Only Hipsters Can Save Lebanon

Whoever tells you that Lebanon knows anything about art house films and books by suicidal novelists is bullshitting you. It brings me so much pain to say this, but it’s the ugly truth. For example, no one knows anything about really obscure bands. There’s a select few of us who wish that it was not […]

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Flickering Classrooms and Squandered Years: Lebanon Adrift.

The tiles on the floor look particularly dirty today, their neo-Levantine motif smeared with the remnants of rain and mud from a particularly gloomy fall day. The uncomfortable orange plastic of my chair is as unwelcoming as the neon glow that fills the room, and it squirms and squeaks under my considerable weight. I’m sitting at the end of the third row, away from the window, like I always do. The light that hasn’t been fixed since last semester flickers reassuringly above me. It’s dark outside. Who takes a class this late on a Thursday, I ask myself.

I look around the room. I don’t really recognize anyone, and since I basically reside on the pigeon shit-covered ledge by Nicely Hall, that must mean they’re all from lower campus or just people I haven’t bothered meeting yet. I see some bags under a group of eyes, and decide that they must all be graphic design students. They must have drawn a map to get up here. Not because they needed it, but because they thought it would be cool to spend an overnight doing it. They think this class will be an easy grade, a foray into the petty world of the upper campus, full of lazy politics and sociology students like myself. They’re probably wrong.

The cheap clock above the cheap blackboard says it’s 7:10pm. Where is this guy? The self-important bozo next to me starts huffing and puffing audibly. He’s obviously far too important to be here at this hour, professorless. Then, amidst the idle chatter and checking of phones, someone finally walks in.

He doesn’t seem to notice us, rushes furtively to his desk and places a tattered brown bag on the chair behind it. He turns around swiftly, his diminutive frame comical in the large and cold classroom. His helmet of white hair remains motionless as he tilts his head forward to peer at us over his tiny oval glasses. He smiles, starts talking in bursts of excited, lucid and fascinating sentences. And we’re all hooked for the semester to come.

The man at the front of the class in the mustard-coloured corduroy blazer with the giant intellect is Samir Khalaf, and my lengthy and rather pointless introduction takes place in the AUB classroom where I had the pleasure of meeting him 10 years ago. A lot has changed in those ten years, and Khalaf addresses these changes deftly in a new book, Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground. It’s a terribly important book that deserves to be read but, since it’s dense and academic, most of you won’t. So here are the Cliff Notes….

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On the telly again.

The run-up to last Sunday’s book launch was a lot of fun. I was lucky enough to go on MTV’s Men El Ekhir to talk a bit about the blog and the book. Here’s what happened.

The Impossibility of Pride.

Sometimes it’s tough to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about being Lebanese. I got called unpatriotic for not getting behind the Vote for Jeita campaign. Apparently, I had to blindly support something purely on the basis that it was something everyone in the country agreed on. Presumably we can all also all agree that kittens are cute, so let’s go ahead and put one on the flag. It’s not like we have many Cedar trees left anyway.

My main problem with the Jeita campaign was the, now well-documented, fact that it reeked of con-artistry. It felt like a scam from the very beginning. But then we Lebanese are suckers for a good scam. We get scammed about a dozen times a day, and we grumble in silence to ourselves.

Earlier, I was pounced on by a bunch of friends because I had no desire to go watch Where Do We Go Now?, Nadine Labaki’s latest cinematic offering. It was my patriotic duty to watch it apparently. Well, I don’t know how you decide on your cinema schedule, but patriotism doesn’t have much to do with it. I saw the trailer, it bored me half to death, so I decided not to watch it. The same happened to a lot of Americans with Transformers 3, but they weren’t ostracized or placed on the town square for all to see.

I have an Almodovar DVD box-set I’ve never touched. Does that mean I dislike him? Does it mean I hate Spain? No. No, it doesn’t. It just means I’m lacking culturally because I haven’t had the curiosity to delve into them yet, and I should be less trigger happy when I shop on Amazon.

That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the fact she’s getting a ton of international recognition, and winning awards, quite the contrary. I just chose not to watch it. I probably will someday, and from what I gather, I’ll like bits and pieces of it. But the vitriol to which you’re subjected for not toeing the party line, is quite shocking. The level of discourse in general is reaching worrying levels of incivility. In a way I avoided watching it because I was concerned I wouldn’t like it, and that would put me on the defensive when discussing it.

