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 Hibr.me

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 hibr.me. 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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Mashrou3 Leila – Fasateen (Marc Codsi Remix)

As I’ve written before, I love Mashrou3 Leila. And their fresh sound just got fresher, thanks to a collaboration with Marc Codsi. You might be familiar with Codsi’s work with another kick-ass Lebanese band, Lumi. Check out both their Facebook pages: Mashrou3 Leila / Lumi Oh, and check out the tune. Mashrou’ Leila Fasateen (Marc […]

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Last Tango in Beirut.

Before you get all excited, this isn’t some steamy Beiruti version of the seminal Bertolucci film. It is, however, a post about tango. If you’ve ever seen me on a dancefloor, you might be confused as to why I’m writing about anything involving dance. I usually shuffle around like a middle-aged man at a wedding, […]

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Pimm’s, Parks and Singing Beards.

I had promised myself this trip to London would be different. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do what I always did in London. That I would try new things, meet new people, go to new places. And it would seem I have failed miserably.

I didn’t venture out of Kensington and Chelsea once. I remained within the confines of the royal borough, that bastion of poshness and crassness in equal measure.

I saw them all.

I saw the Russians and the Kazakhs. Stepping out of Rolls Royces with tinted windows, looking like caricatures of themselves. Pencil-thin women decked out in the lifeless skin of every animal. Men with faces that seemed like the product of time and erosion rather than birth. You couldn’t tell the bodyguards from the oligarchs. I saw the Arabs, in their ill-fitting Armani outfits and outdated Ed Hardy caps. I saw them with the earphones to their mobiles wrapped around their face, calling their friends to meet them at Rouge by Harrods. I saw their Swarovski-encrusted matt black Lamborghni Overcompensatos.

I saw the statuesque Norwegian guys with blonde quiffs no one else could pull off. Decked out in outfits that would make the preppiest of New England croquet players hug their trust fund in fear. I actually saw one guy in blue suede loafers, green shorts, a pink polo and a salmon blazer and Wayfarers. And he actually looked cool. “Damn you Scandinavians!”, I thought to myself, as I shook my fist skywards. I could never wear that. I’d look like I’d fallen through the closet at a Ralph Lauren outlet store. And failed to get out.

I saw the Frenchies around South Ken station, which is undoubtedly the most French part of the world outside of Saint Germain. Each one of them impeccably dressed and carrying a scooter helmet under their arm. Their Gallic accents making everyone swoon. The picture ruined only by the fact that they’re all derivatives traders.

I saw the locals. The few remaining Brits who still populate the area…

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Act for the Disappeared.

Lebanon’s recent past has been consistently been characterized by a pervasive sense of joyful insouciance, a kind of permanent amnesia that allows us to convince ourselves the biggest decision in our day is what shirt we should wear or what bar we should head to tonight.

Given the ambient carefree attitude, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Bermuda or Andalusia, not in a country in a volatile country in political deadlock for years. There is something vaguely grotesque about how we go about on a daily basis, oblivious to the fact that so much in Lebanon remains unresolved.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. I can hear you shouting at your screen “But that’s the Lebanese way, we’re brave in the face of adversity, we’re famous around the world for our resilience in times of difficulty. We partied under the bombs”. That’s all well and good, and the Lebanese spirit of steadfastness is admirable beyond words. Everything somehow continues to function regardless of what state the country is in.

However, there is no denying that our inability to deal with our past is a considerable problem. I mean a country doesn’t go from a 20-year free-for-all of murder and destruction to a peaceful having of foreign investment overnight. Something is wrong with that process. The fact that the political discourse 20 years after the end of the war is so bitter is the most glaring illustration of how unhealthy our attitude to the past is. You only need to scratch the surface of any conversation/confrontation and you’ll find people digging up various vile episodes from our prolonged periods of civil strife….

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Anonymous Anonymous.

I’m writing this whilst sitting on the sun-soaked terrace of a Parisian café. What a f**king cliché, right? But I’m not inclined to mind, despite my deep-seeded hatred of the cliché. It feels great to be sitting here, playing the role of someone with weighty concerns on his mind, furiously jotting down ideas in a battered Moleskine notebook.

I wont lie to you, and you’ve probably noticed form some of the stuff I’ve written recently, Beirut and I have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last couple of months. I’ve been experiencing a sense of cabin fever. The constant maelstrom of political posturing, or to give it its Latin name Bullshittus Politicus, is getting exhausting to watch and is downright unavoidable. However much I want to live in my apolitical, semi-hipster bubble, there will always be a TV screen, a serveece driver or a neighbour, eager to dump upon me the minutiae of the day’s political meandering.

