Holiday in Beirut 2

Well, a holiday in some respects… I took a break from blogging partly because I took on a job outside cyberspace (I’m now translating in-house for the UN here in Beirut on a full-time basis – and in addition I’ve been working, with friends who came over from Belgium, on a documentary, of which more later), and partly because there hasn’t been a lot happening on the political front. Unless you think the Arab summit and its pathetic no-show diplomatic children’s games qualified as ‘something happening’, that is. Or unless you are still interested in the local politicos endlessly shouting over and back at each other that the other one is to blame for ‘nothing happening’. Ah yes, and they also shuttle back and forth to their respective paymasters in Riyadh, Washington and Damascus, but then they come back so tight-lipped about anything that might have been said that it’s not worth the trouble reporting. A 5-day Israeli ‘war game’ along the Lebanese and Syrian borders sounded like it could be ‘something happening’, but three days into it all observers seem to agree it is anything but. The only thing actually worth reporting on at the moment is… a curfew in Gemmayze. That’s right, on a Saturday night at the end of March, stressed out by the continous techno beats, car horns and drunk shouting invading their nights, parking valets occupying their streets in the evening and vomit occupying their doorsteps in the morning (not to mention construction works for new bars noising up the daytime), all of which have invaded this traditionally quiet residential neighbourhood only in the last few years, since the opposition camp near Monnot drove the party people here, the local residents took to the streets to protest. Dressed in their nightgowns and holding their pillows, they blocked Gemmayze street for an hour or two in the midst of the party rush hour, and later took their grievances to the press and the Beirut mayor. A few days later, some 20 bars were closed by the police – officially those who caused most of the nuisance and/or weren’t licensed, but judging from which places actually got closed and which remained open, the latter reason seems to have prevailed. Unless there’s any truth to the rumours of a politically motivated selection – rumours which were so prevalent that minister of tourism Joe Sarkis, who had given out the closing order, felt compelled to deny them publicly in the press. We’re talking here, of course, political affiliation of the owners, as there is nothing even remotely publicly poitical about any Gemmayze bar. What is worse though, is the curfew that has been imposed on the bars that didn’t get closed and which, to my horror and astonishment, the ‘anarchic hardy party’ Lebanese complied to – and still comply to – to an amazing T! 11:30 pm on weekdays, 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays just will not do! Lebanon has gone from almost Belgian nightlife standards to mere British ones overnight! Now, of course you can still move a few streets uphill and go to Monnot after midnight – or to Hamra for that matter – neither of which appear to have been affected by the new law – in fact another rumour doing the rounds is that the owners of the flagging Monnot businesses are actually the main force behind the move, in an effort to get their own street going again (and it works too: Monnot last weekend saw more business in two nights than they did over the last two months…) In any case, I spent most of last Friday night explaining to people how we deal with attacks like this in Belgium (where the legal opening times are 24/7) – every 10 years or so a new government will try to impose a 3 am closing hour on us, and immediately there’s a big uproar in the country, campaigns are organized, petitions signed, people take to the streets, there’s a few ‘pre-emptive riots’ and off go the curfew plans again, into the drawer for another 10 years. (This is, by the way, by and far the only thing that ever gets Belgians out on the streets.) Alas, my calls for revolution went unanswered, as people explained to me that the Lebanese do things differently, something along the lines of ‘we’ll stick to the rules for a month or so, and then, when public attention is elsewhere, we’ll slowly start opening later again, a little bit longer every day, until all is back to normal and everybody’s forgotten about the whole thing’. Well, I’m always open to new ideas, so let’s just wait and see…

Update: barely two weeks on (20/4), the curfew seems to be slipping badly already and the usual late-night hangouts are quietly (well, quietly in a manner of speaking) returning to normal.

And while we are on the subject of culture (of sorts), there suddenly seems to be an explosion of events in Beirut. As talk of an imminent war is slowly dissipating, dissolving into the vaguely hopeful notion that nothing drastic is likely to happen before the US elections are over and done with later this year, people are organizing festivals like, ehm well…, like there’s no tomorrow, really. This weekend (on Friday and Saturday) there is the annual experimental music festival Irtijal of Mazen Kerbaj fame, as well as the start, on Sunday, of over a week of debates, theatre performances and film screenings at the Home Works event, featuring, among many others, tg STAN and Rosas from Belgium. All this while the excellent New Oriental Sounds festival presented by the Beirut Incognito label is only just winding up tonight, after over two weeks of excellent concerts in the atmospheric crypt of the Eglise Saint Joseph, ranging from classic oud performances via oriental jazz to Palestinian hiphop from Burj el-Barajneh. In other recent cultural news, the film ‘Persepolis’, an adaptation of the famous Iranian cartoon book, which had been banned in Lebanon under shia pressure, has been unbanned after public protest.
Home Works, by the way, is prone to be delayed virtually every time because of some near or distant war that happens to start just before they open proceedings – let’s hope this year is the exception to that rule…

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