Featured in
Issue 99


Fifteen years after the end of the civil war Lebanon’s capital buzzes with a potent mix of ideologies, politics and art

BY Tirdad Zolghadr and Tony Chakar in Critic's Guides | 06 MAY 06

Tirdad Zolghadr

A freelance critic and curator based in Zurich.

The first time round, Beirut is a little intense. It’s the kind of place that you babble to friends about with a little too much enthusiasm. The famous food, the corniche, the seaside bars, the handsome men and women, the seductive urbanity of the art scene, the sheer savoir-vivre of it all. To be perfectly, brutally honest, even the atrocious history of the war and its dizzyingly complex legacy for the socio-political make-up of Lebanon don’t detract from the city’s sex appeal. Beirut is a nexus of ideologies, fashions and geopolitical repercussions that stretches far and deep, and from the art scene to Hezbollah to the wide-reaching business community to the eager academics milling around in the cafés and the universities there’s no lack of raconteurs who define and redefine the situation in stark terms for a bedazzled international audience.

Obviously, though, at some point you realize it’s just a city, complete with hype, art world platitudes, petty gossip, traffic jams, rude waiters and an all-enveloping sense of self-importance. After a while you become more receptive to its sarcasm. Oh, of course Arab intellectuals should be grateful Beirut exists. Aha, a video installation! Is it about the war, I wonder? And so forth. Having prevailed, if I may say so myself, over both honeymoon and hangover, do bear with me as I go through some of the more distinctive aspects of the place.

One of the most striking issues at stake is the reconstruction of the city following the civil war of 1975–90. Officially, the rebuilding process began 1991, but half-way through the conflict a private engineering company called Solidere, owned by a certain Rafic Hariri, had drafted a plan for reconstruction. From the early 1980s rampant demolitions were taking place in the centre of town, destroying even iconic landmarks such as souks. According to some urbanists and sociologists, if by 1993 some 80 per cent of existing structures had been damaged, only a third of this destruction was caused by the war.

Immediately following the ceasefire of 1989 and facing a ruined centre and confused property claims, the parliament entrusted a single company to expropriate all downtown real estate and co-ordinate the rebuilding process, as well as the promotion and sale of the finished plots: Solidere. The firm’s owner, Hariri, became Lebanon’s Prime Minister. Solidere’s nifty motto was ‘Beirut, Ancient city of the Future’. True to its motto, the company made a point of preserving or reconstructing many ancient structures with sparkling new pastiche surfaces, parts of which are weirdly reminiscent of Laguna Beach. Before his assassination and subsequent glorification Hariri was regularly attacked for his fat cat tactics à la Silvio Berlusconi and held responsible for the sell-out of national politics and the city’s descent into tacky consumerism.

Ruminating on Beirut as a whole, and on Solidere in particular, artist and filmmaker Akram Zaatari argues that even the more Solider-ified downtown pockets are being appropriated and reinscribed in good ways. ‘Ten years after reconstruction’, says Zaatari, ‘of course one starts to build memories in this place. And the resentment against Solidere is dwindling.’ Bizarre restrictions notwithstanding – such as the need for permission from Solidere headquarters to videotape your friends, even if they’re only sipping on a Starbucks mocha – Zaatari holds that it’s growing into an ‘open space’. Downtown neighbourhoods even experienced a political revival thanks to demonstrations following Hariri’s murder. ‘It was invaded by the masses and proved to be an inevitable centre after all.’ Zaatari once quipped that, having travelled to Singapore, he got a sense of what Hariri was trying to get at.

But even if Solidere’s share price actually doubled this year, Beirut is far from a frenzied transit hub or from being solely in the homogenizing grip of big money. Its neighbourhoods vary unmistakably from one another in politico-cultural and aesthetic character, and the town is still replete with icons that clearly bespeak a bristly past, such as the tremendous bullet-riddled and half-built business centre Murr Tower, which became the object of a beautifully wry piece by artist Marwan Rechmaoui, who made a sculpture of its replica (A Monument for the Living, 2000).
Beirut even holds examples of architectural prowess. There is the wilful Bernard Khoury, who has speckled the city with a string of bars and restaurants of consummate style. There is star architect and American University of Beirut (AUB) graduate Zaha Hadid, who is to build the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs on her former campus. Forbiddingly difficult to find, as it is in the industrial boondocks of the city, the new Sfeir-Semler Gallery has furnished an enormous, attractive space. Andrée Sfeir-Semler has been running a successful gallery in Hamburg for several decades and now harbours the ambition of ‘forming and educating a class of buyers and collectors in Lebanon, one that goes beyond pretty paintings that go well with the settee’. According to Sfeir-Semler, almost all her clients are expatriates who commute to Beirut; it all seems to be adding up, with the gallery figures out of the red in only a few months’ time, and openings attracting several hundred visitors.

