11 May 2011
The Arab world is tearing itself apart. Civil unrest and revolution is breaking out from sea to shining sea. From the Atlantic coast of Morocco, to the gentle waters of the Persian Gulf, as they lap the shores of Bahrain, a distance of more than 3,000 miles. Governments are toppling, regimes that have been in place for generations crumbling. No one knows which country will be next. Or what the lay of the land will be like in one year’s time, let alone in ten years. All that can be certain is, there will still be a lot of desert.
And me? I’m in Beirut, Lebanon, sitting in a small dusty street cafe sipping Coca Cola through a straw, listening to the sparrows and making these notes. I am feeling totally at one with the world, bordering on the self-satisfied. No more than 53 miles from where I am sitting is Damascus. I should have been there yesterday, leading a performance with the Syrian members of The17. It was to be a performance of Score 328: SURROUND around the ancient city wall. I had even got a signed agreement from their Minister of Culture for the performance and the subsequent graffiti that I was planning. But things change and instead of the Syrian Minister of Culture welcoming me, he is part of a government cracking down hard on their people. If my schedule had only been a few weeks earlier, no doubt you would have been able to view on YouTube, a film of me meeting and praising the cultural enlightenment of President Bashar al-Assad, in the same manner as we can watch footage of George Galloway meeting and praising Saddam Hussein.
I arrived in Beirut late last night and I leave early tomorrow morning. Get the job done and leave is how I like to do it. No messing, no sightseeing and no time to socialise. Just in and out. This morning I led a performance of Score 327: DIVIDE & COMBINE at the University of Saint Joseph. The members of The17 taking part were mainly film students at the university. Now, does not seem to be the time to go into the whys and wherefores of doing this performance here. All that needs to be said, is that it seemed to be the perfect city to do it in and I am looking forward to leading its twinned performance in Belfast next spring (2012). Maybe then there will be some time for explanation.
This afternoon I have already done my IMAGINE WAKING UP TOMORROW & ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED graffiti, but in Arabic on the side of a bridge. Between this and the performance at the university I did one of my phone interviews with Marie Wennersten for Swedish Radio. Her line of questioning seems to be getting stranger and stranger. None of the questions she asks me are the sort of questions I expect to be asked regarding what I am doing. She pushes me and prods me, and gets me to talk about things that I would never usually feel comfortable talking about. She wanted to know about projection. What did I think the people taking part in a performance of The17 project into it? God? Their father? And what did I think they projected onto me? Who did they think I was? Then she was asking me if I believed in God. I responded to this in my usual way by saying:
“I am not concerned about believing in God, I am more concerned about whether God believes in me.”
“So Bill, what do you mean by that.”
“I do not think I mean anything. It is just a way of dodging the question.”
“The question remains…’
“Look Marie, God is just something there in life, it does not need me to believe in it or not. It is like the chair that I am looking at as you ask these questions, it is just there.”
“I am actually thinking about a chair as we are speaking, the one next to the painting in one of the photos on your web-site.”
“The one beside The17 painting on a hill?’
“So what does that empty chair mean?”
“I don’t know. It is a chair I bought after the end of The KLF and I have used it ever since to sit on when I am writing at home. It has followed me around.”
“And why did you have it there beside the painting when you had the painting photographed on top of a mountain?”
“Because I had this idea that I should always be sitting in this chair when I have my photograph taken. Tracey Moberly had just taken a photo of me sitting in the chair beside the painting and once I got out of the chair to get something from the Land Rover she took a photo of just the painting with the empty chair. The photo without me looked better, so the idea of photos of me sitting in the chair in different places got knocked on the head. I like pictures of empty chairs. The one that Van Gogh did in his room is one of my favourites of his.”
“What do you project onto the empty chair?”
“I don’t know, but can you hear the Sparrows and the motorway traffic down the telephone line?”
After the interview, I left my room and set off to meet Siska. He is a Lebanese graffiti artist that I had been put in contact with. It was suggested he could show me where I might and might not do graffiti in Beirut. Other than that, and the address I had been given for him, I knew nothing else about him.
But the mile or so walk from the hostel, along a road that may be called Pasteur Street or Armenia Road (according to Google Maps), to the address that I had got for Siska, was one of the great walks of my life. Not an epic one like walking across Iceland from top to bottom or any of the other ones that I may have attempted over the years, but epic in an instant hit sort of way. As soon as I stepped out of the hostel and into the street, a shoeshine boy, wanting to polish my walking boots, accosted me. I ignored his advances, but I get the feeling it could be the catalyst for something else further down the line. Polishing shoes has been a factor in my life.
