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Volume 49, Number 1January/February 1998

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Lebanon's Renaissance of The Arts

Written by Sarah Gauch
Photographed by Norbert Schiller
Additional photographs by George Baramki Azar

Eleven cartoon-like steel sculptures, each rising five meters (16') above the Fouad Chehab Bridge, look our across downtown Beirut. The farmer with a sickle, the three-beaked duck, the curly-tailed chick and the others seem unintimidated by the city traffic, and even by the builders and the roaring bulldozers at work in a nearby empty lot.

"They are observing, curious to see what the development of Beirut will be like," says architect and artist Nadim Karam, who regularly speaks of his playful sculptures as though they were living creatures.

First exhibited at Beirut's national museum in 1995, the sculptures returned recently after visiting Berlin, Oslo and Prague. They're in Beirut again to highlight the city's massive downtown renovation. Sponsored in part by solidere, the private company responsible for Beirut's reconstruction (see Aramco World, January/February 1994), the sculptures in this shifting downtown exhibit also perch atop skyscrapers and loiter on sidewalks—the better to watch what's happening, Karam says—while gradually working their way north toward the sea.

Karam calls it an "archaic procession," because, he believes, the shapes are universal, even archetypal, and anyone from any culture can understand them.

"They are giving fun to the city, letting the citizens enjoy the change and discover the city through them," explains Karam, a quietly confident 40-year-old with curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Karam himself returned to Lebanon three years ago after fleeing the country for Japan in 1981.

He is one of a flock of artists who have returned to Lebanon since the country's 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Together with colleagues who did not leave and lived through the conflict, they are reviving traditional Arab music and composing anew; starting up experimental theaters; painting canvases and cement walls; and restoring shelled villas. They are writing books, poems and plays and making films about war, peace, love, ethnicity and the reconstruction of their fractious, vital nation. Despite the war, Lebanon's art never died, her artists and intellectuals contend; today, they are combining their harrowing wartime memories and their new expertise, gained in exile, with their determined will to rebuild, and a vibrant, meaningful arts scene is emerging that is mending battered souls and letting the world know that Lebanon is alive and recuperating.

Before the war began in 1975, artists and intellectuals from around the world found a creative hub in the cosmopolitan capital of Beirut. Then, publishing boomed, prestigious venues supported singers and other performers, and painting, sculpture and theater were everywhere. Each summer since 1956 the world's best had performed among the awe-inspiring columns of Baalbek's ruined Roman forum (See Aramco World , May/June 1972): Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn; Ella Fitzgerald; Joan Baez; the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as Lebanon's home favorites, singers Fayrouz and Sabah and composer Assi Rahbany.

Then the war came, propelling this tiny multisectarian country into conflict. Hundreds of thousands fled and tens of thousands died. Thousands more burrowed into their homes and shelters, isolating themselves from each other and the world. Universities were closed, theaters were shelled and museums were looted. Artists, spared none of the war's ravages, were unable to study, exhibit or perform.

In the beginning, the artists who stayed concentrated on day-to-day survival and, like many others, did their best to ignore the destruction and to view the war as a temporary crisis, soon to pass. But as it continued for weeks, months and then years, they realized they had to express their art in the war and despite the war. Defying life-threatening obstacles, actors began performing in shelters and in abandoned theaters. Singers crossed war zones, art galleries struggled to open. Poets held readings and writers set down experiences and insights. "We had to live, and to live we had to express ourselves," says theater manager Pascale Feghali.

This will to keep artistic expression alive persists today in Lebanon, but with the government struggling to reconstruct the physical face of the country and keep the economy afloat, official support for the arts is not yet a realistic hope. In fact, the government's annual budget for all cultural activities—including university funding—is no more than $940,000. That's less than one percent, on a per capita basis, of the amount spent by the Netherlands.

It is thus impassioned and dedicated individuals who are leading today's renaissance of Lebanon's arts. Thanks to their efforts, the number of art galleries has grown threefold since 1990. New art exhibits open every week, new plays every month. There are now concerts, ballet performances, scores of book fairs and hundreds of cultural institutes.

