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Beirut Part 3: How The Experience Of War Shaped The Art

Jack Morgan
TPR Arts
Evening walk along the Corniche.

I was in Beirut  for a convention six days in late March. I then set out to find arts and culture stories there, but they all seemed to link back to the country’s civil war. It makes sense if you think about it, the war lasted for the 15 years between 1975 and 1990 and is a huge landscape in the Lebanese collective memory.

"It was war in my early years. Until I was in 18 I was in war and it was a difficult time because school years were interrupted all the time," said artist Annie Kurkdjian, who lived in Beirut throughout the war.

"I didn’t even have authorization even to go to the store and buy something, because it was dangerous. We had to stay close," she said.

Credit Jack Morgan
Artist Annie Kurkdjian

Referencing the breaks in fighting: "The period of peace was very small in all the civil war. So we have little time for freedom, for breathing."

Little time for breathing. It’s hard for Americans to wrap our minds around what they went through during the war. Former Beiruti Marcel Moujeim teaches dentistry at UTSA’s dental school but here’s a metric he experienced himself: they stopped saying simple hellos.

"I remember when we used to see each other we didn’t say, 'Good morning,' we said, 'Thank God you’re still alive,' " said Moujeim. "It’s the feeling that when you go, you don’t know if you’re going to get back, so when you get back home you say, 'Thank God I’m still alive.' When you sleep, and you wake up, you look around you and say, 'Thank God I’m still alive.' "

This is the shared experience that many in Beirut knew. It’s the idea that they could die at any time. 

"Because in war we have only one objective, one: it’s how to survive the next day," said Kurkdjian. "Not the next month."

She then spoke about the fleeting nature of values: "Values, friendship, big values, human values, there’s no values. The only value is keeping alive."

As a teenager Noujeim went to high school in the day, and was an armed guard at a checkpoint at night.

"It’s not a big choice that you have," he said. "You have one or two. Either you fight, or you’re going to die. So if you fight, you might die, but at least you are defending your family."

And then there’s multi-talented Gregory Buchakjian.

Credit Gregory Buchakjian
Gregory Buchakjian

"I live in Beirut. I’m an art historian and an artist working mainly on photography," Buchakjian said. "I teach at Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts."

Buchakjian describes a time before the civil war, when his West Beirut neighborhood exemplified tolerance.

"We had people from all origins, we had in my class we have Christians, Muslims, and when we were kids we didn’t know at this time who was Christian and who was Muslim" said Buchakjian. "My very best friends--I didn’t make a difference between the ones that were Christian and the ones that were Muslims. We even had some Jews."

Buchakjian also talked about the changes his west Beirut neighborhood had gone through since his childhood. "West Beirut was a part of the city that was initially much more cosmopolitan and much more mixed than East Beirut."

He’s not fond of war. And he’s seen those he’s studied go from high-minded objectives, to something far less.

"At the beginning you have people who have ideas, who have dreams and then it becomes very dirty. It becomes a war of thugs."

And all the way back in San Antonio, Noujeim seems to complete his thought.

"Civil war, believe me, civil war is the dirtiest war you can ever go through," he said.

Tomorrow: How does the war affect what the artists create?  We meet a pair of fascinating people: Arie Amaya Akkermans and recently-returned artist Hanibal Srouji.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii