Zena El Khalil (Part One)

An Artist in Love with Beirut

10th Apr 2012

Zena el Khalil-holiday inn

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Zena El Khalil, aka Ziggy Doodle, describes herself as ‘a visual artist, writer and cultural activist.’ Having spent her childhood in Nigeria and attended secondary school in England, she returned to Lebanon, the land of her forefathers, to study graphic design at the American University of Beirut. After completing a Masters from the School of Visual Arts in New York, she settled permanently in Beirut where she shot to worldwide fame in 2006 by blogging about the July War. Her account, publicised by such news portals as the BBC and CNN, focused on the effects of the Israeli siege on herself and those around her. It led to her wonderful book, Beirut, I Love You, a moving and personal look at the contradictory and confusing city in which she lives. Here, in the first part of our interview with her, she talks about Beirut, what it means to be Lebanese and where her journey will take her next. 

SUGAR STREET REVIEW: So, your book was called Beirut, I Love You and you also had a solo exhibition called Perhaps One Day Beirut Will Love Me Back. Could you please explain this dichotomy?

ZENA EL KHALIL: It’s called living in Lebanon. Some days you love it, some days you can’t stand it. Some days it eats you alive, but it will always throw you back up. You get up on your feet, shove your finger at the sky, smile that you’re alive, and then the whole thing starts over again. I am an optimist though… so I try to validate the love I receive, but on those dark days… those really shitty dark days, I cry for hours, beg for mercy and wait for the sun to come back out.

Some days I love Beirut. Some days I don’t. Some days Beirut loves me. And some days… she doesn’t.

SSR: Describe Beirut in three words!

ZEK: White lies, passion, inequality. 

SSR:. Why is Lebanon so much more, for want of a better word, hedonistic than other Arab countries? Is it the Christian influence, or perhaps the idea of waiting for a bullet with your name on it? Or is it something completely different?

ZEK: Lebanon is unique. It is unique in the Arab world, as well as the rest of the world. We believe the world started with us; inventors of the alphabet, oldest port city in the world, tabbouleh and hummos, cheap botox… and that said, the world will probably END with us. If that doesn’t define a hedonistic culture, I don’t know what else would.

SSR: There is a huge Lebanese diaspora. But at the same time, more and more Lebanese, including many who weren’t even born in the country, seem to be returning.  Why do you think the idea of homeland (or watan in Arabic) is so important to the Lebanese?

ZEK: Lebanon as a country doesn’t really exist. It was invented. If we don’t continue to believe so strongly… so deeply… the lie will reveal itself. Watan is our affirmation of life, despite all the trauma and hypocrisies we face on a daily basis.

SSR: Why did you personally return to Beirut and why did you stay during the July War?

ZEK: My grandfather had immigrated to Africa in 1926. I grew up in Nigeria and moved to Beirut in 1994, just after the civil war ended. I moved to Beirut to attend university, hoping to learn more about the country I spent summers in… and hoping to understand my personal and family history better. I stayed during the July War for four reasons.

1. The Hero Reason: I was making a positive difference through my blog and wanted to keep on doing that. I was also volunteering when I wasn’t writing, helping the displaced and also monitoring the environmental disasters (namely the Jiyeh oil spill- our oil reserves were hit by the Israeli air force).

2. The Coward Reason: I was afraid that if I left, I might never come back.

3. The Family Reason: Maya, my best friend, was struggling with cancer. I didn’t want to leave her. My family was all in Beirut. I didn’t want to leave them.

4. The Dog Reason: Dogs were not allowed to “evacuate”. There was no way in hell I was leaving Tapi behind.

SSR: In his book, One Day in April, Jad El Hage talks about ‘the second generation, a generation that was crushed by the civil war before reaching its potential, scattered all over the globe and largely forgotten.’ Is this changing? Do you feel you represent ‘the third generation’, and are they starting to achieve their potential, or is creativity still stifled by the political situation?