The revival last summer, after a 23-year hiatus, of the world-renowned Baalbek International Festival, featuring Lebanon's internationally renowned Caracalla Dance Theatre and Azerbaijan-born cellist and former Washington Symphony conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, was for many a seal on the hope that Lebanon would again become the Arab world's cultural and artistic center. "This country is boiling with culture," says Emily Nasrallah, the Beirut author of the acclaimed novels Birds of September and Flight Against Time . "There is theater, and art exhibits and books are being produced. Every day there are so many panels discussing this or that cultural issue. We have great hopes for the future."

One musical innovator among the new postwar artists is Nidaa Abou Mrad, who gives weekly violin concerts among the stalactites and chilly waters of the Jeita Grotto in the mountains north of Beirut. For each performance, the audience of roughly 100 boards boats at the cave's entrance. They are floated past stalagmites like drip-sand castles and dagger-like stalactites in an eerily disorienting trip into the cave. After docking they hear the distant sound of Abou Mrad's mournful violin; it grows louder, and soon Abou Mrad appears, standing in the prow of his boat, swaying vigorously as he plays.

Unable to find adequate musical training in Lebanon during the war, Abou Mrad says, he left for Paris. He returned four years ago at age 34, and now this shy man with the penetrating dark brown eyes is helping reintroduce the traditional Eastern maqam music that he fell in love with in the West. Improvised in Eastern musical modes, the low, pleading notes are meant to lead listeners on a spiritual voyage, he explains. "This grotto helps people concentrate during the interior journey." Abou Mrad has recorded six compact disks since returning, has given innumerable concerts and even created a maqam opera, which connects his music with part of the Western theater tradition.

Another returned musician is Walid Gholmieh, one of Lebanon's best-known composers. Unable to perform during the war, he spent most of his time in Europe and the United States. He returned even before the war ended, however, and took over Lebanon's national conservatory. There he inherited a burnt-out and looted building, five pianos, 48 students and 36 professors. For three months he locked himself in his office and considered whether to rebuild the institution from scratch or to try to resurrect what had existed. He decided on the former course, and then began furnishing the building, hiring teachers, calling students and increasing the meager $80,000 annual budget.

Today, students crowd the six-story conservatory building in East Beirut's Sinn el Fil neighborhood. They play guitars sitting on the steps of the entrance, and carry violins or 'uds up the stairs to class. The conservatory, which teaches classical and Eastern instrumental and vocal music, now has four branches in Beirut and more than 10 outside the capital. It has established teaching methods for several Eastern instruments, like the tabla , a drum, and now even publishes music books. In the 1997-1998 academic year, Gholmieh says, he expects 4500 students and 230 professors.

The institution's goal is simple, says Gholmieh: to promote quality music in Lebanon. "Since the war, everything is influenced by television and radio, which do not necessarily favor good music," he points out. "We hope we can help maintain the right track."

Pascale Feghali, founder of the Ayloul Festival for young artists, also returned recently from a six-year exile in Paris. Equipped with a Ph.D. in cultural consulting from the Sorbonne, she arrived in Beirut eager to help develop the country's theater. Last year the slight, quiet 29-year-old organized an experimental theater festival in early September—ayloul means "September"—that featured four plays about love, social relations and war and used improvisation, mime and monologue. The festival also included multimedia installations on a Palestinian refugee camp and on the reconstruction of Beirut, as well as a movie that, unconventionally, used bold street slang.

Feghali wanted the Ayloul festival to give young experimental artists a venue. She is determined to help Beirutis get out of their sectarian "ghettos" and mix together in theaters throughout the city. While audiences filled the theaters for the 10-day festival, Feghali believes the event's greatest achievement was the atmosphere it created. "There was a kind of electricity in the air during this period, a creative tension. I don't think we have felt this kind of thing for a long time," she says.

While individuals such as these leave their marks on Lebanon's arts scene, institutions are gradually increasing their capacity to encourage them and offer venues for their work. West Beirut's Theatre de Beyrouth, which reopened in 1991 after a 17-year shutdown, and the nearby Masrah al-Madina, which opened for the first time in 1994, have both made an enormous difference. Both feature plays, movies, concerts and art exhibits by local and Arab-world artists. Last year the Theatre de Beyrouth staged Jean Genet's "The Servants," directed by the well-known Iraqi playwright jawad al-Assady. In early September, the Masrah al-Madina held a 10-day jazz festival that brought together European, Syrian and Lebanese bands.

