Archive | September, 2010

The Quest for the Holy Grill.

Every office around the world shares a certain set of dynamics. For example, walk into any neon-lit place of corporate endeavor at 11am and you will find an army of morose humanoids stirring their second cup of coffee of the morning, staring blankly into the hypnotic swirls created at the surface of the mug by the unwashed teaspoon. Jump thousands of miles away to another office, in Sao Paolo lets say, and you’ll find two disgruntled employees arguing over whose turn it is to load the A4 paper into the printer. Oh, and while they’re at it, someone should take care of that paper jam. Now hop over to London, and you’ll find an IT technician crouched behind someone’s desk, staring at the rotting carcass of a Jurassic machine, asking if anyone’s tried rebooting it.

What I’m trying to say is that there are constants in office life around the world. There’s something about being shepherded into the same building everyday at the same time with the same people that brings out certain characteristics in people. A sort of protracted cabin fever, that brings to the forefront a series of basic human responses. Fantasizing about your next holiday the instant you get back to the office from your latest one, staring defeated at your inbox. 500 unread emails. Ouch. Alternatively, shove three people by a watercooler, and they’ll invariably discuss either last night’s sports event or that girl from accounts’ shapely behind.

However, the most universal obsession shared by office employees the world over remains that of sustenance. As soon as the clock hits 11:30am, the stomachs start grumbling and the mind pondering the options that lie ahead. When I was in London, the options weren’t immense. At my first job, in Holborn, the usual course of action was to head down to the nearest Sainsbury’s local, buy some godawful microwavable meal and a Muller Light yogurt. Collect some Nectar points, and then let the despair and decay of Western civilization wash over you. Trundle back to the vacant conference room, glance politely at a colleague munching away at an avocado, and pick up a battered copy of the Guardian. On Fridays we’d go absolutely nuts, and maybe two or three of us would head over to Nandos in Soho. If we were feeling like rockstars, we’d throw some peri peri sauce on our chips and get two refills of Diet Coke.

In my second job, in Mayfair, the options weren’t any more plentiful, but at least the walk was pleasant. The people were prettier, and the odd smattering of bemused and lost American tourists was always satisfying. Seeing as I was a banker, and that part of the job description was to chain yourself to your desk, I’d usually venture to the Crussh branch in my own damn building, and grab whatever seemed edible. Which wasn’t much. I’d throw in a soup in the depths of winter; deluding myself into thinking it might provide some respite from the ambient germs and drizzly misery.

When I had 3 minutes to spare, I’d walk over to Berkeley Square to the twin temples of British Shite Food: Pret-A-Manager and Eat. I would already know what Eat’s soup of the day was, because I would get emails at 11am from a friend who checked their website religiously in her mission to plan out the lunch hour. Inbox: Butternut Squash at Eat today! Yay! When we wanted to treat ourselves, we’d head down the regally named Sandwich Alley, and get a little box of supposedly Thai food. The real treat came when we’d gather four or five people to go to a Lebanese restaurant down the street and feast on some falafel and hummus. The closer I got to resigning, the more Arak got involved in the meal.

Now in Beirut, the culinary landscape open to the employee is altogether different. I’ve been reintroduced to the concept of the Tupperware, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues coming to work armed with box upon box, ready to be heated in the over-exploited microwave. The paraphernalia is really quite fascinating, with boxes of different shapes and sizes, and Thermos bags to ensure the freshness of the produce. The dishes themselves run a wide gamut from the humble thyme manoucheh to the most elaborate of concoctions, recipes passed down through the generations. For those of us who don’t have large Mediterranean families residing in Lebanon, or matronly great aunts, and can’t cook to save our lives, there’s always the city’s army of delivery boys. I have colleagues who have indexed every delivery menu known to man in folders like chapters in the holy book of the hungry.

Battalions of sweaty deliverymen show up around 1pm, bearing everything from pizzas to vine leaves to fruit cocktails, their trusty scooters littering the pavement outside the building. I’m also lucky enough to have a European-style supermarket nearby, the local equivalent of a Waitrose or M&S but twice as poncy. I often feel underdressed heading down to buy a 4pm snack, and that’s saying a lot considering I’m usually decked out like I’m expecting a visit from the Queen. Every fashionista in downtown Beirut and her best friend stroll through the shiny surroundings as if strutting their stuff down a Milan catwalk looking for gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, taste-free edibles of every sort in the sort of spectacle that makes you lose your appetite.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my turn to load the A4 paper and buy everyone Diet Coke’s and crisps.

Read More

Here Comes The Sun.

