Thursday, November 5, 2009

Berlin Days, Berlin Nights

Berlin days, Berlin nights

Hard to believe that we have only now 6 weeks left to our residency in Berlin. What started as a great unknown journey on May 31st has become a fully lived experience filled with emotional and creative impact. Being in Berlin has proven to be extremely productive and conducive to work. Most of October we spent preparing for 2 major video shoots, one with dancers and the second with actors. On both occasions we were blessed to be able to work with extremely talented and generous performers – we will be eternally grateful to them for their time and involvement with our project and our ideas.

When not shooting, we have spent our time editing the material and also composing sounds to go with it. It is very rewarding to see how the various tracks in our work are starting to take concrete forms, how the narrative and the image impulses coalesce, how we are forging an audiovisual language that distills our ideas and experiences and turns them into distinct works of art. We have still a long way to go until the finished pieces can be shown, but the direction of each component of the whole is now very clear. We have overcome the difficult and confusing initial days of our arrival in Berlin, when it felt as if we were walking through thick, dark mud, and now the good ideas have sorted themselves out and the material itself is starting to take its own shape and expression.

Browsing through the shelves at the St. George English bookstore, we came across a copy of Lawrence Weschler's "Vermeer In Bosnia"(Vintage Books, 2005). We bought it, intrigued by the title, but never suspecting that it would prove to be a fascinating and inspiring read. The three main essays in the book deal with the atrocities of the Bosnian war, the subsequent trials at the Yugoslav War Tribunal at The Hague, and the momentous days that led to the fall of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade in 1997. What we found particularly moving and engaging in Weschler's writing was the broad humanistic frame in which he sets up a historical perspective to understand the then current events, building beautiful arguments in which works of art, theater, and philosophy serve as springboards for a broader analysis not only of the particular conflict at hand but also of general views about violence, ethnicity, historical memory, and political agency. One wonderful moment involves going to see the Vermeer paintings at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, to seek respite from the brutal testimonies at the tribunal, and engaging in a disquisition about Vermeer's time and how his paintings depicted an idealized serenity that belied the horrors of the 30 Years War (1618-1648) in which, as he puts it, all of Europe was Bosnia, mired in bloody religious and ethnic strife.

We have been taking advantage of Berlin’s extraordinary cultural offerings, going to concerts (both classical and experimental), dance performances (often very moving, sometimes pretentious), and tonight, an amazingly acute theater performance that uncannily parallels some aspects of our own work and in particular our emotional involvement with the conflict in the Middle East. The piece, “Third Generation”, is a co-production of the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin and the Habima of Tel Aviv. Directed by Yael Ronen, a young Israeli director, it brings together a cast of Israeli, Palestinian, and German actors to, in their own words, “analyze the Gordian Knot that characterizes these three nations”. They do this mostly in English, with an even-handedness, great humor, a daring honesty, and without ever falling into easy didacticism or the facile sentimentalism that might be expected from the subject matter. In a particular poignant scene, a trio of Israeli actors impersonate teenagers that have been through a recent educational trip to Auschwitz and other death camps. The scene is both funny and terrifying in its accurate portrayal of the convoluted relationship of Israeli society to the Holocaust. In another, an Israeli soldier is haunted by the ghost of a Palestinian he gunned down when he mistakenly thought the can of Coke he was holding in his hand was a grenade. It was very interesting for us to see this complex situation turned into a piece of experimental theater, with its own discursive logic and conventions. It is obvious that for those involved in this production, the work had to reflect a reality that is very much lived and experienced in the every day.


For us, we are addressing similar subject matter, but in a more general and abstract way: we come to it as mediated observers, touched by its many contradictions, but ultimately removed from it by geographical distance and the luxury of a more philosophical perspective.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Aziz goes to Lebanon

For as long as I can remember, people have asked me: “Aziz—where is that name from? It is so exotic.” I would simply reply: Lebanon--my grandparents came from there.

This riddle of a name with all its acute angles and hairpin turns and rosey ssss’s and zzzz’s, has traveled with me every day of my life, quietly shaping me, steadily illuminating some part of my consciousness. Most days it remains veiled and invisible, -- other days it jumps up to announce itself like a djini on a flying carpet, usually when passing through JFKNWRLHRCDG or some other checkpoint or crossing.

Each time I read about yet another car bomb or assassination or attack in Lebanon, I feel a terrible jolt --as if some part of me were in that car, in that bunker, in the center of that endless cycle of brutality and madness. To understand this connection, however remote, I had to go and look, to be a witness, to see if I could detect some long lost kinship.

I always knew I would visit. But when?