And then there are the Sparrows. Now I know that I have been going through a bit of a Sparrow phase of late, and who knows how long it will last at this fever pitch. And yes I’ve written a whole piece centred around my relationship with this scruffy bird, when I was in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, so I am not going to do it again. But I have to tell you, I did the whole walk from leaving my room in the hostel, to arriving at Siska’s flat without there being one let up in the chirrup of sparrows. The ultimate urban bird. Does not the din of the modern city drive them deaf? Do they not suffer from tinnitus like me? And what about all the pollution from petrol and diesel fumes? But no, they keep on going, keep celebrating their few months of life on earth, keep proclaiming their existence against all the odds. The swift, that other favourite urban bird of mine, were not tearing across the blue skies above Beirut. But I guess they are not back from wintering in southern Africa yet.
The lack of Swifts was made up for by the amount of graffiti and fly posting that was in evidence. Graffiti and fly posting still continue to be my favourite forms of communication. There is no part of me that wants to use Twitter of Facebook. My lack of interest in using the social networking methods of the moment, make me feel somewhat guilty. When challenged about it, I will come up with the usual arguments, about not wanting to be just another sucker, exploited by the 21st century’s version of American capitalism. But it is probably more to do with my own vanity, than my loathing of the new hip sort of capitalism that the US West Coast has been able to harness the world with. And here I am in Beirut, at the cross roads of the Arab world, in full knowledge that their Arab Spring has been made possible by Twitter and Facebook. Generations of fly posting and graffiti made no difference whatsoever. Not one of the Arab governments ever felt threatened by the graffiti and fly-posters on their city walls. It is obvious what is the most effective way. But what can I do, Twitter and Facebook just seem dull to me compared to the down right sexiness of a wall covered in years of graffiti and layer over layer of torn and tatty posters. I want the visceral vibrancy (or should that read – vibrant viscerallity?) that I can get from something on a wall, that I can never get from reading something on a screen. I want to know somebody has gone and physically done it and not just stuck it up on a website in the privacy of their own room. And of course I don’t want anybody using my ‘user generated content’ to sell advertising space and make some corporation billions.
So the incessant chirruping of the Sparrows, the constant roar of traffic and the unreadable graffiti and fly-posters are all conspiring to make me want to be part of it all. I mean I wish I had a roll of forty copies of the DIVIDE & COMBINE score with me so that I could fly post them as I made my way along this street.
The high point of this walk was coming across a shop, well I say shop, it is more of a dark hole in the wall between a garage selling second-hand car spares and a seedy bar. And in this dark hole, is an old man, bent double with age. And the only thing he is selling is bananas. He has a huge branch of bananas hanging from a hook in the ceiling. There is a small table and on the table is a set of scales at least as old as the man. The bananas are that small variety that are packed with flavour. I cannot resist them. He weighs the bunch I want and I hand over the change. I wonder how long he has been selling bananas. I love the fact that is all he is selling, nothing more nothing less, just bananas. I want to ask him questions but know it would be rude in the most patronising of ways. There is something incredibly noble about the singularity of his business.
After eating one of the bananas I am soon at the address of Siska. He, his partner and young daughter live in an apartment in a 70s block of flats. Like much of the buildings in Beirut, the exterior walls of the block are pock marked by bullet holes from the civil wars. The flat is sun-filled and airy, his partner and daughter are elsewhere. I instantly know that I would like to be living in this flat. Well for a few months anyway. Before moving to a flat in Bogotá or somewhere.
Siska, a good looking man in his mid thirties with long hair tied in a knot on the top of his head, is proud of the sweeping view from their flat. And so he should be. Directly below is a graveyard for buses. Beyond that there is some buildings where he tells me, more than a thousand men were rounded up and slaughtered during the civil war; it was known as the Karantina Massacre. To the right of that is B-018, the purpose built underground nightclub that costs millions and attracts the wealthiest of clubbers from across the Arab world. The roof of the club opens up to the stars when the night is pumping. And beyond that are the docks and the Mediterranean Sea glinting in the sunlight. The graveyard for the buses was my favourite bit of the view.
I asked Siska about himself. His creative life started as a member of the first hip-hop crew in Lebanon back in the mid 90s. They were the first to rap in Arabic and rap about their own lives here and comment on what was going on around them. As an extension to the rapping and music was the graffiti that he got into. Before he started, there was only the old style political graffiti or lads trying to mimic what they had seen in photos of Brooklyn or somewhere. What Siska was doing was something different, and it inspired a whole new generation of Lebanese wall vandals.
