Archive | May, 2011

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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Proust Questionnaire.

Marcel Proust famously answered a personality questionnaire when he was aged 13 and then later when he was 20. The questionnaire has gone through a bunch of iterations, probably most famously on the back page of Vanity Fair. As I was moving some books yesterday, I found a book that included the responses of various public figures to the questionnaire and it made me want to take it myself. So here goes.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I grew up in the UK, we tend to favour wistful melancholy. Happiness just isn’t a very English trait, or a very Lebanese one for that matter. If I had to answer at all costs, I’d say being with friends and family around a swimming pool at night, with bossa nova playing in the background. But then it would probably rain or something.
What is your greatest fear?
Failure. But that’s a fear that’s surmountable, through success. Oh and people dressed as rabbits. That scares the bejesus out of me.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Mr Bean.

Which living person do you most admire?
At the risk of sounding like an immense cheesball, it’s very honestly my parents.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
The fact that I feel compelled to make up silly dances everytime I go out, and I force everyone around me, including strangers, to learn the moves.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
The inability to park correctly, or signal when making a right turn. And a general lack of respect.

What is your greatest extravagance?
It used to be spending copious amounts of money on spirits in plush West End clubs in London, trying my best to convince Eastern European goldiggers that I was incredibly wealthy. Which I was, and am, not. Now, I’d probably have to say it’s travel.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
What’s a virtue?

When and where were you happiest?
Happiness? Again? Was Proust American or something?

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
I’m a large hairy Lebanese man. There’s a lot to dislike.

Which living person do you most despise?
Pretty much anyone who has neon lights under their car. And anyone who double parks.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Fuck. Dude. Enno.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Leaving a promising yet soul-destorying job as a banker in London to become a penniless struggling writer in Beirut. Best decision ever. And I can live off crackers and water, right?

On what occasion do you lie?
Never. Or always. I can’t remember which.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to play the accordion. And look cool. Preferably simultaneously.

What is your current state of mind?
Contemplative. I’m mainly contemplating what sandwich to have for lunch.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
The pleat in a Hollywood starlet’s Lanvin skirt.

What is your most treasured possession?
My books. All of ‘em. Even the shitty ones I used as coasters.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Being surrounded by bubbly happy people talking about inane matters. And being alone when I don’t want to be. That’s no fun.

What is your most marked characteristic?
I’m 1m96, 110 kilos, with a full beard, I’d say my most marked characteristic is my eyelashes.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their silence. Badda bing. Eh, fuggetaboutit.

Who are your favorite writers?
Bukowski, Beigbeder, Flaubert, Easton Ellis, Baudelaire, Hage, Brooker, Hunter S. Thompson. Any self-destructive womanizing alcoholic basically.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Captain Planet. You know, because he was our hero, and he was going to take pollution down to zero. And he did.

Actually, hang on…

How would you like to die?
Not anytime soon, thank you very much.

What is your motto?
Some people never go crazy, what horrible lives they must live.

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Reel Festival 2011.

Reel Festival 2011.

The Reel Festival kicks off tonight at the Metropolis Cinema in Sofil. Check out the schedule over the coming days, and keep your eyes peeled for my coverage of the event over at

Less Party. More Artsy Fartsy.

One of my pet peeves about Beirut for years was that it always seemed to lack some sort of ambient artistic activity. I mean the city wasn’t lacking in artists, by any means. Writers, musicians, filmmakers and so on have a compulsion to create during difficult times, to make sense of them, and we call agree we’ve had more than our fair share. But the city lacked a certain public art scene, pervasive and visible.

That has changed over the last couple of years. The city has seen a plethora of art galleries opening their doors, as well as non-profit entities like the Beirut Art Centre and the Beirut International Exhibition Centre. Some galleries, like The Running Horse, are pushing the boundaries of what we normally see in Beirut. It’s fun and easy and intellectually stimulating at the same time.

I’m writing this whilst sitting at Bread Republic in Hamra, and there’s a wall in front of me literally plastered in posters for art exhibits, dance performances, concerts and so on. Not only are these posters informative, they’re part of a visual landscape. So even if you never end up going to whatever show it is, you’ve seen the poster. You’ve been affected by it. You’ve given the poster at least a second’s fleeting thought. And we shouldn’t underestimate how important that is.

When it comes to music, there’s no shortage of talent. There was a time in the 1990s when the only alternative to Wael Kfoury was Soap Kills. That’s far from the case today. Bands and solo acts are springing up faster than you can say “The Lead Singer is in it for the women”. Bands like Mashrou’ Leila, Scrambled Eggs, Lumi, Slutterhouse and many more, make textured, layered and appealing music. Music with subtext and context and, as the kids say, killer beats. They have lyrics that speak to a generation disillusioned by their surroundings. The most engaged and engaging are the hip-hop artists. Fareeq Al Atrash and Zeinedin deserve their place in the pantheon of masters of the Arabic language just as much as Said Akl.

This month sees a renewed flurry of cultural activity. First off, there is next week Reel Festivals (9-15 May), which I’ll be covering for The festival pulls off the petty unique feat of creating a cultural exchange between Scotland, Lebanon and Syria. Cue jokes about haggis and hummus. But a cursory look through the program reveals a hell of an interesting line-up covering poetry, music and film.

Then from May 18 to June 12, there’s the Beirut Music and Arts Festival. I’m happy to be involved with the organisers to help spread the word about this event. I’ll be going to some of the concerts and live tweeting photos to the BMAF blog, as well as covering stories in and around the performances. The almost month-long festival promises to bring international and local musicians and artists to the heart of downtown Beirut. And anyone who’s walked through downtown Beirut recently knows how much it needs an injection of sincerity and life. The ascepticized fakeness of Downtown, its forced prettiness will be infused with something real for once.

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Sarajevo-born Goran Bregovic and Marcel Khalife live for the first time. I’m also very excited about the Band Village, which will feature 45 local bands. A lot of my friends are in local bands, and I’ve often been to lazy to make it to their gigs (my bad) and this means I get to see them on a stage worthy of their talent…

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