A middle-aged man, short and thick through the center, stands poised in front of a blank canvas. A bit disheveled himself, he seems just another piece in the collection of sculptures, paintings, and books littering his tiny room. Attracted by the bright and interestingly abstract paintings stacked one on top of another all over the walls of this studio, I cross the street with Nathan to peer through the windows. Noticing us, the man puts down his palette and waves us energetically inside. He begins to describe to us the various paintings, with broken but understandable English. We’re offered a choice between coffee or tea and he disappears into a dingy backroom to put the pot onto a hotplate. He’s not a native of Beirut but he lives here because it is a “breath of fresh air in the Middle East,” where he can speak his mind freely, particularly politically. Rummaging through some paintings, treating them a bit roughly actually, he pulls out two tableaux, both featuring various odd images.
He begins explicating his work. Gesturing to the large volume in the center of the work, he begins to explain that it represents the law of Syria or any Middle Eastern country. Across it walks two giant boot prints and a tank assaults it- showing the disregard the military has for the law. Several animals chew at the book, especially an overly large cow-devil thing representing the government. In one corner a rooster cries, trying to wake everyone from the nightmare. Thrusting the tableau to one side, he picks up the second, which looks like a stylized interior of a cathedral. He explains he has painted in military figures in place of icons of Mary and Saints because the military has co-opted the church. We both listened, fascinated by the politics of the art.
Coffee finishes and we sit down around his desk to sip strong coffee from our tiny mugs. His paunchy friend comes in and joins us. Arabic and English mingle together, as we ask about other paintings and they make jokes about some of his portraits. He tells us we are welcome anytime, as we leave into the evening twilight, laughing at the random hospitality of this kind stranger.
Despite her flamboyant blazer and liberal application of makeup, the woman across the lunch table from me has a deep anxiety etched into her eyes. She’s a Presbyterian from Baghdad, visiting NEST on a tour of Lebanon with a delegation of Iraqis and Americans, and we are all having a very posh lunch in the dining hall to celebrate. Several of us have asked her about the recent violence against Christians in Iraq, including the murder of 62 Christians after their church was held hostage and several bombings and home attacks. She describes how the Christians are the minority in Baghdad without an active militia that will reap retribution for any attacks made on the group. This makes them an easy target in a country where they are not welcomed. Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Iraq grew dramatically worse post 2003, with the toppling of Saddam’s regime. Many of them blame America for making their plight worse: why would America do this to fellow Christians, she asks before continuing. Now Christians are targets of violence, even when they are in their own homes. She wishes the US military would apply pressure to the government to protect minority groups, but she knows the US is intent on leaving. Guilt and shame, anger and sorrow wash over me in waves: what am I to feel?