A friend of mine made this video using footage he found of a family gathering in Baalbeck in the 1960s. I love the Wonder Years quality the video has and the spontaneity of everyone in it. It’s cool that Hani decided to re-edit this film 50 years after all the protagonists had a fun day […]

Read More

Beauty and the Fifty Ton Beast.

Yesterday morning I was confronted with the kind of task that is daunting in even the most organized of countries: a visit to an administrative building to take care of some paperwork. The interminable succession of stamping, and waiting, and stamping, and waiting, and paying, and waiting, and arguing, and waiting is the same the world over. It’s obviously a bit more chaotic here in Lebanon, given that the concepts of courtesy and orderly lines are as alien to the terrain as polar bears and Texan line dancers.

You’re probably not even remotely interested, but I was renewing my Lebanese passport. The one I currently hold dates back to 1994. Not only is it ancient, it features a picture of me as a fresh-faced 11 year old with Harry Potter glasses and an arabfro. The only reason the nice lady at the consulate in London agreed to renew it last year was because I gave her a sob story about how I’d lost it eons ago, and it turned up magically as I moved out of my London flat and shipped my worldly possessions to Beirut, and that it was a sign that I was reclaiming my Lebaneseness. Oh, and she was positively giddy when she glanced at the passport and noticed we were both Scorpios. Citing an alignment of Jupiter and Uranus, she promptly renewed it for a year.

But that year has ended, and here I was running like a headless chicken, weaving in and out of idle soldiers, customs officers, and charlatans to renew my passport. After I’d signed and paid an inordinately huge fee, I took in my surroundings. The old Serail in Baabda is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Lebanon. On the one hand, it’s a crime that a place of such palatial beauty should be reduced to a vehicle for the machinations of incompetent bureaucracy. On the other hand, it’s endearing that it still has an organic life to it rather than the polished feel of a museum or, godforbid, a hotel slash Lebanese restaurant.

I’ve been increasingly concerned over the last few months about the mind-boggling destruction of Lebanon’s architectural heritage. Over the short year since I’ve been here, countless “listed” buildings have been torn down to make way for gargantuan monstrosities. Dystopian fences promise rows of identikit skyscrapers, as if we should be thankful that these Ottoman eyesores have been razed to the ground. Voices of indignation creep out from bourgeois hangouts. Yet the buildings keep coming down. Achingly beautiful Levantine houses, reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. From time to time the indignation will result in a building being saved. Temporarily. They might as well put a sign up reading “Demolition delayed pending more adequate bribe”.

Social media is helping organize a bit of a backlash, which is comforting. Thousands of people have joined various Facebook pages cataloguing the perpetrators of this senseless erasing of our pasts. But many are passive activists, happy to like a photo of a crumbling abode on a Facebook page and write an angry comment, yet unwilling to chain themselves to a house about to be bulldozed. I’m probably guilty of this too, although I sense I might buy some padlocks soon. I don’t want my city to look like Dubai. Even Dubai doesn’t want to look like Dubai. And even though I love Miami, I don’t want to drive through the Beirut harbour and feel that I’ve magically been transported to Brickell.

Sometimes even these comparisons seem generous. Most of the new construction goes up with no regard for esthetic whatsoever. Developers maximizing every square centimeter of an apartment to squeeze every dollar out of it. Obviously some do a good job here and there, imbibing their projects with a concept and a vision. But they’re few and far between.

I have no problem with towers and modernity. Anyone will tell you I’m no tree-hugging communist hippy. But I have a conscience, and a love for my country and my city. Whatever happened to urban planning? Fine, we had a war that ended 20 years ago, and another that ended 4 years ago; we can’t keep using them as excuses to scar our landscape. You don’t destroy to build. I don’t care if everyone wants to live in the 2 square kilometers considered prestigious, towers should be on the outskirts of town.

What does it say about us as a nation when there is no general moral outcry. I’ll gladly admit people have more pressing things to worry about, from sporadic electricity to political and economic instability. But what is a country without its history? What is Paris without Haussmanian boulevards? What is London without Victorian terraces?

So what are we left with? Bourgeois bohemian enclaves like Saifi that look like Disneyland versions of an imagined classical Beirut. Like papier mache film sets, ready to crumble at the first gust of wind. But at least there, someone has tried to recreate a sort of Levantine esthetic. Mostly, we are left with towering, soulless eyesores, insufferably homogenized and characterless. How happy can one truly be living in these monstrosities?

