Beirut, the Tel Aviv of the Arab World?

Israelis can't visit Lebanon's capital, but a new documentary gives those who yearn to visit a peek into the Paris of the Mediterranean.

Reuters

“This city is so crazy and energetic and weird,” said one interviewee in the film "Yallah Underground," a soon-to-be-released documentary about the alternative music scene developing in the Arab world, of which Beirut seems to be the capital. “We don’t live in something permanent,” says one woman interviewed in the film. “It can change from one day to another.”

The filmmaker, Farid Eslam, spent five years working on "Yallah Underground." As clichéd or escapist as it may sound, Beirut and Tel Aviv could be sister cities, if not twins. Both are on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, both are a center for culture and clubbing, each has a tumultuous nightlife scene that is varied and disturbed to the point of bombs and explosions (at varying doses at various times), and both are accused of indulging in criminal decadence despite the “situation.” Parking is virtually impossible to find in both, and most important, the inhabitants of these two metropolises sip so much espresso and eat so much sushi that they pose a danger to national security. The clubs, cultural events and variety of art galleries Beirut offers to those out for a night on the town are too many to count.

For example, just this month, Beirut held its 20th Pecha Kucha Night at several locations in Beirut. One location was Station Beirut, an old train station converted into a cultural space that — unlike its counterpart in Tel Aviv — serves as a meeting place for artists of various progressive disciplines. Another was Metro al Madina, where Tania Saleh, a Lebanese singer-songwriter and artist, performed in a show entitled “Nostalgia,” singing classic songs in Arabic and English in styles ranging from jazz, bossa nova, rock and pop to tarab and dabke. Later in the month, Youmna Saba, a young singer-songwriter, will be celebrating the launch of her third album at Metro al Madina with a show that combines music and storytelling. At Radio Beirut, a live music venue and cafe that may well be the Lebanese counterpart of Tel Aviv’s Teder radio bar, but with a dance floor and a more permanent setup, the best DJs will get people dancing with parties with jazz shows, rock and alternative Arab music. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

But among all the options that Beirut has to offer, it seems that the Bohemian Gemmayzeh neighborhood is one of the most fascinating. Located in the Achrafieh quarter, one of the oldest sections of eastern Beirut, Gemmayzeh contains dozens of narrow alleyways and spectacularly beautiful buildings from the French mandate period. Today, Gemmayzeh is known for its fashionable bars and cafes, and even more so for its restaurants, which have made it into the heart of Beirut’s culinary scene. The Mayrig Restaurant serves traditional Armenian cuisine, while Leila serves Lebanese food with a modern twist. Joanna’s Table specializes in manakish, a kind of pita with a topping such as za’atar, cheese, meat or spinach (to name just a few examples), to high-end restaurants that feature French, Italian or fusion cuisine.

The main street that crosses the neighborhood is Gouraud Street, named for the French general Henri Gouraud, who was responsible for the creation and establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon. Gouraud Street leads to the Saint Nicolas Stairs (L’Escalier de Saint-Nicolas), known as L’Escalier de L’Art or Daraj el-Fan or (the stairs of art), which, since 1973, have been used twice a year as an open-air site for an art exhibition. One of Beirut’s most interesting restaurants, KitchenLab, opened near there about a year ago, in one of the neighborhood’s old, beautiful buildings. KitchenLab offers cooking workshops in its large and sophisticated kitchen, has a shop that sells organic fruits and vegetables and another shop that sells designer kitchen utensils. Another restaurant, Ginette, combines a cafe, fashion boutique and art gallery.

In recent years, Gemmayzeh has become more and more of an artists’ colony, as many more art galleries have opened on Gouraud Street and its environs, including the Maqam Art Gallery for modern art, L’Atelier 85 and the Nicolas Sursock Museum. A new art gallery with the unique name of 392rmeil393 recently opened in one of the most picturesque locations: an urban oasis concealed between two buildings and near an old palace with small gardens containing water fountains, together with ancient arched buildings that once served as the palace’s hammam, or baths, and as parking space for carriages. A gallery that will be featuring both arts and handicrafts has opened in this space. One of the most beautiful works of street art in all of Beirut can be found in a nearby alleyway: a portrait of the legendary singer Fairuz haloed in exquisite Arabic calligraphy. It was created by a 20-year-old graffiti artist named Yazan Halwani.

“We need more appropriate models for emulation,” Halwani said in an interview. He explained that the streets of Beirut were full of images of politicians, and he felt it more appropriate for children to grow up with more creative and artistic images, such as that of Fairuz. He also quoted the Arab Israeli rap artist Tamer Nafar: “Our ancestors invented the zero, and their descendants came out zeros.”

Another fascinating place that opened recently in Gemmayzeh is Dawawine. The name, which is the plural of the Arabic word “diwan,” can mean collections of poetry, guest rooms where people meet one another, and the divan, or low sofa. Beirut’s Dawawine, which is exactly this sort of inviting place, is for lovers of cinema, music, dance and theater and offers a rich library that specializes in these fields. It also contains a cafe and restaurant, a bookstore, a work space and a small 32-seat auditorium for film screenings. If one is searching for more points of connection between Beirut and Tel Aviv, Gemmayzeh means “sycamore,” in Arabic, and the neighborhood is named for the abundant sycamore trees that existed there in the past but have thinned out over the years. Like the old Hebrew song says about Tel Aviv, once upon a time there were sycamore trees there, too. Another, more painful link with the White City is the process of gentrification that the neighborhood is undergoing as members of the middle and upper classes move in and properties are purchased by foreigners, renovations are under way, and the neighborhood becomes too expensive for its more veteran residents.

Last April, Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian journalist from Haifa who writes for the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, was arrested on his way back to Israel from Lebanon. The charge: making contact with a foreign agent and going to an enemy county. Considering the fact that I have been arrested in the past and charged with acts that had people who know me chuckling for two weeks because they were so impracticable (striking a police officer, robbing a bank and such), there are more serious offenses, such as visiting the Gemmayzeh neighborhood in Beirut, for which I would be willing to go before a judge. After all, if I’m going to do the time, there should, at least, be a “crime.”

In this Monday, July 7, 2014 photo, Lebanese rappers perform during open mic show at Radio Beirut.
AP