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.
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.
Ask Katherine Maher to describe the Beirut that she loves and you get stories of a place that sounds like Brooklyn, Berlin, London and Rio de Janeiro crumpled up and dropped onto the map in a region filled with anxiety, trauma, and uncertain futures. A place where life is lived to the fullest, by day and by night. And if you want art, you’ve come to the right place.
On one fine October afternoon in Amsterdam, Katherine sat down with me to tell me of Beirut and the things a visiting journalist seeking storytellers and artists should keep in mind along the way.
“Now is a very interesting time… there is an incredible level of activity and activism among civil society that I have not seen in any comparative form in the last ten years.”