Art festivals, led by the Baalbek International Festival, are another growing means for Lebanon to put itself back on the itineraries of the world's top performers. Last August the 2300-seat theater at Baalbek was filled every night and Rostropovich, intensely eager to return after his 1969 experience at Baalbek, dedicated his only free night before the millennium to perform there. For Abdel-Halim Caracalla, the director of Lebanon's famed dance troupe, which crossed battle lines and rebuilt its bombed-out studio six times to continue performing during the war, dancing at Baalbek was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. This, Caracalla explains, was his birthplace, where he was scheduled to perform for the first time when the eruption of the war forced the festival's cancellation. "After more than 20 years of darkness, of war, of no hope, they say, 'You can make the festival again,'" says the short, muscular choreographer. "All Lebanon waited for this moment to see the light come out from the acropolis."

With last year's audience turnout far exceeding the expectations of Baalbek's organizing committee, this summer's show will be expanded. So far Fayrouz and the Symphony of Radio Stuttgart, with George Pretre and Carl St. Clair conducting, are scheduled to perform.

Other festivals, especially the winter Al-Bustan Festival in Beit Mary, east of Beirut, and the summer Beiteddine Festival, in Lebanon's Chouf Mountains, southeast of the capital, also bring singers, actors, authors and dancers from around the world. Last year's favorite performers included the Vienna Boys' Choir, opera singer Barbara Hendricks and flamenco dancer Antonio Canales. Lebanon's galleries, cultural institutes and publishing houses all support the arts by exhibiting paintings by young artists, honoring Lebanese writers, holding poetry readings or organizing roundtable discussions on cultural issues.

But all these revived and newly created shows and performances are just the beginning. Lebanon seems to abound in artists who, though not well known, are filled with energy and inspiration. It is their ideas that are poised to make their marks. Beside a crumbling villa on West Beirut's Omar Daouk Street stands a tiny passage painted white, with black stones set like footprints marking the way. On the walls are black-and-white abstract paintings. Other paintings of simple shapes and squiggles hang in a dilapidated room to the left, defying the real-life piled garbage and peeling paint, and the gaping hole smashed in the wall. To the right, small black-and-white etchings, one of a person looking toward the light, fill a courtyard. Mozart plays in the background.

"Let every artist in Lebanon carry the responsibility to reconstruct a corner that is old, dirty and destroyed. Let him do something for that corner and exhibit his paintings there," says 28-year-old artist Khalil Allaik of his vision for the country. "If a thousand artists take part in this, then a thousand corners of our country will be reconstructed."

Anachar Basbous, also 28 and the son of the late sculptor Michel Basbous, also has a vision of new life for Lebanon's buildings. He hopes his colorful, scenic mosaics may redeem some of the hundreds of dull concrete buildings that, in the absence of government regulation, sprang up during the war. They have permanently scarred Lebanon's breathtaking mountains and organic cityscapes.

"I'm trying to put life into all these dead walls," Basbous says. "We had a lot of awful building go on during the war." Basbous lives in the small mountain village of Rachana, 50 kilometers (30 mi) north of Beirut. Its entrance, narrow streets and gardens are full of abstract stone and marble sculptures by one Basbous or another: Anachar's two uncles and many cousins all sculpt, following the tradition his father began more than 60 years ago.

Composer and producer Oussama Rahbany also follows a family tradition, adding his own postwar vocabulary. The son of poet and songwriter Mansour Rahbany and nephew of the Arab world's favorite living singer, Fayrouz, Rahbany recently introduced his compact disc, "New Order," and two television music videos. While during the war the deep, mourning voice of Fayrouz sang of the love and loss of Lebanon, today her 31-year-old nephew's songs criticize a society that he sees as selfish, superficial and rootless. He complains about the declining economy and the halting attempts to reconcile the country's communities.

"I'm so pessimistic about our future," said Rahbany. "Lots of people see white. I see black." In the video of his song, "I've Got to Change the System," Rahbany plays a disillusioned young man, bored with his daily routine, dumped by his girlfriend and unhappy with his job, who gets stuck in a familiar Beirut traffic jam. When drivers start fighting, Rahbany's character gets out of his car and walks into the sea. The song ends, "You cannot join the game, so look for your deliverance."

