Thursday, March 24, 2011

Meet Zena el Khalil

Zena el Khalil is an installation artist, painter, curator, author and cultural activist. She first attracted the world’s attention with her blog Beirutupdate, which provided a personal account of the 2006 attacks on Lebanon. Born in England, she has lived in Nigeria, London and New York City before calling Beirut home. The Polyglot caught up with el-Khalil to see how her life has changed since publishing her thought-provoking 2009 memoir, Beirut I Love You.

This past summer marked your first solo exhibit in Lebanon in 4 years. Why the long period?I try to embrace all aspects of Lebanese society and culture in my art work. It’s a small country with a complex history and many layers, and sometimes my art can be quiet intense or provocative because of the way I tackle subjects. As a result I often show my work abroad. I would love to exhibit in Beirut all year long, but unfortunately there are limits to artistic expression which all artists must learn to navigate. It’s also extremely difficult to find support, both financial and emotional, for the arts in Lebanon. There are virtually no public spaces or funds, almost zero government support, and a very small audience.

You’ve run down the streets of Beirut in a wedding dress. What was the message you were trying to convey and what sort of reactions did you get?When I began this performance piece in 2003, it was as a social experiment. I was at that age that people in this part of the world deem “marriage material.” Mothers started passing by our home to sort of “check out the goods” and see if I was fit for their sons. At first I was horrified, but then decided to go with the flow and see what I could make out of it. I created a performance piece called Wahad Areese Please! (A Husband Please!) I chose the Beirut International Marathon as a venue because it is the only event in Lebanon where you have people from so many different backgrounds in a common space. For me, that meant more men to chose from! I bought a wedding dress; spray painted it pink, and walked the 10km course in the dress. I asked people questions about their concept and expectations of marriage. About stereotypes that they held. About their dreams. Most of the discussions were about material wealth and property. Very little spoke about love. I surprisingly received several proposals too! Since the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, I run to spread and promote love and peace.

Cultural activism seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. Do you see part of the artist’s responsibility to push people’s buttons?Definitely, I don’t see a separation between art and activism. As human beings we have a responsibility towards each other. I am someone’s sister as well as neighbor. In May 2008, I was invited to speak at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. I believe that if enough people are working towards peace (through art, education, music, literature, meditation, action, events, and dialogue), it will eventually happen. We were born to be peaceful... it’s now a quest to return to our roots.

How has growing up in different countries and cultures shaped your own identity?

When I was younger, not being able to fit in was depressing. But as I grew older, I began to realize that the real problem I had was my concept of “fitting in.” When I let go of how different I felt, I began to embrace the similarities I found and the beauty in our differences. I also realized how connected we all are.

Has your life changed since you published your memoir in 2009?I began to write the book after my best friend Maya passed away. As if the war wasn’t enough, losing Maya a few months later sent me into a severe state of depression. I was in a very dark place and the book was the only thing that kept me going. The process of writing helped me heal. It was a catharsis and pushed all the negativity out of my life. I felt a lot better upon completing the book and regained my sense of purpose. Now every time my book is translated into a new language, I get to travel and tell the world about Maya and Beirut. It has made me feel alive again and closer to Maya than ever before. She has been with me on every plane ride and every presentation. We live in a world now that is more open to dialogue. I am taking advantage of this time in hopes that women around me will also join to tell their wonderful stories. Now is the time to do it, for us and for our future daughters. And I can’t tell you how ready we are.

Images courtesy of Zena el Khalil© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

1 comment:

Reem said...

Definitely a page turner! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about our part of the world; life, marriage, best friends, lovers, war and of course Beirut! I myself had difficulty in understanding let alone explaining how I felt about Beirut. You have definitely - like they say- put the dots on the letters.

I cannot deny feeling the melancholy in your tone throughout the whole read; now I know why.

I know I don't know you (perhaps a little from your memoir) and it might sound insane but, I am so proud of you. I am proud of the Lebanese woman who is brave enough to share this utter honesty with the world.

I hope you get this.

Best wishes,