We’ve slipped into a worrying pattern in Lebanon, where intelligent conversation is frowned upon. We’ve turned into a nation of Dubya Bushes, where every conversation has to reach the inexorable conclusion that “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Any form of independent thought is prescribed outright. You cannot claim to be non-political. You cannot argue with something patriotic. Basically, you are faced with the impossibility of rational thought…

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On the telly.

Nation Blanding: Hedonism and the Underselling of Beirut

There’s a video currently making the rounds, featuring an over-excited Richard Quest extolling the virtues of Lebanon’s hedonism and joie de vivre, while he prances around its handful of rooftop clubs dressed like that weird uncle in your family no one talks to, who hits on 16 year olds at weddings. And wears white loafers. When I first stumbled on the video, I wasn’t sure whether I should feel a mild sense of pride or a profound sense of shame. I have opted very firmly for the latter, for a number of reasons.

I mean the show is called Future Cities, and is supposed to be about how cities are positioning themselves for the future (the name kind of gives it away) through development and sustainability. Quite how cramming thousands of people into sweaty clubs ensures Lebanon’s sustainability, is quite beyond me.

However much I enjoy positive portrayals of Lebanon in the media, I’m not sure that showing its three most inaccessible venues is really the way to go. I mean, when they cover Mykonos or Ibiza, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a slum where people live on less that USD 2 a day within walking distance. Before I’m accused of hypocrisy, sure I go to these places. But I don’t think they’re our greatest achievement in thousands of years of history. Not by a longshot.

Plus the video features Ke$sha. Why would I listen to Ke$ha’s opinion on anything? For starters, she has a dollar sign in her name, and anyone with monetary symbols in their monicker loses points on the Credibility-meter. So, I’m pretty sure her musings about how Lebanon’s energy mirrors the energy she puts in her shows, can be safely ignored.

And what’s all this nonsense about joie de vivre anyway? I’m sorry but I have yet to see a genuine example of someone loving life when I go out in Lebanon. We go to clubs with 3000 people, but hang out with the 20 we already know. We all look inward at our table. People stare into their Blackberries and iPhones trying to figure out if something more exciting is happening elsewhere, because they’re under the impression that they are in no way contributing to the complete lack of an atmosphere here, and it’s everyone else’s fault. If they can tear themselves away from their apparati, it’s to give someone across the club a death stare. Then maybe bbm somebody about it.

And before anyone says it’s just the rooftops, I have to disagree. Go out anywhere, and it’s the same. Batroun, Sour, Gemmayze, Jounieh. Maybe Hamra’s bar scene is a tiny bit different. I have yet to see anyone actually dancing outside the sweaty confines of a salsa night. And no, guys, slicing the air with the palm of one hand and shaking your vodka tonic around in the other, while you bob your head to the newest Taebo Cruise, or whatever his face is, track does not constitute dancing.

I’m sick of people confusing self-medicated post-traumatic stress with a love of life. Drinking yourself silly is not an affirmation of life. It can be a lot of fun, sure, but don’t call it joie de vivre. People not caring about tomorrow isn’t a smart thing. Shocking, I know. Many people at these clubs didn’t live the Civil War, they have every reason to plan for tomorrow. They’re young and educated and living in a period of relative, if tenuous and tense, stability. But they don’t, because they’re inheriting their parent’s misplaced insouciance…

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The Week of Commenting Dangerously.

The last week has been what you would call the opposite of a slow news week. It started off last Friday when a delusional terrorist (is there any other kind?) decided to take the lives of 68 innocent people in Oslo. The following day Amy Winehouse was found dead in her apartment at the age of 27. Then, during the week, a beloved Lebanese landmark was supposedly threatened with destruction, and a Lebanese singer was briefly thrown in jail for a song he recorded three years ago.

What do these events have in common? Not much on the face of it. I guess, in a way, they show various aspects of the tragedy of the human condition. Heavy stuff. But on a far simpler level, all these events took over my Facebook news feed over the last few days, and quite rightly so. Where LOLcats, Justin Bieber jokes and wedding photos once reigned supreme, people were now discussing terrorism and addiction.