Siska had already translated what I wanted to graffiti and had decided where it should go. But first we had to get the paint and tools. We headed down into the Armenian quarter of the city and got a tub of exterior white paint, a roller and an extension pole. He then took me to where I was to do the graffiti. It was to be on the side of a flyover that straddled two highways. He reckoned it was the most visible intersection in the whole city because more cars pass here every day than anywhere else in Beirut. It was also to be above one of his own graffiti that he had done five years earlier. He explained his graffiti, if translated into English, it would read – IF BEIRUT EVER SPEAKS. I liked the sound of this. Even though I did not know exactly it meant. I also liked Siska. But was not too sure about how he wanted me to do the graffiti. He had done the translation on a piece of card no more than A5 in size. He then got me to copy it underneath. And seeing as I was doing this in Arabic and Arabic is written from right to left, this was pretty difficult. Every little inflection of the line changed the meaning of the word that I was writing. I then had to start doing this in huge letters with the roller at the end of a three-metre pole. It is hard enough to do this sort of thing in English with block capital letters, but doing it in free flowing Arabic and going right to left seemed almost impossible. But Siska kept giving me encouragement and getting me to correct things if I got them wrong. But it was not looking good and my line of words kept dipping down. Siska insisted that if the lettering was more styled it would undermine the force of the text. It would become just about the aesthetics.
When about half way through getting it done, Siska stopped me to tell me that one of the numerous armed militia that still patrol the city may want to know what we were up to. And if they did, I had to tell them that I was a visiting professor in film studies at the university and I was getting the students to do some graffiti as part of a film I was having them make. None of this added up and if I was hauled in by some local militia or even the official police, the last thing that I wanted to be doing was to tell them a pack of lies that I could not corroborate. In that past if anyone asks me what I am up to I just tell them the truth.
As it happens the only people that did challenge us, Siska was able to deal with by telling them we were there to paint out the graffiti and not add more. It was obvious that is not what we were doing. But we did not get arrested or taken hostage. And Terry Waite did not have to come and rescue me.
After it had been done and Siska was taking photos of it, I found some wild flowers growing out of the side of the freeway. I got my mobile out to take photos of them. Since taking photos of the poppy growing by the side of the highway in the West Bank where I hope to do my graffiti sometime next year, I am aware that wild and feral flowers are resurfacing as a theme in what I am doing. It is a theme that has been there for decades, but I can tell it is one that I am going to have to confront in some way over the coming months.
Job done, we head back to Siska’s flat. He tells me about the film that he is working on. It is to be a documentary about his hip-hop crew and how they went to Paris to see if they could make it and how they fell apart and what it is like to be a Lebanese in exile. The title of the film, Zourouni Koulli Sana Marra (Visit Me Once A Year) is the title of a song by Lebanon’s greatest diva – Fairuz (but my spelling of her name may be wrong). Siska could not believe that I had not heard of her, it seemed to be on par with not knowing who Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson were. I promise him that once I am back home I will get onto Wikipedia and YouTube and learn all about her. But this does not seem good enough for Siska, he needs to tell me now that any Arab, especially if they are Lebanese, who is living in exile or just an immigrant in a far land, will listen to Fairuz’s recordings and weep for their lost lives and distant families. That when she sings, she sings for them all, even though her background is Christian Arab. He tells me government after government feel threatened by her, even though nothing she does is specifically political.
I also learn that Siska spends half of each year in Berlin, as he assures me, many young Lebanese do. I found it strange to think of all those Israelis, that I had met last month, spending so much time in Berlin along with the archenemies from across the border. It some how makes a mockery of what goes on here, that they all go and have their R&R in the same European city.
He puts the photos of graffiti on a memory stick for me to take and we say out farewells, with promises to keep in touch. I give him the bunch of bananas as a gift. I have a fantasy about bringing some of my children over here to stay in his flat for a couple of weeks when he and his family are over in Berlin.
On the walk back along the road to the hostel, I stopped to celebrate the performance in the morning and the graffiti in the afternoon by dropping into a barber’s to have a shave. And while I was staring at my aging face in the mirror, Marie Wennersten’s line of questioning came back to me. When most people interview me, I forget about the questions once the interview is done, but her questions seem to stay with me, nagging and percolating. The answers I provide never seem to satisfy myself. Then I noticed a gun shot hole in the top left corner of the mirror. When should I expect that bullet with my name on it?
And now as I am sipping up the last from my can of Coke in this shabby street cafe while finishing off these notes, I feel like I am on top of the world. I sometimes think I am just one lucky bastard, with the greatest job in the world. I know I shouldn’t feel like this, but I do. And I know that less than 50 miles from where I am sitting peasant farmers are having their live stock slaughtered, there crops scorched, people are being tortured and others indiscriminately gunned down. The sparrows are still chirruping and the swifts will be back soon. Welcome to my Arab spring.
Post Script: What I have been doing in Beirut has been part of a tri-nation festival; the nations in question are Syria, Lebanon and Scotland. The artists taking part are all from each of these three countries. Next week I will be in Edinburgh, and we all hope that at some point in the future we will be able to do the Syrian leg of the festival. Until then I hope none of what I have written about above will compromise my chances of working in Syria. I would also like to thank Dan Gorman and Yasmin Fedda of Reel Festivals for making this happen. Not only have they done a great job but everything that Reel Festivals stands for is truly admirable.