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Beirut Is the New Beirut


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Beirut Is the New Beirut
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Joined: 09 Mar 2007
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Promising innovative food, hip clubs and cutting-edge boutiques, Beirut has nurtured a thriving avant-garde culture, against all odds.

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 recognizable 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. The organizer of the series, a distinguished architectural critic, spoke about the idea of dwelling and the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Then three young academics took center stage and began presenting the standing-room-only crowd with talks, charts and graphics about the use of urban space and the proliferation of police and private security guards. The conversation and debate lasted two intense hours. We could have been in Greenwich Village or London, Tokyo or Tel Aviv. But we weren’t. We were in Beirut—and the whole evening was conducted in Arabic.

If the word Beirut makes you think of bombs, it is difficult to imagine how exciting, vibrant and wide-ranging the cultural life of the city is right now—or how much it stands out from other Arab capitals. At the 16,000-square-foot Beirut Art Center, directed by artist Lamia Joreige and gallerist Sandra Dagher, you can see paintings, sculpture, photographs and video—and participate in exciting conversations about art and ideas. Afterward, if you are lucky (I was), you can repair to a quiet bar and talk it all over in at least three languages with curators and artists who move easily between Berlin, Paris and New York but consider Beirut their primary home.

In the biennial Home Works show curated by Christine Tohme, the founder of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, you can encounter the highly conceptual work of the most exciting Lebanese and international artists. Down a quiet residential street in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood, you can happen suddenly on Papercup, a perfectly curated photography and design bookshop. You can while away the afternoon at Tawlet, the pathbreaking slow-food restaurant/gallery where every day a different Lebanese woman (Druze, Armenian, Maronite, Greek, Palestinian) cooks and serves her distinctive version of regional culinary specialties. A glass of excellent Lebanese white wine (Chateau Ksara or Kefraya or Massaya or Musar) encourages aesthetic speculation.

Where art flourishes, commerce follows. If the spirit moves you and your wallet holds up, you can shop the brand-new Beirut Souks, an architecturally ambitious open bazaar featuring boutiques like Hermès, Panerai and Yves Saint Laurent and indeed the full panoply of luxury brands. There are a handful of stylish new hotels: Good luck getting a room in one, I couldn’t. If you want to come every year, there are dozens of new oceanfront or mountain-view buildings designed by Beiruti and international architects.

In response, a lively conservation movement is addressing the loss of the city’s gems of late-Ottoman architecture. Serge Yazigi, a doctoral student turned activist, brought me to the spectacular crumbling palazzo of Bechara el-Khoury, now occupied by an upholsterer pursuing his profession in the foyer.
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