Sunday, July 16, 2006

The bones and entrails of culture
When the bombs start falling, culture becomes business
as usual

Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: As soon as the Israeli military starts
pummelling South Lebanon and Beirut’s southern
suburbs, when warplanes target civil defence
headquarters, killing and wounding dozens of innocent
civilians who have taken refuge there, “cultural
reportage” becomes less than irrelevant.

It’s not that “culture” is the first casualty of war.
That distinction, as they say, goes to “the truth”.

If you want to get a sense of how accurate that
bromide is – particularly as it relates to the
onslaught that Lebanon is presently enduring – just
sample the deceit and idiocy currently masquerading as
“reportage” and “analysis” on the western media. Try
BBC World or CNN International.

Unless the artists themselves are killed, “culture”
doesn’t die, not exactly. Whether it be a series of
murderous bombings, like the one that lacerated Beirut
after the assassination of former Premier Rafiq
al-Hariri in February 2005, or the present murderous
siege, culture isn’t killed.

The explosions do vaporise the critical sphere that
sustains art. Culture simply goes into hiding, along
with the people that make it.

Lebanese cultural production is intimately acquainted
with conflict, and politics generally. The country’s
hyper-politicised landscape has posed a major
challenge to its artists, who sometimes struggle with
how to transcend rhetoric and use the stuff of
hybridity, sectarian strife and regional conflict and
actually make art.

For the last week or so, Beirut’s skin of high culture
in has been flensed away. What remains are the bones
and viscera of popular culture, which has no artistic

At its most basic, pop culture à la Liban expresses
itself in the matter-of-fact resilience of its
citizens. Bored journalists stationed here during
Lebanon’s long civil war sometimes wrote about this –
usually focussing on Beirutis’ capacity to party, even
as the shells were falling outside.

So far, few north-Beirut proprietors are living up to
this tradition. In Gemmayzeh, the city’s newest
nightclub hotspot, only the diminutive Torino Express
was open as this story was being written.

“Of course we’re open,” said Andreas, the owner,
glancing up from the SMS message he was composing.
“I’d rather be here than at home.”

There aren’t any nightclubs in the southern suburbs
for residents to drink in. In any case, there are more
sober ways of coping.

Some days into the siege, one British journalist –
observing the smoke rising from Harat Hrayk from the
relative safety of an 11th-storey terrace in Qasqas,
just north of Sabra-Shatilla refugee camps – remarked
how moped drivers were still wending their way to the
southern suburbs, albeit not in the same numbers as

For those living outside Dahiyyeh, participation in
the suffering tends to be more by proxy.

On the opening days of shelling especially, each
bone-shaking explosion emanating from the suburbs sent
Beirutis reaching for their mobile telephones, in an
effort to find out where the hit was and whether their
friends and relatives were out of harm’s way.

For some, Israel’s targeting of specific regions has
meant – at least for now – there’s as much observation
as participation in the misery. Since the siege began,
those who can leave Beirut for the mountains – in some
cases, still-quiet areas of the Bekaa – have done so.

An eerie quiet now rules the streets, in east Beirut
particularly, as a result. Lebanese friends, some
scandalously neglected for years, re-emerge now from
memory to offer resident foreigners a mountain holiday
from Beirut’s latest events.

Even for some who remain in Beirut the attitude is
more one of audience member than actor. On the first
weekend of the attack, a group of shabaab outside a
coffee shop in Sassine Square erupted into loud cheers
with each explosion erupting from Dahiyyeh. This was
before the Israelis hit Jounieh, Amchit and Broumana –
north of Beirut.

That night, during a surreal stroll through nearby
Sioufi – en route to a late-night dinner party – with
the cacophony of blast after blast shaking the
windowpanes, another group of shabaab were found
arrayed in a line of white plastic chairs, facing
south. They looked up at you as if you were Martian.

“Are you leaving Beirut?” one laughs.

“Never,” you smile back.

“But it’s war,” he shouts after you – his words cut
short by another blast from the south.

The most surreal voyeurism, though, comes via
television. One of the Lebanese stations has set up a
stationary camera on a rooftop with a commanding view
of the Dahiyyeh. Over the course of Saturday, a
wide-eyed female journalist tells you what you’re

Over the course of the day you find yourself returning
to this channel. As the smoke rises thicker from each
successive hit on Harat Hrayk, and as the journalist
dons more layers of protection, she looks more and
more panicked.

The camera remains in place long after midnight. An
off-camera voice – a different female journalist –
accompanied each hit with commentary, one highly
evocative of Quaalude-intake.

Traces of something like “high culture” are emerging
from this conflict. The most striking example to cross
this desk so far is “Kerblog”
( The blogspot of
improvisational musician and guerrilla cartoonist
Mazen Kerbaj, it is a highly personal and creative
response to the madness exploding around him.

More generally, conventional “high culture” – the
realm of that usually gets coverage on this page – has
been vaporised in Lebanon. The most obvious casualties
are the most fragile – the music festivals that
usually dot the summertime landscape.

Heavy hitters like Baalbek, Beiteddine and Byblos –
their prestige relying on bringing international
performers who are, by definition, uninterested in
war-zone performance – collapsed with the first

Lamenting the loss of a few summer festivals, like the
tourist season, seems brazenly disproportionate when
Lebanese are dying – as disproportionate as the
military action that is killing them.

This doesn’t mean that these cancellations can simply
be dismissed as irrelevant. The importance does not
lie in the deleterious effect it has upon the
financial well-being of the institutions that run
them. The main casualty is Lebanese self-esteem.

The desire for self-esteem is one thing that unifies
all Lebanese. The vast majority of people in this
country want nothing more than the mundane normalcy
that characterises life in Europe and America.

What separates Lebanese in these dark days is the best
means to achieve self-esteem and normalcy. For some,
their capacity to successfully stage events like
Baalbeck and Beiteddine function as talismans of
normalcy. For others, self-esteem is measured
according to different criteria, based on the right to
say “no” to a prevailing international hegemony.

That Lebanese find it necessary to pursue paths to
self-esteem that are so radically divergent from one
another reflects certain sad disparities in Lebanon
that cannot be discussed here. We do hope that, after
these bombs fall silent, some form of reconciliation
is possible.


Blogger Rajiv Iyer said...

the whole world is also praying with you for reconciliation and negotiations!

2:32 PM  

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