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How is Beirut's arts scene after the explosion?

Verena Greb
November 4, 2020

DW spoke with musician and researcher Mounir Mahmalat in Beirut to get an in-depth look at what it's like for the city's arts sector, three months after the blast.

Libanon | Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut
Image: Getty Images/AFP/STR

In the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse ignited, causing a massive explosion. The resulting shock wave destroyed the houses and apartments of an estimated 300,000 people, killing at least 190 individuals and injuring thousands, according to government figures.

But the people of Lebanon are not only suffering from the consequences of the explosion and resulting fires in the city; the country has been plagued by economic troubles and turmoil in its government. Shortly before the blast, Beirut citizens had been taking to the streets to protest the regime.

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has also taken its toll. Many in Lebanon feel it may be time to move away from their country altogether. 

Yet, Mounir Mahmalat from Germany plans to stay. He's called the Lebanese capital home for the last four years and has never tired of it. A cellist in the band "Stories - Bridging Traditions," Mahmalat told DW about what it's like to live in Beirut now and how the cultural sector is doing three months after the devastating blast.

DW: Mr. Mahmalat, how did you experience the day of the explosion in Beirut almost three months ago? Were you in the city that day?  

Mounir Mahmalat: Yeah, so the interesting part of this disaster is that everybody, literally everybody in the country has his or her own narrative about the situation and what happened, because it was such an incredibly intense moment. Everybody knows exactly what happened to her or him in this specific moment, even though one might not even have been in the city itself. Many conversations now start with: "Where have you been during the blast? I hope nothing happened!" This has shaped social interactions in many ways. 

I was in Beirut. But I was lucky given the circumstances. My apartment was heavily damaged, but luckily, I wasn't at home. I was in a part of the city that was a little bit farther away of the explosion site. As many of us got small injuries, I got some, but nothing compared to what others have had to endure during that day.

Debris is scattered on a residential street, including a large sofa. A man picks up garbage and puts it in a truck
Over 640 historical buildings were damaged in the blast, affecting the city's most artistic and cultural neighborhoodsImage: Marwan Naamani/dpa/picture alliance

Initially, everybody thought that this particular blast was something that occurred in their immediate vicinity. So I only realized like an hour or two later that it was something of this unimaginable magnitude, after I went home and after I was able to catch up on some messages and confirm some of the rumors that spread over social media and in the news. 

There was fear in the time immediately afterward that it may have been terrorist attacks, maybe by Israel or of something of a larger magnitude that happened that wasn't immediately visible. That an accident like that could have happened occurred to many of us just a couple of hours later.

A photo of Mounir Mahmalat playing the cello in black and white
German cellist Mounir Mahmalat has called Beirut home for the past four yearsImage: Privat

I can only imagine what an impact such a blast can have on someone. May I ask how you are living and working today?

Just as a side story, a few weeks after the blast there was another big fire at the port, a very scary one with a huge black trail of smoke that drew a lot of attention. And it really elicited the trauma in a lot of younger people — and kids in particular. And I think the effect on the population's social psyche is something that needs to be studied and understood in more detail. 

So how do I live? I am a musician and at the same time, I'm lucky enough to have different means of employment. I'm also an economist and I work for different think tanks and development organizations, including the World Bank. So luckily these days I don't have to rely on my musical profession to earn my living.

The facade of the Sursock Museum with bags of debris piled up outside of it
The city's Sursock Museum (pictured) was also among the city's important cultureal landmarks that was damaged in the blastImage: Caroline Blumberg/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

The explosion in Beirut happened almost three months ago. With the pandemic situation also occurring, how is cultural life at the moment? 

So, this explosion really devastated the part of Beirut with most cultural sites. In the vicinity of the port, you had a large concentration of museums, theaters, music halls, heritage buildings, pubs, bars, restaurants — it was really the bustling heart of the city; a large part of what made Beirut famous and attracted so many people from all over the world. Now, only a handful of these venues remain open or could reopen. 

And when you now pass by the affected areas at night you see a ghost town. Before it was a bustling skyline and now there is just no light. But it is not only the physical damage that impacts cultural life. It has also had a huge impact on social psyche. Having such a large part of the country's cultural heritage damaged weighs heavily on people's minds after the current crippling financial and economic crisis has greatly affected economic opportunities for many Lebanese people. On top of that, Lebanon experienced a large number of coronavirus cases.

Since the blast affected thousands of people, the hospitals were completely overburdened. There was absolutely no way to think of social distancing or wearing masks while trying to save your neighbor's life. In that way, the explosion caused a massive increase in coronavirus cases that has led to two new lockdowns now. The impact on cultural life is severe and will probably occupy the country for the months to come.

People carrying banners march during nationwide anti-government protests in October, 2020
Even before the damage caused by the blast, protesters were out on the street demonstrating against the governmentImage: Aziz Taher/Reuters

Places where you would meet and come together and listen to music or play also got damaged. How is it today, almost three months afterwards? Can you go on the stage again? 

There are concerts happening now on the very few stages that remain open, and that are open air. Yet, cultural life is not even close to what it was before, what it could be even during pandemic times. I, myself, was able to play one concert two weeks ago, which was where you really could feel that people grieved for moments in which they could share emotional connections. 

In a society as fragmented as Lebanon's, music offers important opportunities to create common narratives that remind people of a common heritage. And in these times, without these cultural gatherings and within a deep crisis, society is thrown back on different forms of identification, which in the Lebanese case is often religion. I believe that much more focus would have to be devoted to the preservation of the absolutely fascinating cultural landscape here in the country in order to prevent the gradual disintegration of society.

A Lebanese man gazes out of the window of his destroyed house to the area near where the explosion took place
The homes of thousands were destroyedImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/V. Poularikas

What's your wish in terms of awakening cultural life?

I would wish that music and culture take a central role in international efforts to support the Lebanese people in times that pose a historical challenge. This can come in many forms, such as by supporting musical events, festivals, dance shows, performing arts or exhibitions. The international community can help a lot in this domain since the Lebanese government has not done anything to support the arts scene — literally nothing. However, this is somewhat understandable given the magnitude of the financial crisis the state is in.

International partners have a very good reputation for nurture existing connections with artists, with musicians or filmmakers to produce cultural output in the country. The Goethe-Institut, for example, has done a remarkable job in facilitating connections between Lebanese artists and artists from all over the world. I would hope that this can push the Lebanese society into a more positive mindset, something that allows people to relate back to what made them great in the past and can make them great in the future.

You mentioned that you are essentially on the payroll of think tanks and also working for the World Bank, but what about other musicians or artists, are they struggling financially?

For many musicians, these times are absolutely devastating. If there is no opportunity for musicians to perform, many are thrown back onto savings and family connections. If these are not available for whatever reason, the situation for many musicians quickly becomes very dire. 

One has to see that even the concerts that you can play now introduce a super interesting set of challenges that are not easy to solve. Due to the decline of purchasing power that is coupled with a significant devaluation of the currency, you come into situations where the concerts of the best musicians in the country are priced at three or four euros, and many still think they're too expensive! It's very difficult for musicians to find the right course of action these days.

If you look three months ahead from now, how do you imagine the situation will be? Is there anything that gives hope?

In the immediate future — within the next couple of months — unfortunately, I think it's going to be even more difficult than it is now. Open air places will have to close during much of the rainy season which again is going to reduce the opportunities for concerts that are outdoors. So unfortunately, it's going to be a difficult winter for musicians and artists in the country. 

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