In 2006, I was planning a trip when all of a sudden the country was under massive attack by Israeli aircraft pounding cities, villages, bridges and tunnels from south to north and back again. I then heard from cousins who had become prisoners in their own homes for six weeks without power, food, money or work, isolated from the world as they were essentially caught in the cross fire between the Israeli army and the Hizbollah militia. This, in a brief email exchange from cousins in Jounieh to my Uncle in Worcester, MA:

Dear ....I have received your E-mail from a long time but I can not answer you because I have not a line. we miss you very much our situation here is very bad no work no eat no calm no money no good ways only we receive a bomb from Israel we don't know when is our time for death. Till now we are alive. My mother send you a kisses for all and she is very depress. We hope to see yo one day when this war finish.Kisses for all

Needless to say, I was deeply moved by this situation, compounded by the fact that Sammy’s entire family were now living in Israel and his nephews were then and are now serving actively in the Israeli army. Watching the daily televised reports of these unrelenting and disproportionate attacks, we were both devastated by an overwhelming mix of helplessness and frustration, concern and bewilderment. Most of my father's family had emigrated from this land many years before and his entire family had just arrived. Such cruel ironies we had not fully embraced until this moment and we knew that we had to come to terms with the fact that the war had entered our living room and we had to deal with it.

So now, in 2009, after the Lebanese elections in May gave way to a period of relative stability and renewed hope for some kind of peace in the region, I finally make my way to Beirut to see where these stories and names and connections I carry with me originate.

Upon my arrival from uber-organized Germany, I realize now that I was in culture shock. I had heard about the glamour and glitz of this city for many years, and as a result I had brought certain expectations with me about what I would find here and I think in someway I was stunned to see the chaos and anarchy that reigns here and the overall dismal condition of many of its streets and buildings—broken tiles, electrical power lines strung haphazardly together this way and that, feral cats roaming the streets. And the cars, the cars, the cars everywhere… and the pollution, and few functioning traffic lights. I nearly got mowed down several times in the first hour of being on the streets. Pedestrians have no right-of-way here. And there are very few street signs with clearly marked names in English or French since people do not give directions based on street name and number but rather by landmarks and names of that was extremely frustrating when trying to navigate using a traditional map approach. I felt lost and confused, irritated, and above all, saddened by the reality of finding much of the city still so shattered.

But then I got it.

The neighborhood I was staying in, Achrafiye, is the oldest Christian neighborhood and is located right along the former green line; hence, it suffered a significant amount of devastation during the civil war that ended only 20 years ago. The are still visual reminders from this period with many gorgeous old mansions sitting in ruins, their owners having abandoned not only their homes but their country as well. But slowly I started to see signs of recovery and I started to realize that most Beirutis are making the best of it and are proud and practical and they want to re-build to become the cosmopolitan destination that they once were –progressive, multicultural, tolerant, looking as much to the west as to the east. Just down the street in Gemayze, there are stylish condominiums and boutiques and romantic bars and trendy restaurants and spectacular nightclubs built into every nook and cranny. These people are partying with a vengeance and folks from all over the Gulf and the Arab World have helped to make Beirut become the #1 party destination in the entire world according to CNN.

Are they celebrating victory over past defeats or just partying as if there is no tomorrow? As one taxi driver made clear, Lebanese are just crazy because after what they have been through for the last 35 years they never know from one day to the next what will happen, who will attack them, who will get car-bombed, etc.

So how is it that people can be shooting each other one day and then living cheek by jowl the next? --Money. According to the owner of the B+B where I was staying, most Lebanese have learned to be very practical in order to move on and to build up their economy once again. They do not forgive, they do not forget, but they move on in order to find ways of working together for the common good of the country. This attitude of course does not account for the many Syrian-backed oppositional forces that exist who are anti-West and anti-American and militantly anti-Israeli. In fact, despite the outcome of the recent elections, there is still no new government formed due to a lack of agreement among members of parliament. So very little is getting accomplished…no new building projects, no new legislation, no real advancement presently because there are no ministers in place to make real change happen.

Which probably explains why driving in Beirut is, according to the photojournalist I met who had just come from covering the war in Afghanistan, more dangerous than being on a battlefield because at least in war there are certain rules that must prevail, a certain logic and predictability. Not so with the streets of Beirut.

But I did manage to get around and I saw most of the country in the span of a week. It is a small country and there are many areas not open to tourists with numerous checkpoints leading from one village to the next. Everywhere you turn there are men with guns and often tanks parked on the curb waiting to disperse any kind of unexpected eruption.