On a recent trip to the crusader castle in Byblos, I asked a guide what the story was behind the lone traditional Lebanese house standing at the far edge of the site. She explained that when French archeologists got there at the turn of the 20th century, they tore down every building in the area in order to excavate the thousands of years of history that lay around this site. They left one house standing, which at the time was a contemporary structure, to serve the memory of the area. These people were justified in destroying an entire area, because they were uncovering invaluable layers of our history that have helped us better understand who we are and where we’ve come from. How long can we justify destroying entire areas today in our incessant drive to forget who we are and where we’re supposed to be going?

Check out one of the pages aiming to help preserve our heritage here: http://bit.ly/cVx8IQ
And make sure you attend the Candlelight walk in Gemmayze on September 25th to protest the closure of the iconic Glass Cafe (Ahwet el Azez)

Read More

Twelve Angry Lebanese.

When I went to watch 12 Angry Lebanese – The Documentary on Sunday, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d read bits and pieces about the play, a version of the 1950s American play and film 12 Angry Men, and knew it vaguely involved inmates at Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.

The documentary opens with shots of the impossibly depressing prison on the hills above Beirut. I mean no one expects a prison to look cheerful, especially amidst the bleak concrete jungle our country is slowly turning into. But Roumieh is a whole new world of misery. Certainly many who reside amongst its crumbling walls deserve to be there. Rapists, murderers and thieves. But even the evil within our society deserve humane conditions. Roumieh, originally intended to house 1000 convicts is currently buckling under the weight of its 7000.

Now, in Lebanon, we’re not big on rehabilitation. Amnesia is the rule. One day it’s ignoring the plight of the 17000 people who went missing during the civil war. The next it’s turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands who self-medicate their post-traumatic stress with Xanax, vodka and their car horns. That cousin who ended up in jail? Don’t talk about him and he doesn’t exist anymore. Magic.

Sweeping things under the rug is all we do collectively. But the more you sweep, the more uneven the surface of the rug. And that’s what we’re left with. A jagged collective memory with thousands of walking ghosts, all ignoring each other’s presence. It’s the kind of conclusion that can lead to despair. Then I saw this film.

Zeina Dacccache should be celebrated for her genius and madness in equal measure. After studying drama therapy in the US, she took it upon herself to wander into a maximum security prison in one of the most machismo-laden countries in the world to poke around in the psyches of rapists and murderers for 15 months.

The choice of play is poignant. The original 12 Angry Men explores techniques of consensus-building and the difficulties that the process involves, among a group of male jurors whose range of personalities create tension and conflict. Twelve bickering men entrusted with deciding the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder. The poster for the 1957 film read: Life is in their hands, Death is on their minds. Nothing could be truer in the context of this prison.

At the outset, the group looks hopeless. Sitting around haphazardly, they don’t let each other finish their sentences. Their anger is palpable. The anger of 7000 inmates in a country of angry people. Tempers flare and you can’t quite imagine how this ramshackle group would stand in a straight line, let alone put on a play in front of an audience.

However, as the film progresses, a gradual cohesion surfaces. The men start caring about each other. They start caring about the success of their performances. They talk about Zeina with a sense of awe, and without the slightest indication of objectification, something many men on the outside would undoubtedly be guilty of.

Among the inmates turned actors are some foreigners. A Nigerian, a Bangladeshi, an Egyptian, serving sentences far away from home yet proud of their involvement in an ambitious undertaking. A multi-confessional and multi-racial group of men working under the leadership of a strong woman? It’s an inspiring sight, rendered melancholic by the nagging thought that it would probably never happen outside the walls of this prison in our largely bigoted and sexist Lebanon.

The play itself is a resounding success, presented to an audience of ministers and security forces as well as family. It’s a surreal sight. Criminals in suits acting unhindered by restraints or barriers, to an audience. I challenge you not to shed a tear at some point during this documentary. The result is so powerful, we learn, that after the play action was taken by the authorities to implement laws on early release for good behaviour.

The film, in the most unlikely of places, finds qualities that are sadly missing in our everyday lives as Lebanese. Determination, will and positivity in the pursuit of catharsis and rehabilitation. It is both beautiful and profoundly moving to watch. You find yourself empathizing with people who have committed unspeakable crimes. Rooting for them. Hoping they don’t falter. You see their human side. You are happy to see that even though they are locked up, they have experienced a freedom. A freedom of thought and achievement. Some are shy and introverted, others breakdown whilst they speak of the things they’ve done. But none of them wants to be seen as a victim, they acknowledge their wrongdoing. They want to understand the circumstances that lead them to do the things they did. They want to enjoy the freedom that working on something worthwhile has given them. They want to make their families proud now, through their dedication and work. In a deeply wounded country busy frenetically erasing its past with bulldozers and cement; few things could be more inspiring.

Twelve Angry Lebanese is playing at Metropolis Cinema – Sofil until September 14th. Watch it.

Read More