Then there’s the ubiquitous car horn. I really hope someone, some day writes a PhD thesis about the use of the car horn in Lebanese daily life. I’m sure there are a plethora of psychosexual explanations for its permanent use. Freud might have something to say about it. Maybe serveece drivers weren’t hugged enough by their mothers.

But what has been most difficult in recent months, has been seeing the same people day in, day out. Before all my friends unfriend me on Facebook, what I mean by that is I can’t take seeing the same strangers everyday. I’m lucky to have amazing friends, and I never tire of them (although their feelings towards me might not be as enthusiastic). But, even though Beirut is a teeming metropolis of around 2 million people, it feels like a Mediterranean village. Every face looks vaguely familiar. Everyone looks kind of the same. You’re bound to know everyone you come across through a friend of a friend. Man, for my first year in Lebanon everyone seemed to turn out to be a cousin (Note: the Lebanese definition of cousin is quite broad. It could include someone who invited your great uncle for coffee once in 1946).

Looking at any street scene in Beirut, you can make an educated guess about 80% of those around you. “Hmm, that guy looks like he studied Business at AUB, then went to some French business school and he now runs the family cement factory in Zimbabwe, but comes home every other weekend to see his fiancé and his mistress”. Even the expats are predictable “Hmm, I’m guess he works for some obscure UN agency with an acronym that the country manager is still trying to figure out the meaning of. He’s grown a beard to feel “authentic” and only eats at Le Chef in Gemmayze and drinks at Captain’s Cabin in Hamra”.

But as I sit here, being scoffed at by a Parisian waiter, I have absolutely no idea about anyone around me’s life. Everyone walking by is a true stranger. I have no idea who anyone is. And it’s beautiful…

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Here Comes The Rain.

Here Comes The Rain, or Chatti ya Dini, is an absolute must-see film by Bahijj Hojeij. It follows the story of a man’s release back into society after 20 years of detention. The acting, direction and cinematography are all absolutely stunning and the film’s subject matter is one of our great unexplored scars. The 17,000 […]

Weekend Escapes and the Casual Racist.

Weekend escapes are a somewhat of a vacation oddity. You don’t really feel like you’ve taken time off anything, because it’s the weekend anyway, yet you feel invigorated by the feeling of discovering a city in two short days.

There’s something ephemeral and almost hypnotic about it. You don’t even realize you’re in a new city; your mind doesn’t process your short trip to somewhere new. The sights and sounds seem oddly familiar and alien at the same time. They feel mundane because you were sitting at home just hours ago, but in truth they are anything but. You’re in a trance, being pushed along by throngs of tourists in a similar state. And you start tp go through the motions of visiting the city.

By the time it sinks in that you’re somewhere new and wonderful, it’s Sunday afternoon and it’s time to head home. It happens just as you’re getting your bearings in the city. You’ve figured out the Metro map. You’ve chosen a favorite restaurant, a favorite bar. You’ve picked up a couple of unpronounceable words that can make a local cringe or laugh with you. But it’s time to check out of the hotel, and drag yourself to the airport.

You get that sinking feeling as you approach your gate. Just as landing in a foreign airport for the first time is the closest we can get to rekindling our childlike wonder in our adult lives, the departure gate on your back is probably the starkest reminder available of your adult responsibilities and constraints.

That’s more or less the feeling I’ve always gotten coming back from a weekend, wherever I’m based. Heading back to Beirut, there’s an added level of frustration. Dozens of people who’ve been acting in a perfectly civil manner for the last few days, suddenly revert to their basest instincts. As if to satisfy every cliché, they start trying to queue-jump, they want preferential treatment from staff. “Who’s flying the plane today, is it Zouzou? Tell him it’s Fadi, he loves me. I want to sit in First Class and harass the stewardess for whisky for the next 2 hours. Don’t you know who I am?”

As I flew back from Istanbul on Sunday, after one of the most eye-opening, interesting and fun weekends I’ve had for a while, I had a bemused look on my face as I observed everyone’s slow relapse into a Lebanese state of mind. Once on the plane, things got a little nastier. About 20% of the passengers decided they didn’t like their seats and caused a commotion. Typical situation on a Middle East Airlines flight, right? 300 people want an exit seat and everyone feels entitled to sit next to their 20 friends. But then one man’s request to change seats caught my attention…

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