x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Timely reality check for the avant-garde supporters of Beirut

Why must we insist that Lebanon always have hint of danger when there is none? Reality is not what always drives today's instant and hungry global media.

Lebanon is what we want it to be, rather than what it is, and those of us in the media must shoulder much of the blame.

Why must we insist that Lebanon always have hint of danger when there is none; be praised for its resilience just because we Lebanese are not blowing the hell out of each other; or bigged-up for our bling-driven prosperity when it's not really true? Then again, reality is not what always drives today's instant and hungry global media.

In the end they get it half-right. Like last year when once again the feel-good story coming out of Lebanon was the resurgence of Beirut as a luxury destination, one driven by a thick seam of culture - a throwback, no doubt, to the 1950s and 1960s when Beirut was a deliciously idealised refuge for emigres, thinkers, artists and other romantics.

Noah Feldman, writing in that most worthy of newspapers The Wall Street Journal, said of Beirut on December 2: "The setting was a beautiful new gallery space carved out from an ancient warehouse in an industrial zone by the river. The crowd - good-looking students in their 20s with a smattering of recognisable artists and intellectuals to add star power - was dressed in the uniform of the international avant-garde: tight, black T-shirts, tight black jeans and thick black-framed eyeglasses."

Now I must admit to coming over all over gooey when I read that, but if we are being honest, "the international avant-garde" probably had to go home to mummy, daddy and granny at the end of the evening. Beirut is simply not that edgy, but it was Mr Feldman's next line that caught my eye. "Where art flourishes, commerce follows," he gushed.

I am sure it pleases readers of the Journal to believe that in the heart of the Middle East, an area that spawned Hizbollah, Hamas and a host of other avant-gardistes, Beirut is awash with luvvies in horn-rimmed glasses discussing the decline of the Left over espressos and Gitanes.

But the simple reality - that word again - is that Lebanon's capital is nothing more than an R&R destination for other, generally more affluent Arabs who come to unwind away from the prying eyes of home and who can enjoy the accommodating nature of their hosts. No one really gives a hoot about art.

The Lebanese have no time for the aesthetic if it stands in the way of making money. Precious architecture is being knocked down because new developments can better exploit the land; green space is being churned up to build homes that Lebanese developers think will be bought by pleasure-seekers; and our famous mountains are being eaten away to supply concrete.

But even the so-called building boom has a darker reality, with a reported 5,000 luxury apartments sitting empty. Last week, the social affairs minister Salim Sayegh announced the government-sponsored public institution for housing would increase the amount potential homebuyers earning less than 5 million Lebanese pounds (Dh12,233) could borrow from 180m pounds to a maximum of 270m pounds.

Was it a bid to help the less well off afford a home in a bullish property market, or a bid to kick-start demand in the face of a market drowning in supply? Certainly a salary of 5m pounds does not put one on the poverty line given that, according to a survey by YouGov, 45 per cent of Lebanese earn 3m pounds or less. Still, 180m pounds won't buy you much in this town.

"This step contributes to strengthening social and family stability, which in turn prevents youth immigration and drives the country toward prosperity in addition to creating a good political and security situation," said Mr Sayegh. It's almost as unbelievable as "where art flourishes, commerce follows".

Then we have the narrative, often peddled by foreign correspondents with a romantic streak or a misplaced sense of justice, that the West has it all wrong, that the perceived bad guys are merely fighting an age-old battle to shake off an imperialist yoke.

On December 28, The New York Times ran a feature about Al Akhbar (The News), a newspaper that most Lebanese see as an unashamed outlet for those political groupings opposed to the March 14 parliamentary majority. But Robert Worth, the paper's Beirut correspondent, painted the paper as "dynamic and daring", a crusading and independent breath of fresh media air in what is a hidebound industry operating in a conservative region.

Mr Worth did touch on the paper's shortcomings, "a loose mingling of fact rumour and opinion", and the fact that many of those journalists who have paid with their lives wrote for the other side, but the overriding feeling was that Al Akhbar is a good thing even it is as politicised as the rest of the press.

So why the need to paint it as refreshing? Why the need to fall in love with the people or groups with whom most foreigners would have no truck at home?

Maybe I should just buy a tight, black T-shirt and some horn-rimmed glasses.


Michael Karam is a communications and publishing consultant based in Beirut