From raining pizzas to Sophoclean tragedy: The light and dark of Lebanon

Some snapshots from my recent visit to Lebanon:


We visit Shatila Refugee Camp, a name with a horrible resonance for those with long memories. Everyone here has one. We arrive through checkpoints into an area controlled by Hizbollah. A built community, but one with terrible overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. Electrical wiring like spaghetti festoons the streets. Palestinian residents now joined by double-displaced Syrian Palestinians: the 10,000 population has swelled to 40,000... 

We visit Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a cultural centre tucked away in the backstreets, storey piled on storey to cope with the massive demand for a haven from the troubles. We are shown round by the enthusiastic Hannah. We meet a class of forty or so children (out of 400 they help) and eat a baguette lunch on the top floor…no walls or barriers. Toddlers do a drawing class, painting their dreams. One young boy's dream is of raining pizzas... 

The centre also houses a library, a health unit, as well as help for those with mental traumas. They have an embroidery workshop for women: they started with nine, now they have 129. Wonderful traditional workmanship. We do some shopping! Reminder to send book for the library. I buy cherries from a vendor in the street. 

We visit food distribution units. 

We travel to a smart downtown Beiruti restaurant: meeting local cultural entrepreneurs and operators. They include Abdullah Absi, a 21 year old serial entrepreneur, owner of six companies, including one, Zoomal, devoted to supporting Arab creative projects through crowd-funding. 


A ten minute walk from the hotel to a quiet apartment, home for eight years to Zoukak, a trenchant political theatre group cooperative, led by the impressive Maya Zbib, now on the Rolex Mentorship scheme. We discuss their work: experimental, challenging work on difficult issues like domestic violence and displacement. This is free political space for people. Arts are doing the "hard work" here. They do education work to support their next productions: no government funding here. The British Council's modest support for them is over six years: they say is has helped to empower them as individuals. In public space they activate everyone round them: their work is the smallest part of the action. 


Our regional arts meeting begins on Sunday afternoon. Pleasantries complete we move to a conference room: a group of twenty or so traditionally dressed Syrian women join us... Some are dressed in "traditional" traditional, some in "traditional" urban chic. 

We view a documentary film and watch excerpts from Euripides Women of Troy and Sophocles Antigone, productions they have developed in Jordan and brought to Beirut, with professional Syrian director Mohammad Al Attar. The interplay on film between the original and the personal testimony of these women is intense and moving. 

After the screening the women face us in a line and we have an extensive dialogue, strangely surreal in the mix of personal tragedy and black humour. One of my colleagues asks "What is the relevance of these Greek tragedies today?" The reply is devastating "I do not know where my son is – missing, injured, captive or dead. I cannot bury him. Antigone's tragedy is my tragedy…" 

Director Al Attar tells us that the work has enabled the women to regain their self-esteem, to become role models in society, in the face of marginalisation, poverty and violence... 


If ever a case study is needed today for the inextricable and tangled web of art, learning and politics, then Lebanon provides it in spades. Hard, if not impossible, to do anything without a political facet, even if it is unintended!