Bureaucracy and politics hindering cultural life in Lebanon

The theatre is to move for a new location next April but for bureaucratic reasons, it did not have the necessary permits to continue at its current location until that date.
Sunday 10/11/2019
A view of the Citerne Beirut building. (Courtesy of Citerne Beirut)
In limbo. A view of the Citerne Beirut building. (Courtesy of Citerne Beirut)

BEIRUT - Beirut has lost a vibrant cultural hub at a time Lebanon is in need for invigorating its cultural life. Citerne Beirut, a unique space for performing and contemporary arts that was inaugurated in April, closed because of bureaucracy and paperwork glitches.

In a statement titled “In Lebanon we destroy a theatre… to build an incinerator!” Maqamat, the association running Citerne Beirut said the theatre was to move for a new location next April but for bureaucratic reasons, it did not have the necessary permits to continue at its current location until that date.

“We just asked for a grace period until April or at least the end of the year to give us time to find an alternative location and work on the permits but the Beirut governor did not accept and the municipality was not interested. We were compelled to dismantle the centre,” said Citerne Beirut artistic director Omar Rajeh.

The structure in the form of a cistern in Beirut’s Mar Mikhail neighbourhood was built on a land leased until the end of April 2020. Beirut Governor Ziad Shebib granted Maqamat permission to operate the place until end of July but refused to extend the grace period.

“We had hoped that the mayor and the governor of Beirut would support such an artistic project, a full-fledged cultural and artistic centre for the city and would help us find a solution so that we could continue with that project without interruption, of course within the rule of law,” Rajeh said.

“I wish they (the authorities) would be as categorical and uncompromising in confronting matters that harm the country, as they are determined to stop a cultural hub like Citerne Beirut.”

Rajeh argued that, in other countries, municipalities offer facilities and incentives to woo artists and intellectuals with cultural projects. “While at Citerne Beirut we have been carrying out multiple events and enriching the cultural life in the city, yet we see no appreciation from the authorities,” he said.

In its statement Maqamat, which has been organising the Beirut International Contemporary Dance Festival (BIPOD), said “another space for free thought and expression that connected Beirut with the international arts scene and presented its openness and progressive ideas, is being closed.”

The group had to cancel programmes and events set for October, including the International Cultural Summit that was supposed to take place for the first time in Lebanon and an artistic gathering for young people organised by the UN Development Programme.

“We do not understand the reasons why the authorities have refused to extend the grace period for just a few months,” Rajeh said. “They turn a blind eye on many other projects with more serious infractions, although it is their responsibility, notably the Ministry of Culture, to support such cultural initiatives as Citerne Beirut, especially in this period. Culture is mostly needed in a time dominated by racist and inclusive discourse and a decline in artistic and social values.

“In Lebanon, they have no problem to destroy a cultural hub while they would make extra effort to build an incinerator.”

Rajeh asked poignantly: “Will it be OK for our future in this country to be surrounded by garbage but not OK to sustain a cultural centre? Do we accept to live under constitutional void and fail to fill our lives with culture and values?”

In addition to supporting young people’s talents, Maqamat artists have been performing at international theatres and festivals around the world. “While we are praised and applauded abroad for communicating a cultured and artistic image of our country, at home we face continuous hindering and marginalisation… This is absurd,” Rajeh said.

Maqamat called for “‘cultural disobedience’ until we bring back our cultural life that has been confiscated.”

It vowed to continue with even a greater momentum and strength to overcome this dangerous situation.

“We will continue with all our strength and all our cultural and artistic activities, including BIPOD, all training classes, workshops and the dance school, as well as the artistic residencies for local and international artists and all co-productions for emerging artists,” the statement said.

“From this moment on we begin working on relocating Citerne Beirut to another place and looking for the necessary support and assistance to complete this project.”