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Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 15:21 GMT
Website Exclusive: Beirut Rebuilds a Culture
Members of the Caracalla Dance Theatre show off Beirut's inimitable flair
By Hugh Levinson

Lebanon is no stranger to the trauma of conflict. Between 1975 and 1992, 17 different religious groups fought a vicious and relentless civil war. Beirut - the decadent, magical, cultural centre of the Middle East -- was reduced to a gutted wreck - and hundreds of thousands of its best and brightest inhabitants fled. Walking through the city center today, though, it's is staggering to see how quickly some parts of the city are being rebuilt - in the lavish style of its pre-war heyday. Beirutis have an extraordinary ability to bounce back - and many of those who went abroad have now returned. But what about the real heart of the city, its artistic and creative soul? Is there any chance that that can also recover ? A variety of leading and provocative figures from Beirut's artistic community give their views.

Dr WALID GHOLMIEH is director of the Beirut Conservatory and one of Lebanon's leading composers. "This year we have 4,800 students at the Conservatory. This is a huge number compared to the population of Lebanon and actually this is as many as we are able to take. This year we refuse something like 11,000 applicants. We cannot take them all. The motive for that, the reason behind that is that all parents want their children to study music as a way of letting them be introduced to culture, rather to tune them in a totally different track to the track of the war."

HOUDA AL-NAAMANI is a painter and poet. Her best-known work is "I remember I was a point, I was a circle." "People don't have time to read, they don't read as much as before. We are suffering. We make signature (book signings), we have 200, 300 people come and buy your book but I wonder if they have time to read. They are all now taken by politics, they must hear the news but not only on one station, they must hear on one station, turn to the other. They hear the news 3 times, 4 times each night, with the same news. So lots of time is lost."

ABDUL HALIM CARACALLA is the founder and director of Caracalla Dance Theatre. "When I do a ballet now I take all the measure that this ballet should be for the new Lebanon and much much better than other ballet. You should go to be in the standard of the world. Because we don't want to make art just to be in Lebanon, to make the Lebanese feel happy - no! We want the people in the world, to prove to the world the genius creation of the Lebanese." (Caracalla Dance Theatre will be appearing at the Peacock Theatre in London in May 1999)

MAY MASRI is a filmmaker currently producing a feature film with the working title "Behind the Lines." The film is directed by her partner, Jean Chamoun. "I think the country is recovering. You wonder though what kind of work is being produced. There are a lot of different types of entertainment, singers, there's a lot of talent, but what quality? I think the quality has suffered after the war; just like there are a lot of fast-food restaurants, there is fast-food culture."

NIDAL ASHKAR is an actress and director of the Medina Theatre in Beirut. She recently appeared in the film "Place Vendome" with Catherine Deneuve. "Theatre doesn't change the world. It changes people inside themselves when you become an addict of the theatre. It changes the heart and soul of people. When thousands of people, when hundreds of thousand of people go into the theatre, when it becomes an aspiration of the people, the Lebanon of the 21st century, this priority of tomorrow, then it changes people."

MOHAMMAD RAWAS is a painter and a teacher at the American University of Beirut. His wife, MAY GHAIBEH, is a multi-media artist specialising in CD-ROMs. May: "It's coming back again - there is definitely an international feeling among the young artists. There's no thing of 'Lebanese art,' it's really international modern art. They're getting into installations, video art and multimedia. So I think it's coming back and strongly also. And they're bringing artists from Europe and from America. So the whole thing is coming back as it was before. It's just the beginning though - it's going to take time for even the artists here to get back their confidence." Mohammad: "A new group of people existed after the war that we may call the nouveau riche┐people with the money and not necessarily the cultural background. So they are ready to pay for art because it's a part of decorating their own houses, it's like buying expensive furniture. So they keep on buying but unfortunately they end up promoting or buying art which caters for their own taste, which is not necessarily good art. The good art that would appeal to a cultured eye and mind has not as much as chance as before the war. A lot of kitsch art is being sold."

NADIM KARAM is an architect and sculptor. His "archaic procession" of large metal sculptures are on show in many public sites across Beirut. "I've been 10 years in Japan. One of the things that took me there was a scholarship but also the war - I had to go out and continue. But if you look in my family, in every part of my family there's someone who's outside Lebanon. London, Paris, the States, South Africa, Japan or whatever. In every Lebanese family now you find members of that family that are in the diaspora outside their country. And this has been a reflection of the war. And the mobility became more and more important for the Lebanese. And now there is this interesting phenomenon which is of those - not only artists - coming back to Lebanon.

An elephant - one of Nadim Karam's "archaic procession" series
They have brought with them the ideas of the West or whatever is not Eastern in the sense of Middle Eastern. And there is a conflict between the people who have stayed here and the people who have travelled and saw different things. And this conflict is also showing in my work here because there are people here, conservative people, who do not want to understand this change, this difference, and those who are very free to express their work as they want."

WEBSITE EXCLUSIVES: Listen to Walid Gholmieh's
piece "Beirut"
Click here to listen to
"Echoes", perfomed by Caracalla Dance Theatre
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