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Beirut Part 4: A "Rich, Painful, Complicated" History

Jack Morgan
TPR Arts
Corniche, looking west.

I was in Beirut, Lebanon, for an arts and culture symposium recently. Hungry for stories, I hit the streets looking. What I found was a city full of interesting people. Everyone with whom I spoke had either lived though a war or they had fled for their safety.

“As the war started in Lebanon in 1976 we left to Canada," said Hanibal Srouji, a slender, soft-spoken 57-year-old Beirut artist.

At the onset of the civil war in 1975, he and his family moved to Montreal where they had relatives. After graduating college, various teaching jobs and exhibitions took him from Maryland to Illinois to New York City, to Paris. But Beirut kept calling him back.

"It was always my objective to come back, but unfortunately, every time I decided to come back something would happen," Srouji said.

Credit Jack Morgan / TPR Arts
TPR Arts
Hanibal Srouji.

War prevented that return for more than 20 years, but he had a nostalgia for the Lebanon he grew up in, back in the 60s and 70s.

"People were open. It was just like normal, what you would consider today a normal, North American or European lifestyle," Srouji said. "We had that lifestyle and we had the money and the prosperity in terms of the economy."

I asked him what happened.

"What happened? Blackout for 15 years," Srouji said. "People killing each other, bombing. We had a shell in our house, so we left. So what can you do?

Srouji cites the huge influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948 and how international influences, cultures and religions started ripping at Lebanon’s equilibrium. And just recently the war in Syria has pushed at least a million refugees into Lebanon.

"Lebanon is an island around Syria, Israel and the sea," Srouji said. "It’s like: Where can we go?"

He was using island as a metaphor, meaning Lebanon is surrounded by all these countries that wish to exploit it. Srouji said that recent offshore oil discoveries have only complicated an already convoluted picture.

"The Syrian problem is also gas and oil," he said. "People think that Syria are killing each other because they are fanatics."

I asked him this question: "So you’re thinking that the problems in Syria have a lot more to do with power and money than it has to do with politics or fanaticism?"

"Is there anything else?" he laughed.  "I don’t think so."

And then there’s Arie Amaya-Akkermans.

Credit Jack Morgan / TPR Arts
TPR Arts
Arie Amaya-Akkermans.

"I was born in Colombia. I have a mixture of Colombian, Lebanese, Dutch, whatever ancestry but I have lived most of my life in the Middle East," said Amaya-Akkermans, an art dealer and art critic who bounces around between Dubai, Bahrain and Beirut. But why Beirut?

"On the one hand there is this very romantic vision of Beirut, and on the other hand there is this crazy energy of a city that’s been a war city for decades," he said.

To some extent, what makes Beirut unpredictable also makes it a great place for art.

"It’s a city with a very rich history, a very rich, painful, complicated history," Amaya-Akkermans said. "So let’s say that it creates a certain energy. That it’s intangible but it is always in the air, and there are many artists who want to come to Beirut."

Beirut’s complicated mix of cultures and religion, sophistication and retro traditionalism makes it a place of exceptional contrast.

"Well, let’s say that there are many different Lebanons, and many different realities, that overlap each other," Amaya-Akkermans said.

And this is where a recurring theme kept cropping up in my interviews.

"Many Lebanese people don’t have complete loyalty to Lebanon," said former Beiruti Marcel Noujeim.

He contrasts Lebanese reaction to conflict with a typical American reaction.

"Whenever anybody touches this place (the U.S.) you defend it with your soul. Back home it’s different," Noujeim said. "Some people, for them Lebanon is not the ultimate goal."

"So, basically the local politicians are ambassadors to foreign countries, to some extent, because they are their backers," Amaya-Akkermans said.

"All this fanaticism, it came from abroad. It’s not Lebanese," said art gallery owner Nadine Begdache.

Tomorrow my series wraps. I asked everyone I talked to what Americans need to know about Lebanon.

“Ooof! Oh my God! That’s such a tough question!” said Amaya-Akkermans.

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