ZEK: Creativity is flourishing independently and individually. Most people take their own initiatives to create and produce their work. What we are lacking is government support and funding for the arts. This is not something new. We don’t have many institutions that support artists, writers or musician; over time, we have learned to try and find our own ways to fund our work, bypassing government and institutions. If we wait for them to get their acts together, it is then and only then that we will see a stifling of potential. I am very happy to report that in our typically Lebanese fashion, we all seem to be bypassing government. And by the way, I am not sure what generation I represent…

SSR: What effect has being a member of the Lebanese diaspora had on your work? Does it make you more intent to remain close to your Arab roots or do you take influence from all the places you have lived and visited?

ZEK: I never thought of myself as an Arab until I moved to New York. Upon arrival, I had to check off all sorts of boxes; my ethnic background (check: other), my religion (check: other), had I ever been or am I presently involved in any acts of terrorism (check: hell no!). After watching the first tower fall, I knew the world was going to point fingers at us. And that was the first time I considered “us” to be “Arab”. After that, I jumped into all sorts of Arab justice activities, including opening my own gallery/space to provide a platform for Arab artists living in New York, to build a bridge with the community around “us.” I never considered myself to be of the Lebanese Diaspora because I never left, nor was my family or I forced to move out. Moreover, I don’t really believe in countries or homelands in the first place… I think I am a beautiful mix, like so many other people today, of the crazy world around me. I feel very close to many cultures, of course, especially those that I’ve lived amongst. Pop culture and satellite TV has changed the world; our borders are blurring and our blood, positively mutating.

The influence on my work comes from social justice, which is universal. I started painting soldiers the night the US army invaded Iraq. During Operation Shock and Awe, during that first night they dropped bombs, the course of my work changed forever. I witnessed the world changing first hand, and was deeply disturbed… and so it was only natural that my work would follow this vein.

SSR: Your book is obviously centred around Beirut. The name gives that away! But while you talk about your time in the US, you don’t really touch upon time spent growing up in England or in Nigeria. Why is that?

ZEK: Those times in my life were not so relevant to the story I was constructing. It is my memoir, set against the backdrop of war. War that is everywhere today. I experienced 9-11 face to face and that event made me realize that we are all struggling with the same problems today and that my war is your war. My book tries to address global issues through a personal perspective. Even the sub-plots boil down to the relationship between East and West.

I would love to write about Nigeria, but it would be a totally different book. I would like to try that one day.

SSR: What’s your favourite cuisine? Lebanese food or something else?

ZEK: It’s hard to say. And since we have by now established that I’m a rebel and don’t answer questions the way I should, I would say… I don’t have one favorite cuisine, but I have many favorite foods from very specific place in very specific environments. Shall I list? When my husband Gigi decides to buy fresh asparagus from the market below our home and makes his incredible risotto. After a long day at the studio a close friend will call and see if I want to have dinner, and I know a long night of arak, fattoush and batata harra await me at Barometer café just off the AUB. The road to Sunday on the beach in Sur is lined with bakeries, but there is only one spot that can cure Saturday night’s hangover and it comes in the shape of a giant kaak stuffed with cheese. When I was young, my grandmother would treat us to freshly picked cucumbers sprinkled with sugar. When I was older, my mother would buy bags of Cadbury’s chocolates during her travels abroad (there were no chocolates in Lagos during the 80s), but she never got charged for excess luggage because the airlines always sympathized with us. Things are so different now.

SSR: Where next for Zena El-Khalil?

ZEK: I have spent the past two years adapting my book into a feature film along with Italian director, Gigi Roccati. The film is very different from the book- it has been an interesting process and a wonderful opportunity to create a new body of writing. We have been lucky to have been accepted into several prestigious writing programs. We have also already been awarded development funds from both MEDIA Programme of the European Union and the Torino Film Lab. I am happy to share that there is a lot of worldwide interest and we are already in the process of building an international co-production.

I am also always working on new projects for my art collective xanadu*, looking for new poets to publish and young artists to exhibit.

But, the best news is that this year, my book will finally be released in the States, published by The New York Review of Books! We are planning a great launch in the Fall, that will be accompanied by an art exhibition.

Photographs by Gigi Roccati and Ivor Prickett

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