Kamal Hakim: Beirut, A City and Life of Contradictions

Kamal Hakim: Beirut, A City and Life of Contradictions

Circus, by Kamal HakimKamal Hakim grew up in an era of reconstruction after the civil war in Lebanon. As the son of a Greek Orthodox – Sunni Muslim marriage, he recalls eating sour-kraut cooked by his protestant grandmother. His life was marked by all the struggles of a city of contradictions, contradictions which he recognizes in himself as well. As an illustrator, Kamal has a dream, a dream he must reconcile with the financial demands of life during an economic crisis in a country that lives every day not knowing if there will be a tomorrow.

This podcast was recorded on one of the exciting days I spent in Beirut last month, as Kamal and I met for the first time in the 1 and only city park. We quickly moved from the details of his personal life and professional training, to the big picture questions of life, art, the shadow of war, and the things that happen in between in such a fragile country. Meanwhile all around us children chase pigeons, old people occupy park benches, and men yell greetings at each other. All in a days work while getting to know Beirut with the help of a wise new friend.

Check out more of  Kamal Hakim’s work on his blog Kamatopia. And remember his name, so you can say you knew him way back when…

Personal Revolutions in North Africa

This week I find myself in the Northeast of the United States, home for the holidays and also to process all the audio, video, and photos from the Middle East – North Africa journey. Being back in the US means being subjected to the local and national media context, which makes American stories seem larger than life, and Egypt feel like another planet. At holiday gatherings and reunions with old friends I am often asked things like “So is it all falling apart in Egypt or what?”  Sometimes its put in nicer terms, but the tone is most often one of skepticism and as if their minds have already been made up about what is happening in that part of the world.

Images from Mohamed Mahmoud St.

Images from Mohamed Mahmoud St., Tahrir Sq.

In the American press I see the other standard reaction towards the events taking place in Egypt, including conclusions about what took place in the weeks that I was in Tahrir Square – the revolution has been hijacked, a new dictatorship has emerged, the opposition is falling apart. When I read and hear such analysis, by both intelligent and less well-informed individuals, I again feel like I left Egypt and landed on another planet.  In this world everything has to fit into categories and boxes. There are either winners or losers. Things are either successes or failures. So whatever those countries are going through, they must fit into one of these easy to understand categories.

What I wish most is that I could, even beyond my work here on the website and on radio open source, show them examples of the changes that have taken root on the personal level in Egypt and Tunisia. (and beyond I suspect) It never makes it into headlines or fancy mainstream news analysis, that metro workers went on strike last month, an action that would be unthinkable under the dictatorship.  Women, long plagued by street harassment and oppression at home, are now organizing themselves to adopt tactics to neutralize such harassment and get out of abusive situations.  Lower class people, long barred from ever working in higher skill and prestige jobs, are starting to demand equal opportunity and an end to prejudice based on what your father’s profession is.  The list is actually much longer than this, but in my many conversations over the course of three weeks in Cairo, it was impossible to avoid stories of individuals carrying out personal rebellions against an old and oppressive tradition.

Is the process complete and successful? Are the oppressed finally getting the justice they deserved? No. Sadly, these changes are slow to reach everyone and there is no guarantee that they will take hold for everyone everywhere.  Is there resentment and push-back from those who don’t want to see these changes come to fruition? Yes. Many people fear what is to come and would prefer to keep things the way they were.   But beyond all of this, no matter what happens in the future or what is happening now, something has changed in Egypt and that something is the individual mindset. And as so many people reminded us, over and over, once you reach this change and start thinking like a free person, there is no going back.

The Freedom of Baladi Dance with Alexandre Paulikevitch

The Freedom of Baladi Dance with Alexandre Paulikevitch
Photo by Patrick Baz AFP
Photo by Patrick Baz AFP

Photo by Patrick Baz AFP

It was one of those beautiful nights in Beirut were I found myself sitting at a table with new friends sharing stories, teaching each other about the world, and finding humor in unexpected places.  And even after a long day of teaching and rehearsing, Alexandre Paulikevitch is a natural at all these things.  As we sat around the table of the outdoor cafe he talked about projects he’s working on and the challenges that keep coming his way, and after several minutes of conversation he looked at me and my portable recorder and said “OK Mark, I understand what you’re doing and what kind of conversations you are seeking.” A clear and reassuring statement I wish I would tell myself every now and then.

This would end up being one of my favorite conversations of the entire journey, as the young but already legendary Baladi Dancer and human rights activist patiently moved from the beginnings of his interest in dancing and gender expression to his eventual realization of both who he is and what his performance art is all about.  Even beyond the stage, we discuss the issues he is active with in both Lebanon and in other parts of the Middle East.

Listen and enjoy to what I believe is an important conversation and an education when it comes to challenging conventional wisdom and self expression throughout the world.

You can watch a performance by Alexandre from earlier this year on youtube. 

What I Know About Beirut

What I Know About Beirut
Corniche, Beirut
Corniche, Beirut

Corniche, Beirut

First of all don’t read too far into the title, I was in Beirut for less than a week and no one who has been in a city for such a short time should be telling you about that city. That said, I spent almost 5 glorious days in that most legendary place of joy and heartbreak. Here’s what I learned in a nutshell:

Beirutians will waste no time in telling you that they live for today, not knowing if society will break down tomorrow and fall back into a state of war.  With this rather disheartening piece of information out in the open, they will then show you their town, a place filled with beautiful activities and inspiring personalities. Sure, the roads leading down the hills to the sea side may feature the occasional machine gun nest or guard post, but once you arrive at the corniche you will be treated to a never-ending array of happy people watching. They’re sun bathing, riding bikes, fishing, playing sports on the makeshift beach. Tomorrow may be uncertain, but you can bet they’re going to enjoy (and look good) today.  And then afterwards they will eat like perhaps there is no tomorrow! With some of the most delicious ingredients your taste buds have ever known.  I don’t usually spend my time talking about food or the role food can play in art or politics, but in Lebanon I learned it can play a part in all of those areas and beyond.  “Food can disarm” I remember Barbara Massad telling us as she fed us during an interview in her cozy kitchen, and she went on to tell us of the time that indeed food did get her out of a difficult situation with a Hezbollah militant.

I’m sure those more experienced as both observers and residents of Beirut would yell at me for only telling stories of happy or delicious encounters. I’m irresponsible, probably, if I don’t mention the infamous tension just below the surface.  And surely life is not ok for a huge amount of Lebanese who feel the economic and perhaps social strains of this moment in the country’s history.  I won’t even try to explain the maddening situation in refugee camps, which I was not able to go into but I did learn a great deal about (for a future post and podcast).

No for now I want to be nice and irresponsible. Beirut is magical. Beirut can pick you up and show you things perhaps you didn’t know you wanted to see. Or perhaps you’ll also notice the things that everyone wishes were not so painfully visible.  However you choose to spin it, my impression was one filled with interesting days and dynamic nights that I hoped would never end.  An brief yet educational visit filled with daily discussions made it very clear that there is much more to learn and do in this country – and a followup is needed soon! In a world that needs so badly to understand differences and resolve conflicts, maybe the key can be found right in one of the most fragile yet inspiringly diverse nations in the world.  Beirut… I’ll be right back.