A TOUGH EGG TO CRACK: RE­CLAIM­ING A

A long-aban­doned build­ing in Beirut has re­turned to life dur­ing re­cent protests. Laura Macken­zie hears how it has be­come a sym­bol for the pop­u­lar re­sis­tance

The National - News - - ARTS&LIFESTYLE -

For much of the past 40 years, the domed build­ing known to the Le­banese as The Egg has stood aban­doned, a vic­tim of the civil war, like so much else in down­town Beirut. But now, amid un­prece­dented mass protests that many Le­banese have dubbed their “revo­lu­tion”, the famed land­mark has been re­turned – at least on a part-time ba­sis – to its orig­i­nal pur­pose: a cin­ema.

Last week, a crowd of Le­banese res­i­dents gath­ered in the dark of the bul­let-marked, con­crete build­ing for a night of film screen­ings, some­thing that only 16 days be­fore (prior to the mass protests) many would have thought im­pos­si­ble.

One of those peo­ple was Afram Chamoun, 20, a graphic de­sign stu­dent from Beirut who grew up hear­ing sto­ries about The Egg from his par­ents and grand­par­ents, but never thought he’d see in­side it for him­self – let alone be watch­ing films there. “This was sup­posed to be a cin­ema, but in the civil war it got de­stroyed. So be­ing here, it’s kind of over­whelm­ing,” he says. “There are no words to de­scribe it.”

Be­fore anti-gov­ern­ment protests broke out on Oc­to­ber 17, the 1960s Bru­tal­ist build­ing had been closed off to the public, with me­tres-high hoard­ings sur­round­ing it. But within 24 hours, pro­test­ers had gained ac­cess to the struc­ture and were walk­ing around it in awe – even climb­ing on to its roof via a rick­ety and rust­ing set of metal stairs. Since then, the build­ing has been re­claimed as a public space, with po­lit­i­cal graf­fiti now adorn­ing its pre­vi­ously blank grey walls and a steady stream of mainly young peo­ple drift­ing in and out of it, seem­ingly at all hours of the day and night.

The Egg has not been im­mune to Beirut’s rep­u­ta­tion as a city where cul­ture and pol­i­tics seems to seep out of ev­ery wall: in the past two weeks the once-empty shell has played host to events as di­verse as aca­demic lec­tures and late-night par­ties. And, of course, film screen­ings. One of the seven or­gan­is­ers be­hind the film night, which ran from 7pm un­til mid­night, said the idea orig­i­nated on a Face­book page for the now de­funct “Eg­gu­pa­tion”, a project that ini­tially aimed to use The Egg as a space for po­lit­i­cal de­bates and “teachins”, but even­tu­ally fell apart amid ac­cu­sa­tions of elitism.

“One of the things we wanted to do is make the cin­ema a place for any­body to come to from the streets and have a space to kick back, re­lax. Not to­tally dis­en­gage with the revo­lu­tion. And this is why we picked po­lit­i­cally in­clined films, but [shown] some­where they could re­lax,” says Ay­man Makarem, 25, a writer from Beirut.

Makarem and the other or­gan­is­ers thought care­fully about which films to screen. They had orig­i­nally wanted to show those that were ei­ther banned or cen­sored, but after some de­bate, set­tled on a se­lec­tion with “po­lit­i­cal or rev­o­lu­tion­ary themes” that were largely Le­banese and in­cluded work by both male and fe­male film­mak­ers.

Then, armed with lit­tle else but a pro­jec­tor, gen­er­a­tor and speaker (all do­nated), they set up shop, us­ing one of their own lap­tops to play the films and tar­pau­lin as a screen. The line-up even­tu­ally in­cluded three shorts (Ely Dagher’s an­i­mated Waves 98,

Fadi Baki Fdz’s mock­u­men­tary Maniv­elle: Last Days of the Man of To­mor­row and Tariq

Ke­blaoui’s fic­tional Al Hmar, which was writ­ten by Makarem) and two doc­u­men­taries (Dahna Abourahme’s The King­dom of Women: Ein El Hil­weh

and Randa Cha­hal Sab­bag’s Souha, Sur­viv­ing Hell).

One fea­ture film was re­moved from the pro­gramme be­cause the group wasn’t able to find a ver­sion with Ara­bic sub­ti­tles – some­thing that was very im­por­tant to them. “A big part of the is­sue that peo­ple had with Eg­gu­pa­tion was that it was in­cred­i­bly elite, aca­demic and ex­clu­sive. And a part of that is hav­ing things in

This was sup­posed to be a cin­ema, but in the civil war it got de­stroyed. So be­ing here, it’s kind of over­whelm­ing. There are no words to de­scribe it AFRAM CHAMOUN Graphic de­sign stu­dent

English be­cause it’s ob­vi­ously tar­get­ing a very elite crowd,” Makarem says. “Ac­ces­si­bil­ity was key for us.”

Le­banon’s older gen­er­a­tions were no­tice­ably largely ab­sent from the film night. Much of that prob­a­bly had to do with the tim­ing, the fact it had been largely pro­moted on so­cial me­dia and the el­e­ment of risk in­volved in en­ter­ing what is a di­lap­i­dated and pri­vately owned build­ing. For Ayla Mar­dini, 22, an ar­chi­tec­ture grad­u­ate, the site was a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how, for many Le­banese, the re­cent protests have marked the real end to the 1975-1990 war. “The Egg was used or be­ing built be­fore the civil war and then it stopped be­ing used, it stopped be­ing con­sid­ered. And now we’re us­ing it again. So it’s a huge rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the coun­try be­ing non-sec­tar­ian and all the peo­ple of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions go­ing to­gether in one public space and just ap­pre­ci­at­ing art,” she says, adding that she feared the struc­ture could be taken away again if Le­banon re­turned to “nor­mal”.

For now, though, The Egg re­mains open to the public and the or­gan­is­ers of the film night hope to ar­range fur­ther screen­ings there. Mean­while, Ay­man is work­ing on putting on a “Theatre of the Op­pressed” in the space, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from mem­bers of the au­di­ence – turn­ing them from pas­sive spec­ta­tors to ac­tive ac­tors, in both life and art.

Out­side The Egg that night, a group of po­lice­men were lean­ing against their pa­trol car, part of an in­creased se­cu­rity force pres­ence that has been a per­ma­nent fix­ture down­town since the start of the protests. Look­ing up at the build­ing in con­fu­sion, they asked what was go­ing on in­side. When told it was a cin­ema, one of the men re­sponded an­i­mat­edly, say­ing, “No, no, that was be­fore”. But when told again that, yes, there re­ally was a cin­ema in­side – al­beit rather a makeshift one with con­crete steps for seat­ing – the men seemed speech­less.

“Wow,” a sec­ond one said even­tu­ally. “I’ll have to go up there and take a look. An­other day, in­shal­lah.”

Reuters

Demon­stra­tors on the roof of The Egg, an aban­doned cin­ema build­ing in Beirut that is now show­ing films once again

Reuters

Demon­stra­tors at­tend an open dis­cus­sion in­side The Egg last month

Reuters

Film screen­ings at The Egg have at­tracted young peo­ple who have seen list­ings pro­moted via so­cial me­dia

AFP

The Le­banese flag dec­o­rates the di­lap­i­dated build­ing

Reuters

A pro­tester draws graf­fiti on the walls

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