However, I have some observations I’d like to share. I can almost hear your sigh of exasperation seeping through the screen, but bear with me.

Let’s take the first two events. The day the bombing and subsequent mass-shooting took place in Oslo, I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had to reread the story a few times before it sunk in. This was human atrocity at its basest level. I sent out rather pointless messages to my Norwegian friends, which were more of a sign of shared humanity than anything else. But at this point my news feed remained rather barren. Then, the next day, Amy Winehouse passed away. And suddenly my mini feed was packed full of condolences and heartfelt agony. And this got me rather angry.

A day after no one had reacted to one of the worst terrorist attacks in years, everyone suddenly seemed to be bereft over a celebrity who had been on a path to self-destruction for years. So I posted a status to that effect, wishing for some perspective on the scope of human tragedy. And the comments started pouring in. People angry that I was comparing tragedies that weren’t comparable.

They might not have been comparable as tragedies, but they were comparable on Facebook as entities of concern. I obviously can’t quantify human suffering, but I can quantify responses to it. And the disproportionate amount of people who cared more about Winehouse than about Norway felt rather grotesque.

It seemed to completely exemplify our obsession with celebrity over the past decade. Most of the comments were along the lines of “Amy touched me with her music, and I knew more about her, so it affected me more”. Well I’m sorry, but the day you identify more with a multi-millionaire drug addict than with innocent teenage bystanders, there’s something wrong with the world….

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Sex, but no sex.

Pick a street in Beirut. Any street. Look in front of you, behind you, above you. Chances are, within your line of sight, there is an ad for some form of physical enhancement, a woman who looks like a cross between Najwa Karam, a disco ball and a Czech pornstar and a guy who has consumed enough steroids to make Schwarzy look like a girly man whistling at her. This unholy trinity of visual queasiness is starting to get very annoying.

I am by no means conservative when it comes to social mores. I’m a Godless libertarian. But the socio-visual landscape in Beirut is becoming repugnant. I actually wouldn’t mind it if everyone was actually bumping uglies, but it’s the blatant hypocrisy of it all. Our society has become hypersexualized, with a distinct lack of actual sex.

Let me explain. I don’t mean no one is having sex, obviously. I mean, Beirut is one of the rare cities I’ve seen where they sell every kind of Durex condom under the sun at the Duty Free checkout counter at the Airport. You know, in case you’re thinking of joining the Mile High Club and you haven’t planned ahead. What I’m saying is that if you walk into a club in the UK, your chances of leaving with someone and getting up to no good are about 70%* (*highly unscientific guess). Your chances in Beirut, where I would say everyone is dressed and acting about the same, is 15% (*again, highly unscientific guess).

There is something misleading about the way we function. Everyone is always dressed up to the nines. Everything is enhanced. Breasts are augmented, fat is reduced, hair disappears. Eyes go green. Lips go red and plump. Pecs appear, bisceps bulge. And yet, very little actually every happens between the sexes on a casual basis.

I know I keep coming back to the opinions of tourists I meet, but they’re a highly useful objective and external vantage point. Every time I take them somewhere, they gasp and say something like “Jeez, it looks like everyone here is getting some tonight”. I proceed to explain the complex dichotomy between appearance and reality, which is an immense buzz kill to the pack of marauding horny Italian Eurotrash men.

Much like the oversexualized women in Arab pop videos, Lebanese women are expected to be alluring and seductive, yet remain virginal. Walking through a shopping mall or making limp-wristed vaguely Oriental dance moves in a club, most seem to be reprising their role as themselves in the movie of their life. It’s a symptom of the Blingification of the world. Everyone wants to be in a hip-hop video. So the men and women of Lebanon flock to Skybar (Note: Other Rooftop bars are available), tanned and toned, their bloodstreams a mix of vodka and champagne, their nostrils flaring at the smell of fireworks. They sway and flirt. But there is no dancefloor. Ever. There is no communal space for people to interact and meet, dance and sweat together.

Everyone lives in a proverbial music video for a few hours. Then they leave the blinged out universe of faux-independence and fleeting adulthood and return to their parents’ homes. Their parents’ homes replete with marble floors and gold chandeliers and expectations of virginal daughters.