My first day in Beirut was unusually long, lasting from 9am – 5am, beginning with a walk in the neighborhood, a 3 hour lunch at Chez Sami in Jounieh north of Beirut with Haitham and his sweet friends from Kuwait, a visit to see the Lady of Lebanon in Harissa --the shrine built to honor the Virgin Mary complete with an enormous statue towering over the city like an ancient deity, dinner at Centrale, drinks at Avant Garde—the newest and most explicitly gay club in the center of the city, then on to Skybar and then finally B0-18, which is listed at #13 on the list of the world’s top 100 clubs for its extraordinary location and design. (

According to a profile on the club's architect Bernard Khoury, published in OUT OF BEIRUT, "the club is situated across from a location in Beirut that was the site of many horrendous tortures during the civil war and is redolent with a ghostly presence. Previously a refugee camp, first for Armenians in the 20's and then for Palestinians and Kurds, many of whom were massacred by the Christian Phalangist Militia in 1976, the site was a desolate vacant lot rumoured to contain mass graves for the many 'missing'. The club was conceived as a bunker-like structure, set deep into the ground so that no superstructure is visible. Cars arrive from the adjacent motorway and park around the site in a semicircular arrangement. The entrance down dark metal stairs brings to mind the entrance to a tomb. The interiors are furnished with chairs lined with purple velvet and open like coffins. A spectacular sliding roof opens the club to the night sky and further enhances the idea of some Dantesque underworld in which dancing bodies find escape in a delirious present."

from OUT OF BEIRUT, published in 2006 by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, UK, and distributed by DAP, New York. It provides an excellent overview of the thriving intellectual, artistic and design community in Beirut during the post-war years.

Museum and Byblos

But I did not travel all the way to Lebanon for the nightlife, as impressive as it is. The next day I spent as an ordinary tourist, visiting the National Gallery ( for its stunning collection of Phoenician bronze and ivory statues found at Byblos where I visited later that afternoon. Byblos is today considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the word “bible” comes from Byblos since the papyrus used for writing was imported from here into Greece.

Also, I visited one of the world’s most wonderful natural sites, the Jeita Grotto. I had never been inside of a cave as deep and spectacular as this –imagine Wagner’s fairytale Grotto of Venus for real. Truly magnificent, magical place. ( Thanks to my cousins Charbel, Joumana and Mario for taking me here.

Vote here for the Jeita Grotto to make it onto the list of the world's new seven natural wonders:

A day with Eric

The next day was spent on a walking tour of the city with Eric Bunge who, coincidentally, was visiting Beirut for only 2 days. We had breakfast at Chez Paul and then after visiting the newly constructed Downtown we went to the Corniche and had lunch at the Bay Rock Café overlooking the famous Pidgeon rocks. Stunning views, really. Eric had to go to a meeting so I took a taxi to visit the newly opened Beirut Art Center (, a much needed venue for progressive contemporary art in Lebanon. The space is generous and cool, with a serious vibe and currently showing some very politically charged work by well-known Lebanese artists Akram Zaatari and Bernard Khoury. The work was not so poetically charged as politically acute, and it was heartening to see a gallery willing to exhibit such tough, unsentimental work dealing with important current events and raw human emotions. That night Eric and his client Lamia took me to have the most delicious dinner at Al Mayass, a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant. WOW!!!! such delicacies one can usually only dream about.

From FOOD and WINE: “This family-owned Armenian-Lebanese restaurant excels at mezes; its Armenian specialties from Aleppo (like manti—dumplings stuffed with lamb in a yogurt sauce) are also a must. The wine list offers top Lebanese wines (Chateau Kefraya, Musar). In a kitschy but endearing touch, an aging troubadour often walks through the room with a guitar, singing songs from Lebanon’s legendary chanteuse Fairuz (as well as the half-Lebanese Shakira) in a beautiful falsetto.”


So the next day, Jezzine, the village where my grandparents were born. Cousin Charbel was kind enough to drive me the 2 hours into the southern mountains to get there. I simply had to visit this tiny part of the world that I had heard so much about for so many years. And it did not disappoint. Seeing the house where my grandfather Gidou was born, even the humble little room in which he was born, was profound and meeting my father’s cousin Boutros who has lived in the house continuously for decades, working on the land and eking out a living was very moving as well. Especially when he told us about how when the Israeli army occupied southern Lebanon and Jezzine in particular, they forced him to register his sons with the Lebanese Christian Militia in order to fight with and for the Israeli cause and against the Palestinians. Boutros tried to resist this but was, he said, beaten until he complied. This was a harrowing thing to learn about while sitting together drinking Turkish coffee and looking out over the bucolic valley while watching the sun set over the nearby forest, the same view and the same forest that my grandparents knew intimately before they left to live out their American Dream.