Mroué had been looking forward to July as she opened the Metropolis, a theater for art-house movies. For the premiere, attended by the culture minister and the French ambassador, she picked “Les Amitiés Maléfiques” (“Poison Friends”) by the French director Emmanuel Bourdieu, which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix in Cannes. The next day the war began.

Now about 40 people from Beirut’s bombed-out southern suburbs sleep in her movie theater and offices, which are two floors underground. During the day she shows films and documentaries to keep the children busy.

Last Monday she decided to reopen the theater to the public for daily screenings at 6 p.m.: early enough, she said with grim Lebanese humor, so the audience can go home before the bombing begins.

“It’s important to be able to talk about other things than Israel and Hezbollah,” said Ms. Mroué, 31, whose soft features belie her steeliness. “We will have all the time to analyze, to argue and even to cry about all this later. This is why theaters like this are important: so that you can live, even during a war.”

Last week she asked two doctors from the nearby American University of Beirut hospital to vaccinate the children in the theater. At the same time she somehow managed to obtain a Sri Lankan movie — “The Forsaken Land” — that had been stuck in Damascus for three weeks. Next she plans to show movies by the late Lebanese filmmaker Maroun Baghdadi about the country’s civil war.

“It so hurts my heart to admit this that words fail me,” she said. “We had such a promising year. I don’t think we’ve realized what we have just lost.”

At sunset Beirut’s intellectual and artistic crowd has returned to Cafe Rawda, where the Mediterranean licks the city’s rocky shores. This open-air restaurant offers scented water pipes, the best views of the sun melting into the sea, and a refuge from the city.

Rawda reopened recently, but it is still short staffed since all its Syrian waiters left when the conflict began. Airplanes on their final approach to the nearby airport no longer drown out conversations: the airport has been closed since the beginning of the conflict.

As everywhere, the war dominates discussions. Many talk about feelings of loss, abandonment or despair. What seems to rankle most, though, is the sense that a huge collective bubble has been pricked without warning.

“It took a long time to get to where we were,” said Mr. Abdel Baki, the musician, as the sun slowly dropped into the sea. “Things won’t be the same anymore. It’s the uncertainty that’s unsettling. It shows how precarious our lives were.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/31/arts/31cult.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5088&en=5ff338263db405ea&ex=1311998400&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

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