Culture

Beirut's far-flung arts audience materializes in solidarity drive

BEIRUT: How much difference does a concert here or a press conference there make? When it comes to the numerous arts initiatives that are taking place around the world to express solidarity with Lebanon, the answer might very well be quite a lot, especially if one considers both the fundraising and moral-boosting potential of such events.

While it is doubtful the anti-war demonstrations that erupted in such cities as London, New York, Berlin, Istanbul and even Tel Aviv recently had much effect, many of the people who protested, as a Beirut-based curator pointed out recently, form part of a far-flung audience for Lebanon's arts and culture scene.

Whether they are Lebanese living abroad, third-generation immigrants elsewhere or foreigners with no historical ties to the country at all, many protesters know what they do of Beirut because they follow the city's musicians, filmmakers, artists and writers.

Many artists and activists who have been agitating abroad hold Lebanon dear precisely because they have presented their work here and found Beirut both welcoming and critically challenging.

Now that the immediacy of the Israeli bombardment has downshifted to tit-for-tat slaughter in the southern and eastern regions of the country and a blockade that continues to strangle the country's economy, members of the international arts community are adopting different strategies, showing solidarity with their Lebanese counterparts through more planned, less spontaneous initiatives.

The pace-setter here was a "global Web jam" that took place between Amsterdam and Beirut on August 12. Spearheaded by Streamtime, a Web-based support campaign for Iraqi bloggers, the event consisted of a live audio and video streaming transmission that included interview footage, video works, music and excerpts from the many Beirut-based blogs that came online during the bombardment.

From Lebanon, musicians such as Mazen Kerbaj, Charbel Haber and Raed Yassin; actress Rawya al-Chab; and multi-talented electro-acoustic artist Tarek Ataoui took part. The global Web jam, though technologically challenging, came off so swiftly thanks in large part to Dutch curator Nat Muller, who has visited Beirut numerous times over the last few years, drawn to the city's critically complex art scene in general and the intersection between its visual and musical components in particular.

From now through August 28, Gallery Ebdaa and the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo are hosting a series of events for the Li-Beirut Solidarity Campaign (www.li-beirut.com), created by activists in Egypt committed to supporting their Lebanese contemporaries. The program covers six nights and includes readings from curator Rasha Salti's "Siege Notes," screenings of films by Omar Amiralay and Yousri Nasrallah, theatrical performances, concerts, visual arts exhibitions and more.

Proceeds from these events - from the sale of donated artworks, for example - and from a product line including mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, badges, postcards and bags will go to NGOs working on the ground in Lebanon.

The Liverpool Biennale in the UK, which is scheduled to open on September 15, has made a last-minute addition to its lineup: an exhibition on Lebanon organized by London-based author, publisher and performing artist Mai Ghoussoub (who heads up Saqi Books and wrote, of all texts once again painfully relevant, "Leaving Beirut"), in conjunction with Umam Documentation & Research, the cultural center in Haret Hreik that suffered serious material damage during the Israeli bombardment.

The point of the exhibition is not to show the extent of the damage that has been heaped on Lebanon, either by Hizbullah's cocksure tactics or Israel's overblown aggression, as those images run the risk of becoming propagandistic.

Rather, the point is to ask the Lebanese people who have survived the war to share images that reflect how they felt and how they feel now. As such, it will no doubt offer evidence of the war's more complicated, long-term and until now hidden costs alongside the population's unshakable but too-often-tested resilience.

Another solidarity effort will take place during the Venice Film Festival, which runs August 30 through September 9.

At the behest of festival director Marco Muller and the mayor of Venice, a press conference will be held on September 4 in solidarity with the Beirut International Film Festival, which, under the direction of the fearless Colette Naufal, is going ahead as planned from October 4 through October 11.

"We will go ahead no matter what," says Naufal, "even under bombs, even if we can only do it for a few days."

The Venice press conference will also be the occasion for the launch of a solidarity campaign called "Make Films Not War" (tagline: "Shoot movies not missiles"). The campaign, which will also include the production of T-shirts and stickers, is geared toward attracting celebrity muscle, raising awareness and promoting international law, human rights, cultural diversity and political engagement against a prevailing mood of state terror, cluster bombs, state impunity, invasion and occupation.

In Paris, Karim Ghattas, the young founder of the Liban Jazz Festival, has organized "Concert en Blanc," a benefit concert on September 5 at the Theatre Rond Point. Organized with the theater and Masrah al-Madina (with the doyen of Beirut's cultural resistance, Nidal al-Achkar, playing an important part), the show will include performances by jazz legend Archie Shepp, the sexy French-Beninian chanteuse Mina Agossi, Ibrahim Maalouf, Bojan Z, Michel Portal, Julien Lourau, Khalid Yassine, Louis Sclavis, Henri Texier and Dhafer Youssef, many of whom have or were scheduled to play at Liban Jazz's yearly outing at the Zouk Mikhael Amphitheater. All proceeds go to the Lebanese Red Cross.

For Ghattas, the Paris gig is bittersweet - it stands in as a slim replacement for his festival, but it also springs from a wealth of support from the musicians he has worked with.

Ghattas is in many ways the archetype of the Lebanese returnee. He came back to Beirut from Paris in 2004. With dreams and plans dashed, he stuck around for two weeks of the Israeli assault and finally left again - reluctantly - for Paris.

"Emotionally it was horrible," he says. "Leaving people you love and care about, leaving your house, your work, it is quite hard. We were preparing for the festival in September. Great artists were supposed to come to Lebanon."

Still, he is determined to continue: "Concert en Blanc," he says, "is a continuation of Liban Jazz. To me nothing has been canceled. This message is ours and it's important to me that we stand up proudly and find solutions to exist the best we can.

"I've been fighting since I arrived in Lebanon in 2004. I'm not very optimistic, but I have hope that one day our efforts might be rewarded. We are doing the same as all Lebanese. We continue our work. We know how to do it and this, no one can take this away from us."

 

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