Storytelling in Dubai

Are we living in an era where the art of storytelling has risen to some newfound prominence? What kinds of stories are inspired and produced by the cultures of the Arabian 
peninsula these days? How difficult is it to achieve a balance between life and work in this environment?  These and other subjects are a part of this lunchtime podcast we recorded at the American University in Dubai this past winter.

Meedo Taha is, among other things, a storyteller based in Dubai. But before making a life in this city, his story went from Lebanon, to London, to Tokyo, to LA and beyond.

Growing Up Palestinian in Lebanon

With Ashraf in TyreThe name Tyre was one I remembered best from the days of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 when the city was bombed and that standard war-map would appear on news reports.  While in country this past December, when I was offered a chance to go down there and speak with someone who lived in a refugee camp- I immediately said yes.  But what I didn’t realize until I got there, was just how many people not only live in the camps, but were born and have lived their entire lives there.  In a situation that has existed since 1948, there are stories that would be hard for some people to believe and too much for others to think about.
This podcast features a conversation we had with a young artist by the name of Ashraf.  After taking us to see the city and some of its amazing history, he sat down with us to answer our questions about his life, the situation for residents of the camp, and what the prospects are for people who have been referred to and treated as non-citizen “guests” for over 60 years.

Education, Art, and Diversity in Lebanon

RMOver the course of my week in Beirut I had the good fortune of spending time with teacher and performance artist Raghda Mouawad.  Through her I learned a great many things about the country and its people, including details about the education system and the harsh reality for artists during an economic crisis in a country that offers little support.  We also get back into that now familiar topic, the contradictions of Beirut when it comes to identities, ethnicity and beyond.

The following podcast was recorded in a car late at night in Beirut on the eve of my departure last month.  Special thanks to both Raghda and our silent passenger in the back seat, Krystel Khoury, for taking the time to explain and show me their city.  Friends like these in far away places make doing what I do, not only possible, but a pleasure.

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…

The Freedom of Baladi Dance with Alexandre Paulikevitch

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

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.