I spent six days in Beirut, Lebanon, recently, the first two to speak at a conference of arts and culture reporters. After the conference I went out to find stories from people in Beirut. What I found, well, was much more than I was looking for.
I set out to interview artistically-inclined Beirutis, and happenstance put me in front of Nadine Begdache. She runs a west end Beirut art gallery called Gallerie Janine Rubeiz.
"Janine Rebeiz is the name of my mother," Begdache said. "Yes, she founded in 1967 a very big cultural center very big in the town. As much painting, poetry, music, politics. A lot of politics."
Every Beiruti I interviewed spoke at least Arabic, French and English. Middle-aged Nadine is an educated, thoughtful, passionate Beirut native, and she seems to do all she does to honor her mother. Her mother’s world revolved around art and she took Nadine even as a very young girl to operas and Ingmar Bergman movies, hoping that something artistic would stick. It stuck.
"And she didn’t stop, during all though the war," Begdache said. "For her it was very important, Beirut as a center of culture and all the mixture of culture, especially this side of Beirut, the side of the American university where you have all kinds of people and intellectuals."
Most of us know little of the wars that have rocked Lebanon. Dr. Marcel Moujeim, who teaches dentistry at UTSA’s dental school now, suffered through Beirut’s war years just as Nadine did.
"I was born in 1964, so I’m not going to tell you how old am I now, you can guess," Moujeim said.
A gentle humor emerged from time to time as I spoke to Moujeim, but what he lived through is almost hard to fathom.
"It was Sunday, April 13, and the problem happened at eleven in the morning," Moujeim said. "The guy who was killed; his name of Joseph Abou-assi. He was our neighbor."
Google Abou-assi and you’ll find that his killing and the killing of 27 Palestinian refugees on a bus started the civil war, which enveloped Lebanon for 15 years. Abou-assi was Moujeim’s back door neighbor.
"We were surrounded by Palestinians for the first," Moujeim said. "I remember for the first eight or nine months we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have bread."
His family’s apartment was in a war zone.
"And many, many houses around us were hit and many civilians were killed while sleeping, or while walking on the streets," Moujeim said. "And I still remember under the bad days of bombardment—don’t laugh—but we used to sleep under the dining table, and we put a mattress or two over the table, and we sleep under the table. My mom, my dad, and my brother and my sister and myself."
This is the context within which Nadine’s mother Janine continued to highlight Lebanese artists. She would put on exhibitions, even during the war.
"When it was bombing in east, we were working in west. When it was bombing in west we were trying to do something in the east side of the country. Half of the house, she made it as a gallery. So she had exhibition in her own apartment. And she didn’t stop during all the war."
Everyone I talked to about art and culture kept on bringing up war, which, according to journalist Kelli Arena, makes perfect sense.
"It is the artists and poets and musicians around them who through their work help the rest of society come to terms with what has happened."
Lebanon’s tentative peaceful foothold is constantly challenged by circumstance. Tomorrow, more on the war that has defined the country. Here's Marcel Moujeim.
"I remember when we used to see each other we didn’t say good morning, we said thank God you’re still alive."
More from Moujeim and others on the next in my Beirut series.