Apart from his activities as an artist and, more recently, a curator, Zaatari cofounded the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), which is dedicated to the archiving of photographic collections, public and private, from throughout the Arab world. Occasionally Zaatari, often in collaboration with AIF confrère Walid Raad, regroups the photographs into series that are exhibited in international contemporary art contexts, gripping visual commentaries on the elusive epistemologies of photographic documentation. Currently the AIF is planning to pool resources with three other organizations: Zawaya magazine, the Beirut DC film co-operative, and possibly Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) to set up a shared public centre with access to libraries and databases.

Ashkal Alwan is becoming known internationally for Home Works, its vivacious international forum, which took place for the third time in November 2005, a bouncy meeting point for all sorts of audiences – Beirut glitterati, art tourists, professionals and combinations thereof. For many, a distinctive trait here is the theoretical and artistic engagement with matters of historical documentation; yet the approaches are too diverse to offer a common ground that is anything but tenuous. Even within a single career, methods and attitudes vary considerably. For example, Walid Raad’s Atlas Group concoctions of quasi-documentations of wartime developments – shown at Documenta 11, and for a time the international placard of Beirut’s cutting edge (and admittedly among the most intelligent imbrications of fact and fiction I’ve ever seen) – has given way to Raad’s art-activist engagement with post 9/11 repression in New York and elsewhere.

Home Works itself has also changed in temperament. The first edition was a pleasant surprise that came out of nowhere. (I was invited as a speaker only days before, by a midnight call from organizer Christine Tohme, who requested that, whatever I talked about, I’d ‘better make it sexy’.) The emphasis was clearly on an exploration of intellectual and artistic developments within a Middle Eastern framework, a focus that was already weaker by the second forum, while the third was resolutely intercontinental in framework and orientation (if, de facto, strongly Beiruto-centric in many ways).

Talks, panels, performances, exhibitions and screenings aside, it’s the inebriated bonding and bitching, the debating and tittle-tattle, that are a most important ingredient here, and a shift in the forum’s night-time epicentres mirrors important changes at large. The ‘Modca’ diner and the tiny Chez André bistro, with its ageing communists staring at a small TV, were hang-outs of retro distinction and quiet charm during Home Works 2002. When both localities gave way to gentrification, Home Works 2003 clustered around the boisterously and demonstratively elated Baromètre. Last year’s forum found its nocturnal home in the quirky Captain’s Cabin, a dive that was previously off-limits owing to the territorial ramifications of the Syrian occupation.

These many shifts and changes notwithstanding, what is striking is the enduring predominance of a certain generation at the forum, mostly foreign-educated. Zaatari and Raad aside, the lyrical wit of Tony Chakar, the metaphysical brunt of Jalal Toufic and the often ingenious installations of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige et al. dwarf any small signs of younger generations striving to take over.

Tohme herself acknowledges a hesitant, unwieldy development of the local scene and speaks of an outright conflict between professional generations, an incommunicado state ‘nurtured by the lack of shared spheres and spaces’. She argues that the ecosystem of critics, curators, artists and audiences is too fragmented to create a sustainable local dynamic. Which also harks back to the lack of a decent art education in the city, with the existing courses being ‘mediocre or exclusive or both’, and the AUB only just having opened its art department. As it happens, Tohme herself is on her way to London to study for an M. Phil. in contemporary art theory at Goldsmith’s College and does not know when she’ll return to Beirut. There’s no way of telling what it will look like when she does.

Tony Chakar

An architect and artist living and working in Beirut. His work will be included in ‘Out of Beirut’ at Modern Art Oxford from 13 May. He teaches History of Art and Architecture at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut.

Given the right circumstances, the appropriate standpoint (preferably with one’s back to the sea) and the correct angle of vision (preferably looking obliquely), one would have the distinct feeling that all the buildings in Beirut have packed up and are ready to leave; most of them stand on slender columns that would aid them on their journey; their antennas and satellite dishes look like fancy hats of the sort one might wear on such a voyage; their balconies are empty suitcases and boxes waiting to be filled by the small histories that unfold in every apartment: long hours of anguish and fleeting moments of excitement. At such a moment Beirut would resemble a large fleet of lifeboats aimlessly fleeing a sinking ship; this would be the ideal time to sip a cup of coffee by the sea.

