Cultural resurgence in Beirut and an idea under the threat of assassination | Youssef Bazzi
Cultural resurgence in Beirut and an idea under the threat of assassination Print
Youssef Bazzi   
  Cultural resurgence in Beirut and an idea under the threat of assassination | Youssef Bazzi On a sunny, vividly colored day, the Beirut marathon began. Entitled "A new start" the joyful, celebratory event has both a political and cultural significance. Among the 17,00 strong crowd who turned out to run, dawdle or just clown around was the Prime Minister accompanied by several ministers and parliamentary deputies. With its slogan of "For May Shadyaq" (the TV journalist injured in an assassination attempt) it represents an attempt by Lebanese civil society to ask the very question Solzhenitsyn asked about Russia: "How shall we manage Lebanon?".
On the same day as the marathon Beirut had an evening date with the International Documentary Film Festival whose sixty odd films were screened over the course of six days to a mainly young audience.

This taster out of the way, the big cultural events came to town. The "Read French and Music" exhibition was the biggest of its kind to date (and third largest in the world after similar events in Canada and Belgium) and was attended this year by a large gathering of French and Lebanese authors. There was a huge welcome for Samir Quseir alongside the usual conferences, music concerts, book signings and lectures. It was, in short, France's message to Lebanon after the events of the 14th of March: "We are still concerned and the stakes are high..."
At the same time a british cultural delegation held a theatre training workshop for actors and directors from Britain and Lebanon, then staged two performances in the former home of the Lebanese Security Services in the Sanai district. Security replaced by culture... with British supervision!

The 12th Annual European Film Festival was next on the menu, bringing more than fifty films produced in 2005 to the country. On the festivals fringes their were training sessions for film students and films made by children were screened.

The Ziko House cultural center that had been involved in the "Street Arts" festival (i.e. the festival that had shocked Lebanon by draping banners daubed with slogans by Lorca all over the streets and public squares of the capital) hosted an exhibition by Fasih Kiso, the Syrian-Lebanese artist who currently lives in Australia.
In cooperation with the Jesuit University the Spanish Cultural Institute held the Don Quixote cinema week, screening seven short films, and seven feature length productions.

Zawaya, the cultural youth magazine chose Beirut as the venue for three days of conferences, shows and cultural activities, exploiting these events to create a network of young people and artists across the Arab world.
Last month also witnessed the third "Interior Activities" festival that brought together concerts, exhibitions, books, films, lectures, the video and fine arts along with over 160 cultural personalities from around the world, representatives from museums from international museums, the media, cultural institutions, foreign and Arab intellectuals and artists of all different nationalities.
A bewildering number of specialist conferences were held this month, but one of the most notable was "The media and Euro-Middle East relations", which was attended by experts from Germany, France, Britain and Austria, along with their colleagues from the Arab world.

Simultaneously, preparations for Beirut's International Arab Book Fair got underway and a new literary season began. While foreign bands (jazz, mostly) continued to pour into the country, the Catholic, Jesuit and American universities held conferences and engaged in cultural activities and cultural centers from Spain, Germany, France and Italy intensified their programs. Foreign funding for local NGOs is skyrocketing with, at last count, some twenty international organizations contributing to conferences, training workshops and the arts.

The mood swing that overtook Lebanese politics after the events of the 14th of March manifested itself in the cultural sphere with a resurgence of local-international cooperation, and Western countries in particular. The official Euro-American line on such cooperation is considerably less enthusiastic than that displayed by the private sector. Beirut has become a regional center, a place to encounter the Arab-Islamic and its importance is set to grow and grow.

In other words, this enthusiasm is a political assault that embodies the progress the Lebanese have made in less than one year. It is an expression of the population's desire to resume their experimentation with liberal democracy in their small slice of the Middle East, and their peaceful intifada for independence, freedom and the values on which Lebanon was founded. These are ideals for which the modern, globalized world will almost certainly embrace them.
Even as Lebanon seems on the verge of disintegrating into factions, sects and armed gangs it is being threatened both from within and abroad: a resurgent Arabist-Islamism is coinciding with a blind American insistence on sweeping away the old and international calls for comprehensive change... Beirut has become an island, a place of secret cultural and political dialogue, where local resources and foreign financing meet; where individual initiatives and institutional support come together. In this town, where languages, ideas and arts freely mingle, the power of the media in all its guises and the deluge of plays, films, speeches and publications have resulted in a unique approach to managing politics and administering the "city-state". It is this that Beirut's youth, the true masters of the revolution witnessed by the world in Freedom Square, are seeking to implement.

It is achieved, quite openly, through the coordination of foreign support, private institutions and local initiatives. It is an essentially political cooperation, identical in principle to that between the 14th of March political program and the will of the international community. Perhaps this was Beirut's response to shows of strength by various militias, pledges of sectarian allegiance, regional unrest and terrorist threats that seemed to spring up wherever you turned. Maybe this was Beirut's initiative, it's proposal to the Middle East: an unfettered optimism unsupported by conventional political wisdom.

Beirut: alight with arts and culture, celebrating life in Hamra, Fardan, Downtown, Al-Jamiza, Mono and Ras Beirut, from Al-Biyal to the City Stage and all its many halls and salons. Not capital to a Lebanon of factions and leaders, but the capital city of an idea, an idea living under the threat of assassination. Youssef Bazzi
(12/1/2006)
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