Beirut celebrates its new-found tranquillity with a revived listings magazine.
Time Out has come today
The fireworks above the Riviera in Beirut went on and on and then on and on some more on Tuesday night. Upturned faces, illuminated by the atmospheric entertainment, began to show signs of weariness. A group of bored young men tried to coax the DJ back to the decks by improvising house-style vocals between the boom-boom-booms. A nearly exasperated young woman at the bar rolled her eyes and asked, or rather mouthed: "Why do we do this to ourselves? I mean, why are we, as Lebanese, so obsessed with fireworks, which sound like war, which we've had enough of, don't you think?" Then, as if on cue, the pyrotechnics came to an close, the crowd cheered and the event itself - a beach party celebrating the relaunch of Time Out Beirut - seemed to answer at least the last half of the young woman's question with a resounding yes.
The Lebanese do love their fireworks, especially in summertime, when aesthetic explosions in the night sky punctuate a packed season of weddings at Beirut's many hotels, resorts and exposition centres. Fireworks also tend to accompany political rallies, speeches and breakthroughs like the recent election of a new president after six months of deadlock. But there haven't been so many of those lately. This comes to the relief of many. In an earlier season of discontent, fireworks were starting to mix with shooting automatic rifles and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade. But for now, at least, the fireworks are entirely benign and suitably festive.
When Beirut joined the roster of slightly more than two dozen cities where Time Out publishes in April 2006, people considered it an auspicious occasion. Beirut had made it. But when the magazine was shuttered three months and three issues later - during Lebanon's 34-day war with Israel - it seemed to confirm a more deeply rooted fatalism about the city and its apparent inability to avoid conflict long enough to truly prosper. "They are killing our city", Time Out Beirut's website declared, bemoaning the destruction of the country's infrastructure and economy as well as the flight of its most talented and hardworking inhabitants (members of the magazine's staff included).
Now Time Out Beirut has relaunched with a saucy summer issue and a splashy beach party, and people are eager to see it as a symbol of renewal: Beirut is back, Beirut has recovered, Beirut is living and breathing again. "It is a lot of pressure," says Naomi Sargeant, Time Out Beirut's commercial director, who has been shepherding the magazine into print, however episodically, since it began. "People sort of think we know something that they don't. But we're an arts and culture magazine - we're not politically orientated at all."
Sargeant and the magazine's publisher, Nehme Abouzeid, started plotting the magazine's return in the spring. The outbreak of fresh street fighting in May, what many now call the "mini war", did make them pause. But then the Doha Accord was brokered, Michel Suleiman was elected president and the opposition encampment was dismantled in Downtown Beirut. "You could feel that the whole mood of the country had changed," recalls Sargeant. "We thought, we have to do something now."
The July / August issue of Time Out Beirut hit the stands on July 4 and has nearly sold out. "We only have a few thousand copies left, and it is still summer," says Sargeant, clearly pleased. The print run will range between 10,000 to 15,000 copies for each issue, she adds. The first issue was guest-edited by Michael Hodges, Time Out London's editor at large. The next issue, to be released on Sept 12, will also be guest-edited by not one but two members of the Time Out network. "They all want to come to Beirut!" exclaims Sargeant, pleased again. But she is still searching for a permanent, full-time editor-in-chief. (Take note, job seekers.)
The Lebanese media market is peculiar to say the least, and Time Out Beirut is challenging some stubbornly entrenched practices, not least by imposing a barrier between advertising and editorial. But the complaints that Sargeant hears most are actually about the binding and the paper stock. "People ask me all the time, why isn't it perfect-bound? Why did we use this paper? It isn't a coffee-table book. It's a magazine you are meant to use. The idea is that you roll it up, put it in your bag, rip out pages and stuff them into your agenda."
At the launch party on Tuesday, copies of the new issue were in short supply. But those that were furtively filched were already strewn with the ashen refuse of that extended fireworks display. And they were indeed folded up, jammed into back pockets and saved for future use.