Rosie Boycott by Daniel Mordzinski

Rosie Boycott: In true Beirut style, the festival was a melting pot

I was very excited to be going back to Beirut, a city I used to visit quite often in the late 1970s while I was living in Kuwait and editing an Arabic women’s magazine. Beirut was the nearest place where trees grew naturally, booze was served in restaurants and the heavy hand of Sharia law was mercifully absent. Today, the trees still grow and the spirit of freedom still thrives, but large chunks of the city have been destroyed by bombs and bullet holes still pock-mark many buildings in the centre. The civil war may be long over, but the threat of violence hangs heavily over the Lebanon, as the Syrian situation escalates and spreads across the region. The distance from down town Beirut to Damascus is a mere 50 miles, almost 1 million refugees are massing on the borders and in the south Hezbollah holds power. Small wonder then, that our new Ambassador, Tom Fletcher (at 37 the youngest British Ambassador ever) says that it is only 50/50 that the country will be stable enough in 2014 for the Hay festival  to take place.

It would be a huge loss, I believe. Over the three days of the festival last week, Arabs of all  persuasions and nationalities were able to meet up, talk, argue and debate, learning through conversation that everyone wants to achieve a peaceful solution to the nightmares currently ripping through the Middle East. Journalists from Egypt and Libya joined Tom Fletcher to discuss how a country moved from dictatorship to democracy, a debate sponsored by Google and chaired by Samir Elbahaie, himself an Egyptian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Freedom of speech  - for instance, how much should we allow religion the protections afforded to minorities – was hotly argued by Helena Kennedy and Fawaz Traboulsi. Young novelists such as Samah Al Shaik, travelled from Gaza to join in the discussions, leading established novelist, Hannah Al-Shaykh, to say how thrilled she was to be able to be-friend and help their careers. In true Beirut style, the festival was a melting pot where people could explore their ideas in safety. No where is this more needed than in the Middle East today.

I interviewed the brilliant cook entrepreneur Kamal  Mouzawak, owner of the Tawlet restaurant and brains behind Beirut’s farmers market. Kamal works with over 100 small producers in the countryside, enabling them to cut out the middle men and sell direct to the public. Several of the farmers turned up at our talk and joined in – explaining how the farmer’s market had transformed their lives. One man had 400 bee-hives (just try the cedar honey), another grew 7 different kinds of pears. Kamal, like me, is a great believer in the power of food to unite communities. He works in the camps encouraging women to use their culinary skills to set up take-aways. Every day in Tawlet, a different cook sets the menu. “Food is the essence of a culture – refugees can’t take anything with them, but they can take their cooking. Think of pizza and pasta – Italy is now everywhere!”.

Shereen El Feki, author of the hugely controversial Sex and the Citadel, gave two talks at the festival and also addressed a group of university students at the AUB. Shireen’s book is currently banned in some Arab countries as the issues it raises – how the sexual repression of Muslim women has not always been the norm  - clearly frightens those who would wish to see women playing no role in public life. But as Hannah Al-Shaikh makes clear in her dynamic up-dating of One Thousand and One Nights, once upon a time, women’s sexuality was fully embraced in Arab society. Certainly, in Syria before the war, crazily over-the-top underwear was on sale in  Damascus shops. Rana Salam, who Kamal describes as ‘the Andy Warhol of Beirut’  has written The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie and over lunch in Tawlet, she gave me a copy. Lingerie made out of coffee flavoured materials, pour of feathers and furs. Bras that play music and pants that conceal telephones.  As Rana says in her introduction to the book, “the engagement of the arts acts as a prism onto a place at a time when so much of the writing about the Arab world repeats the weary rhetoric of war.”

Thankfully, the Hay Festival provides space for all.