Friday, September 01, 2006

Bar Journalism

(Originally published, in translation, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled Im Krieg hinter der Bar, 26/08/06)

During the media frenzy that the situation in Lebanon warranted over the past month, numerous news outlets ran the rather staid story of Lebanese bars open for business and people partying with abandon, seemingly callous to the destruction inflicted on the country.
The story was popular for numerous reasons, but high on the list has to be the ease of such a report. The journalist could go out for a drink after a day in the field, whip out a notebook, and get a story at the same time as enjoying the spectacle.
In some cases the story only involved visiting one of the few open bars in Beirut or venturing into the mountains to the restaurants and clubs transplanted from the capital in Broumana and Faraya.
The Lebanese nightlife story has been a popular one for the past several years for visiting journalists and pundits alike, remarking on the cosmopolitan clientele, the fancy interiors, designer music, and broad array of cocktails. A nightlife scene not rivalled anywhere in the Arab Middle East.
It is also a story that people in Europe and America could easily relate to, and perhaps even more so in a complex conflict where southern Lebanon is so different from Westernized Beirut.
In the Beirut and Broumana bars you can find cosmopolitan, multi-lingual youth willing to talk, whereas in the south a translator is needed and you cannot have such an easy exchange of views.
Some bar and restaurant owners were keen to talk to journalists, but the owner of Torino, one of the few bars to stay open in Beirut in the first weeks of the conflict, shied away from the exposure.
German-Lebanese Andreas Boulos said his small cafĂ©-bar was a “journalist hub” before reporters travelled to the south to report from the frontline. “Many had in mind the southern stories of destruction and this side, Lebanon still partying, but I really didn’t see it that way. I said come for a drink and take a break.”
For many Lebanese going to a bar was exactly that, a simple form of escapism away from the conflict, power cuts, and the confines of home to enter a world they were familiar with.
The Lebanese also have the unenviable experience of knowing how to survive during a war and maintain some semblance of a normal life.
Indeed, in 1982 during the civil war, the US Marines reportedly thought they had landed in the wrong country on seeing Lebanese tanning themselves on the beach in Jounieh, a Christian city north of Beirut that was the main nightspot during the war years.
What many of the nightlife articles failed to point out, however, was that Lebanon has always had such extraordinary disparities. The wealthy have always been able to party, dropping $8 for a drink, while the majority of the country earns just over $10 a day and are limited in their entertainment options
In the recent war this disparity was not as evident, many of the wealthy having left the country or hunkered down in the mountains, and nearly all bars and restaurants closed. Everyone else was sitting out the conflict at home, glued to a TV screen watching history unfold.
With people making minimal money, if at all, during the conflict, it was equally only the better off and the employed, journalists included, that could afford to go out for a meal or a drink.
“It was like journalistic tourism,” said Boulos, referring to the number of foreign journalists that descended on Beirut in the first week of the war. “But it was fun to see them also, journalists from all over the world: Australians, Polish, Japanese, Italian, South African, Spanish and, of course, Americans. It became a nice place for people to let out their stress.”
But also a place for journalists to mix work and pleasure, make connections and in a couple of cases, hire bar-goers as fixers and translators.
Boulos said he was repeatedly asked by journalists to be interviewed for television, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
“I didn’t feel harassed but the amount of journalists in the first four or five days was a shock. I was firm about not being filmed and interviewed, but couldn’t deny them interviewing customers if they were ok with it. They have always written on nightlife in Lebanon, how great and so on.”
Boulos was also asked to be in a documentary and write a five-day diary on his life that would be counterbalanced with a diary from Israel.
But aside from the diary suggestion, minimal attention was paid to the story behind the scenes, the trials of running a bar during a war and an economic siege, with the standard story revolving around why customers are there, what they think of the war, and the bar owner’s opinion of the customers.
Boulos himself encountered numerous logistical problems, power cuts, rising costs and emotional scenes.
“I had higher expenses during the last month [than usual], beside the stress factor. There was minimal electricity, which was a big problem as I had to pay for a generator, and prices went up on fresh goods. But there was no shortage of alcohol.”
Boulos was lucky however to have had staff live in the area and willing to work.
“We didn’t stay open for business’ sake, but to be morally independent and productive in any form. And when we worked we forgot what was really happening; it was better than sitting at home.”
But with stress levels high and emotions often running even higher, Boulos said his bar was the scene of a lot of drama, where lovers spent their last hours together before being separated by evacuation and heated alcohol-induced arguments resounded into the early hours.
With a tenuous peace now in place Lebanese nightlife will gradually drift down from the mountains and back to the capital, although with many bars and restaurants likely to have gone bankrupt and the city centre dependent on non-existent tourists, it may be a while before journalists report again on Lebanon’s once notorious nightlife.

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