Of course, for the men it’s different. They are coached from their earliest age to have double standards, namely that Lebanese women are pure and respectable and foreign women are to be used as vessels for sexual discovery. Many Lebanese men have their first sexual experience at the hands, quite literally, of Eastern European prostitutes in seedy hotels North of Beirut filled with the pungent odour of desperation and lost youth.

Men then go on to embrace this concept of the “Western Whore” and consider anyone remotely blonde that they meet ripe for the taking. Like unevovled cavemen, they whistle and gawk and grope. It’s an embarrassing sight. When I dated a Russian girl in London for two years, and I’d tell anyone in Lebanon where she was from they’d give me a knowing wink and I suppose they’d imagine her with her legs wrapped around a pole, upside down, her blonde hair caressing the stage floor. When I would explain she wasn’t a stripper, or blonde and was the epitome of class, I’d get confused looks for a few moments. It was as if I was pulling the rug from under their every assumption about relationships and sexuality. Then they’d chuckle, as if to say “I’ve just erased what you’ve said, and gone back to my parochial social dynamics. Phew, that was close”. Sigh….

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Balkan Beats.

Besides being undoubtedly the youngest looking 61 year-old in the world, Goran Bregovic is also the Balkans’ most prominent purveyor of neo-gypsy beats. But he’s also kind of the embodiment of the Balkans themselves, born in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a Croatian father and Serbian mother.

I don’t know much about him, but from what I’ve read he appears to be a mish-mash of Balkan influences. Which is saying a lot, and probably explains why his work is so layered and universal.

See, the Balkans are very much like Lebanon, more than either of us would like really. On a trip to Zagreb a couple of years ago, I was struck by how similar a lot of the discourse is to our own. Of course, the Croats themselves hate being assimilated to the Balkans, so for the sake of sematics, let’s call the place ex-Yugoslavia.

Most of us grew up with images of bombings and massacres perpetrated in these countries not so long ago. It seemed so surreal, countries at the heart of Europe, deeply beautiful countries, committing atrocities at the end of the 20th century. A lot of the scars of that conflict remain, and it doesn’t take long to sense them. And sense the similarities with Lebanon.

Religion still plays an important role, as does suspicion and fighting for scraps of land and influence. They’re still hunting down their war criminals 15 years after the conflict has ended. Much like Lebanon, history is never far in ex-Yugoslavia for anyone willing to look….

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The Adventures of Sven the Backpacker and Other Tales.

I got a message from a French friend of mine the other day asking if Beirut was a safe place to visit. I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. And it comes up quite a lot. On the one hand, walking the streets at night in Beirut is probably safer than anywhere I can think of. There are no hooded youths on the streets waiting to steal my Blackberry and use it to film me as they go about on a happy slapping rampage. On the other hand, we tend to pepper our existence with Ak-47s and the occasional car bomb. Armed with these two realities, I gave my usual answer, which is “it’s safe until it’s not”.

This particular French friend was planning on visiting as a tourist but was also interested in the ins and outs of life in Beirut, beyond the security situation, because she intends to move here to take up a rather exciting job opportunity. She asked me how easily I thought she’d make friends, because she doesn’t know anyone in town and she’s a bit concerned about that. I chuckled to myself as I told her not to worry, everyone in Lebanon loves foreigners and that she had the added advantage of being both French and Female.

There was a time when the word tourist in Beirut basically meant anyone from the Gulf who couldn’t be bothered to make it all the way to Europe for a long weekend intended to smoke a chicha at Grand Café. And that was about it. I don’t have a problem with that kind of tourism, but it’s the Lebanese equivalent of a lobster-red English tourist in Mallorca in a Newcastle United shirt who thinks he’s mastered the Spanish language because he can say “Oi, Manuel. Dos cervecas por favor. Innit.”

It also meant hordes of returning Lebanese expats, with bulging wallets. But even though the Ministry of Tourism loves counting them in its statistics, they aren’t really tourists at all. They sleep at home with their extended families and basically use the country as a large spa for the duration of their stay. They get medical checkups, see the dentist, get a haircut, load up on zaatar and head back to work….

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