Cultural Revival Blooms After Lebanese Revolt

A man waves a Lebanese flag at the start of the country's elections.
A man waves a Lebanese flag at the start of the country's elections. (By Darko Bandic -- Associated Press)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

BEIRUT -- Last year, during municipal elections in Beirut, posters bearing the shadowy image of a man named Al Murashah started appearing on walls that line the streets of Beirut. He took his place next to the many thousands of images of familiar sectarian leaders that become ubiquitous during Lebanon's political seasons.

But Al Murashah was a fiction, a candidate invented by an underground art group called Heartland. This year, during Lebanon's first elections without the presence of Syrian troops in almost 30 years, Heartland was back, not with Al Murashah, but with a project they call "Propaganda." Instead of a generic face, they've posted blank sheets of paper.

The work was intended as a counterpoint to the explosion of visuals that have confronted the Lebanese over the last four months of tumult: the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the protests against Syrian occupation, and the current parliamentary elections, which continue through June 19.

Sandra Dagher, the owner of an art gallery here who is in touch with the Heartland group, said the blank sheets of paper represented a protest to the riot of political messages, a graphic counterattack to the slick election placards, protest banners, graffiti and T-shirts that are everywhere.

Lebanon, once a leader in the Arab arts world, has enjoyed a flurry of artistic production in recent months. Galleries that specialize in selling high-end abstract art to wealthy collectors have turned to painters with overt political themes. Photographers and writers have embraced the subject of the events known as the Cedar Revolution, parsing its meaning and criticizing its direction. With the sudden departure of a military presence that many younger Lebanese have lived with their entire lives, there is a vacuum in Lebanon that artists and intellectuals are struggling to fill. Everything about Lebanese culture and identity, it seems, is on the table.

Among the first to rush in, immediately following the assassination of Hariri on Feb. 14, were the musicians. Dozens of songs have been composed lamenting Hariri's death, adding to a rich culture of political music that now includes at least one new song celebrating the emergence of Hariri's son, Saad, as heir to his father's legacy. Even Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, uses composers to get its message out.

Naji Zaarour, who hawks CDs and tapes out of a small corner store, said he had sold hundreds of copies of a Rafiq Hariri compendium album, which he made himself. Music circulates quickly in Lebanese society, where copyright enforcement is lax and access to influential radio stations is much easier than in the United States.

Zaarour called his Hariri disc "a big hit," and said it accounted for much of his business. Songs that became very popular during the protests and on discs such as Zaarour's include "Beirut Is Crying" and "No, the Story Hasn't Ended," with lyrics such as, "No, the story hasn't ended, no, this is not the end, no we haven't forgotten, you're still living in us, and our hope is still our aim."

Many of the Hariri songs found their way to the desk of Jihad Murr, chairman and chief executive of Virgin Megastores of Lebanon. Most of them, he said, were composed and recorded too quickly to have any lasting value. More interesting, Murr added, was how a body of preexisting music, recorded by a generation of Lebanese stars touched by the civil war, was put to new use at the rallies. Recordings by popular vocalists such as Majida Roumi and Julia Boutros were put to service as unifying elements, much like the Lebanese flag took on new importance as a nonsectarian patriotic symbol.

Also quick to enter the cultural fray were the photographers, designers and visual artists who documented and contributed to the surge of newly revived patriotic imagery -- photographs, banners, T-shirts, armbands, face painting, even cedar tree designs shaved into hair on men's heads. Photographer Christian Catafago has published a collection of short essays and photographs created during the headiest moments of the large March street rallies; it's filled with images of the Lebanese flag.

As with Heartland, Catafago produced his book anonymously, to deflect attention away from himself. In a country where names are often markers of religious background, anonymity (whether among artists, or electronically on the Internet or in cell-phone messages) is seen as a way of speaking to the public without invoking potentially divisive issues of identity.

Catafago's book celebrates the frenzy of the spring protests, but raises a question that haunts many Lebanese: How can they turn that energy into actual change in their society? The photographs in the beginning of his book show a flurry of motion and the crush of the crowds. At the end, he shows the iconic red-and-white "Independence 05" stickers that were everywhere during the protests, torn off and abandoned on the ground.

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