I get so many questions whenever someone asks me where am I from. First I say Lebanon, and then I see some hesitation and add Beirut? They go like Oh, yeah of course! So are you from the city? And again my general response is, Well it is such a small country, which leaves us with a small city, it does not matter much where I am from. My family's origins are from the North, in the mountains, but I grew up in a smaller city closer to the coast.
Which leads to the next question: the sea? Yes, Lebanon has the perfect geographical location, it is by the Mediterranean Sea, what's not to love about that? Once coined "Beyrouth, la Suisse du Moyen Orient" (Beirut, Switzerland in the Middle East), it was an expression I grew up hearing from locals and foreigners alike to describe what was the Âge d'Or of a truly beautiful and peaceful country. It has a lot to offer historically, with a mixture of cultures from civilizations that ruled over that land, from Phoenicians to Persians and Romans and at lastly the Ottomans until their collapsed after the first World War.
Sooo, is it safe there? What languages do you speak? Is it a Muslim or a Christian country? In short: Lebanon ended up the centre political tensions for the last few decades, with the Civil War that blew up in 1975 and lasted until 1990. Since then it has been recovering slowly and gaining prominence, especially after 2006, when they started introducing blooming music and cinema festivals as well as art fairs.
If you wish to learn more about this inspiring place and you are passing by Paris, you are in luck. Head to L'Institut des Cultures d'Islam to absorb the culture in a fantastic photography exhibition entitled "C'est Beyrouth", it will help you understand the complexity of what makes the city today, overlooking a decade that knows neither war nor peace. You will see how politics are linked to religion, how people like to show off both their political and religious parties, (Patrick Baz, Hassan Ammar). Like many other cities in the world, there are multiple marginalized communities such as the Palestinian and Syrian refugees (Dalia Khamissy), the LGBTQ that's rising slowly (Mohamad Abdouni), the migrant workers that lack proper law rights (Myriam Boulos) but also a very warm and peculiar series called “The Beirut Sun Tanners” shot by our very own Vianney Le Caer, a photographer with Aperture Tours in London.
This photo story explores the sunbathing community of the American University of Beirut Beach, located beside the Corniche, a famous seaside promenade in downtown Beirut. In his own words: "I discovered it by pure chance in February 2015. I was on assignment in Lebanon for an NGO, working on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. I had some free time one morning and walked along the Corniche, when this group of men caught my eye. I immediately felt something exciting was going on there, but I was not quite sure I would be welcomed with my camera. Too anxious at first, I let it go and started walking away. However, soon enough, I couldn't help myself and had to try. To my surprise, I was immediately greeted by Abu Khodor, the eldest and most respected sun tanner of the beach, who happened to love having his picture taken. Even though we didn't speak the same language, I felt very welcomed, and Abu Khodor made sure to pass the word around that I could take any picture I wished."
Le Caer ended up documenting the meeting point for around 30 men who can be found there each day, working out, tanning and praying. I like the words of Sabyl Ghoussoub's, the curator of the exhibition, it eloquently describes my own thoughts on his work: "For me, it is the stereotype of the Lebanese, the one we hide and the one we adore; the contrasts are hallucinating, it is full of intelligence, the paradox in those photographed situations makes it so smart, and that is Beirut. While one prays, one displays his muscles, and another sips a carrot juice. I appreciate what the work says about the visibility of the body, the need to exhibit, while at that time, ISIS is at the doors of Lebanon. When Vianney asked them about it, they said they were very aware of the danger."
So is Beirut a safe place? Yes and no, like many cities nowadays. Its multi-confessionalism will strike you; people are not only bilingual but trilingual, oddly enough you can use US Dollars anywhere anytime. You will feel more than welcome by everybody on the streets; you will never be left out; people will always be ready to help. If you're willing to rent a car or a chauffeur (to avoid the tensions during traffic peaks) or hop on the public bus if you manage to understand its terms then I would advise a week to 10 days in and around the city to truly appreciate not just what Beirut has to offer, but Lebanon.
The country has many gems. In winter you can go skiing, the rest of the year you can bathe, but most importantly you can visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites: the famous Roman Temple, Baalbek; the most extended cave complex in the Middle East, the Jeita Grotto, The Mseilha Fort that can literally be found by the highway going up North, the Sidon Sea Castle in Saida, the antique town of Tyre, a great Phoenician city on the southern coast, the list just keeps going!
Make sure to learn some few terms before you get there, Marhaba for greetings, Shoukran for thank you and whenever you are faced with a big mess, you say Hay Beyrouth! - "It's Beirut!"
C'est Beyrouth is at L’Institut des Cultures d’Islam until 28 July 2019. Free Entry. Tuesday until Sunday from 11h00 until 19h00 except Wednesday when it is open from 16h00 until 20h00. Closed Monday and public holidays. The exhibition is spread over two locations:
ICI Stephenson : 56, rue Stephenson – 75018 Paris
ICI Léon : 19, rue Léon – 75018 Paris (location of Vianney Le Caer's work)
About the Author : Clara Abi Nader
Clara is a photographer guide at Aperture Tours Paris. She is a graduate of Photography from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, and she likes to develop a sense of narrative in the cinematic images she creates. She enjoys turning the mundane into magnificence.
About the Photographer : Vianney Le Caer
Vianney is a photographer guide at Aperture Tours London. He graduated with an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication. In between foreign assignments, predominantly in conflicts areas, he cover local news and celebrity events in the city.