I wrote the above paragraph as part of one of the sections of my installation A Window to the World (2005). Picking up from where I left off, one could ask the following: what would be left of the city for the person sipping their coffee by the sea? Or rather, maybe the tense of the question should be reversed: what was there before the ready-to-leave buildings on slender columns? An obvious answer of a geographical nature comes to mind: a narrow strip of land, flanked by two hills on its left and right, with the sea in front of it and the mountains behind it. Or is it the other way around? The coffee is Turkish, you see, stewed and very bitter: is the sea in front of the city or behind it? Is Beirut leaning on the mountains, nourished by them, or does it have its back turned to them? Is the sea the final frontier to the west of a once vast Eastern empire (Arab, Islamic or Levantine – it doesn’t matter any more), or is it challenging a city always looking westward to expand?

A simple geographical description becomes charged with politics, to the point of catastrophe: some people call it ‘The War’, or ‘the civil war’, or ‘the war of others on Lebanese soil’, or ‘the incidents’ or ‘the Lebanized wars’ (one of the manifestations of the catastrophic is exactly that: it has no name). But what the aporia of geography does is to reveal Beirut as a terrible city. Terrible, like the God of the Gnostics, whose word would bring forth good and evil, life and death, construction and destruction. This face of the city would elude the occasional visitor, who would be presented with a more clement face: a city that expands, that opens up and embraces, an easy-going city where people eat well, drink well, dance well and are comfortable chatting. In fact, no one actually sees the city in retraction; when it is in that state it becomes unknowable, and would only manifest itself in multiple ruptures of experience.

The debate over how Martyrs’ Square should be reconstructed after the war was one of those ruptures, the repercussions of which are felt to this day, especially since in one way or another it was one of the causes for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The debate could be summarized as follows: should Martyrs’ Square be open to the sea, thus becoming a Parisian-style boulevard, or should it remain an enclosed square, in the traditional style of medieval Arab cities? What was debated was obviously more than the mere morphology of a square, in spite of the symbolic importance of that square in particular and its place in the history of modern Lebanon. Latent in the debate was Lebanon’s future. Should it join the new economic world order and become a monetary paradise, thus refashioning its prewar role as a country of services, or should it get in line and accept the Syrian hegemony that purported to right the wrong of the 19th-century European colonial forces that ‘artificially’ ripped Lebanon from its natural Motherland? Again, should Beirut look west and open up to the sea, or should it turn its back to it and look towards the mountains and beyond, towards Damascus, the ‘Beating Heart of Arabism’?

Strangely enough, two of Beirut’s potential futures co-existed, unpeacefully, side by side for more than a decade, and even though the decision finally taken by engineering company Solidere (which had Rafic Hariri behind it) was to open the square to the sea, the plans remained on paper and to this day Martyrs’ Square remains unbuilt. Furthermore, the constant collisions between these two projects would eventually lead to two things: first, the identification of Hariri by the Muslim Sunni community as the political leader par excellence and by other communities as a politician being practically persecuted by the forces of hegemony who never trusted him to begin with; secondly, the undermining of the authority of traditional Sunni leaders, who were always more comfortable looking beyond the mountains than towards the sea. Ultimately, this chain of events led to the assassination of Hariri, by an explosion as his car drove along the coast road, with parts of the convoy and the bodies that it carried being thrown into the water. A few hours later the body of the murdered politician was borne by hundreds of thousands to an empty esplanade waiting for its buildings, with the sea as its backdrop – an esplanade that people still insist on calling a ‘square’, whether Martyrs’ Square or Freedom Square, as of late – and was buried there.

A city in retraction manifesting itself in a series of multiple ruptures: the rupture in the poetics of a place flanked by the Mediterranean and a biblical chain of mountains; the horizon line and a line constituting an ‘above’, with two different beyonds; a rupture in the relationship between a horizontal line and a curvilinear one hovering above it on the other side; and a rupture in how the people living on this strip of land experience what is above and what is below, what can and what cannot be seen, what is near and what is far, and the limits between all of this. That is precisely what the sipper of coffee, turning his back to the city and facing the sea, tries to recapture, in the full knowledge that there’s no mending what has been ruptured.