To paraphrase a powerful article by David Gardner on the 8th August in the FT: ‘It took 15 years of sectarian carnage in Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war to destroy Beirut and 15 more years to rebuild it. It has just been laid waste again in barely 15 seconds’.

A third of Lebanese are jobless and half live below the poverty line. The middle class is sinking into poverty and the poor are being pushed into destitution. Not to mention the plight of 1.5m Syrian refugees for whom life was bad enough already. Then throw in Covid.

On the 4th August 2020, 2750 tonnes of inadequately stored or maintained ammonium nitrate caused a massive explosion in the port of Beirut killing over 200 people and injuring thousands more. It was a truly dreadful (avoidable) accident that Beirut and Lebanon will spend a long time trying to recover from.

Personally, I love that part of the world: Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Libya. I have visited those countries and always found them exciting, fascinating and provocative. My art is essentially that of filmmaking and visiting countries like those (always for filming-related projects) was always productive and creative. But I have a regret. When I made my I, Caesar: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire series, I travelled the full circumference of the Mediterranean. My passport was full of visas, including one for Lebanon as I wanted to visit and maybe film the Roman ruins at the Baalbek temple complex, above all the remarkable Temple of Bacchus. But my visit to Syria over-ran and I never made it. What a shame. Since that time, though, I have tried to keep up with events in this battered and assailed country, hoping that a common purpose – not embedded in violence, discrimination and corruption – could prevail.

There have been plenty of positives and negatives: and I have wondered what role art has had in any of this? And what role can art have now? Or is the scale of destruction and loss across the city of Beirut such that art will be seen to be frivolous and irrelevant?

Of course it will be, largely and rightly, up to Lebanese artists to decide how to creatively respond. And who are those artists? Frankly, I don’t know. I would love to have more time and opportunity to explore and learn about the artists of the Middle East, the Emirate States, and surrounding areas. But filmmaking is a hugely time-consuming job and it’s impossible to be across multiple genres. I am in the early stages of writing a very broad history of art – and trying to look beyond Western Europe as much as possible – so that will give me a reason to look more closely, but in the meantime I, like you, can only surf the wild waves of the internet to find out more.

The first thing to note is that there is no shortage of artists – all ages, all backgrounds, all seemingly trying to bring a fresh and distinctive eye to their art. At first glance it looks bright, centred, challenging, modern. How well we know them is often down the vagaries of the market. Right now, it is Chinese and, broadly, African artists that are attracting attention (and ever higher sale prices) but, mark my words, the Middle East will have its day.

But more importantly, what role can art actually play after a disaster like this? Is it in any way at all as valuable as those digging with their hands through the rubble or making do in damaged hospitals? Dedicated as I am to art, the answer has to be no. But, longer term, that’s where art makes a stand. It can be a record of events and an interpreter of events. Did Picasso’s Guernica stop any ounce of blood being spilt in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War that followed? Probably not – but is it one of the most powerful depictions of the brutalities of conflict ever painted? Yes. Can it perhaps influence the morality of younger people gazing upon it? One hopes so. Thus, in the years to come in Lebanon’s struggle to rebuild, please let’s all spare a moment or two to take note of how its artists do what they can to assist, reflect and encourage change.

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