While many Lebanese may now be doing their best to put the war behind them, some artists still want to explain and maybe even better understand what happened. In her 1997 young-adult novel, The Memoirs of a Cat , Emily Nasrallah tells the true story of the disappearance of her now 28-year-old daughter's cat, Ziko, during the war and her daughter's anguish. "The cat is telling his story, but at the same time it is a story of the children of Lebanon who have suffered," said the 66-year-old author. "So much has been written about the war, but what about the children or the animals?" The book ends on a happy note when the cat finally returns. But life is not always so kind: In reality the bombs that partially destroyed Nasrallah's West Beirut home in 1982 also killed Ziko, and it is only recently that her daughter has assented to Nasrallah's telling of the story.

Other artists write about Beirut's multi-billion-dollar reconstruction, which has entailed the destruction of many beloved old buildings and even neighborhoods. In her first film, The Street , Dima El Horr, 25, shows a young boy who persuades a bread vendor to give him a ride to the old neighborhood to retrieve the bicycle he had left there only five days ago. As the two bicycle along, the boy imagines his old street—the steaming bread fresh from the local bakery's oven, a woman hanging laundry, and street vendors displaying their wares on a building's cracked and peeling walls. But when they arrive the street is gone, and the boy's bike is just twisted metal.

The greatest obstacle Lebanese artists face today is the lack of money. With servicing of the national debt reaching 43 percent of the budget and government revenues falling short of expenditures, the government has few funds to contribute. Artists wonder when the country will have such pillars of a thriving arts culture as a national art museum, an orchestra or a ballet company.

Individuals and private companies similarly lack the funds to invest in art. Despite the popularity of their offerings, financial crises drive the Theatre de Beyrouth and the Masrah al-Madina to the brink of closing every year. So far the annual financing has come through each time, but organizers still live in constant fear. Masrah al-Madina's manager, Nidal al-Ashkar, points out that, while they manage to scrape together their budget through private-sector donations, annual subscriptions and ticket sales, the theater must also look for less expensive performances. "We can't go on this way," says al-Ashkar, who also directs and acts. "We have to find a solution."

Some artists are now paying from their own pockets to get their work before the public. Well-known actor and playwright Rafic Ali-Ahmad recently paid $1500 from his savings to produce his well-received work "The Bell," a monologue in which a shepherd talks about his son's death during the war and about life under militia rule. Without the cash to produce them, Ali-Ahmad must forgo his more expensive ideas, or resign himself to acting in plays rather than writing them. Later this year he will play the lead in "Socrates," a musical about the Greek philosopher, written and produced by Mansour Rahbany.

Ironically, just as the war forced some artists to leave Lebanon, today's scarcity of funding is driving some artists out. Others are looking outside the country for sponsors. Filmmaker El Horr, who can't find producers to finance her movies, plans to return to Chicago, where she studied. She produced The Street , she explains, with $3000 from the government and $12,000 from her parents. Well-known painter and sculptor Aref Rayess says that once-plentiful Lebanese buyers are few these days, and that many of his sales now go to Saudi Arabian clients.

Critics of the emerging art scene say that too many of Lebanon's returning artists are not producing authentic new work but merely imitating western trends, and that there is a distressing prevalence of artists more concerned about making money than making art. "The Lebanese are very much open to new things, new adaptations, and they forget their roots, habits and customs," said Samia Saab, who has fought since 1981 to preserve Lebanon's traditional costumes and crafts by holding worldwide exhibitions and encouraging artisans to continue their work.

Still, some are optimistic that top-quality art will prevail when Lebanon finds a firm economic footing again. "This is not the time to evaluate," argues George Zeenny, a member of the London-based Middle East Cultural Association. "We need to be encouraging."

While the obstacles that Lebanon's artists face are formidable, history is proof that the willpower and passion to recreate a thriving arts scene is there. As Lebanon's beloved "father of folklore," the 81-year-old composer Zaki Nassif, wrote in his much-loved song, "However Many Wounds Our Country Suffers," the inner strength of the Lebanese has sustained them, and will sustain them:

However many wounds our country suffers

We pick it up and soothe it, though we're few.

We're not the kind to keen among the ruins....

We speak our word and back it with our spirit,

And once it's spoken, we will carry through.

Sarah Gauch writes regularly for Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor from her home in Cairo .

Norbert Schiller has photographed for Agence France Press, the Associated Press, Der Spiegel and numerous free-lance clients from his base in Cairo .

Free-lance photojournalist George Baramki Azar is the author of Palestine: A Photographic Journey (University of California Press, 1991). He lives in San Francisco.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the January/February 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1998 images.