LONDON: This year has proved one of monumental milestones for Ziad Doueiri. In March, the controversial Lebanese filmmaker made history as the first director to represent his country at the Academy Awards, with fourth picture “The Insult” (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). Now, May marks the 20th anniversary of Doueiri’s game-changing debut “West Beirut”, which won the François Chalais Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and was soon after hailed as the first Arabic-language film to enjoy a worldwide release. If Middle Eastern filmmaking has enjoyed a creative renaissance in the 21st century, then “West Beirut” helped pave the way.
With sad inevitability, it was the subject of war which unlocked international cinema screens. But while Doueiri cut his teeth serving on first assistant camera for “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” there is none of Quentin Tarantino’s sensationalist gore in his autobiographical Lebanese Civil War drama.
Despite reservations, the director’s younger brother Rami Doueiri was cast as the film’s Truffaut-esque Tarek, a goofy, anti-authoritarian, middle-class teenager who we first encounter disrupting the French national anthem in the schoolyard. Following the catastrophic bus massacre of April 1975 — viscerally evoked to a soundtrack of legendary Lebanese diva Fayrouz — the city is carved in two. Military checkpoints prevent Tarek from ever again making the journey from his home in Muslim West Beirut to that snobby, post-colonial school in the Christian East.
For Tarek and friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), it’s initially a lark: These hormone-charged, flare-wearing teens use the free time to dig for disco LPs, spy on girls, eat falafel, shoot Super 8 films and befriend a sultry Christian neighbor (Rola Al Amin), while gunshots, snipers and underground shelters punctuate life after dark.
Politics are never far from the frame — “Since when has the West understood the East?” asks Tarek’s lovable father with weary pathos — but, at its core, “West Beirut” is a charming, almost-nostalgic, coming-of-age tale, told with a sharp comedic edge and a native’s feel for the thrum of the streets.
In perhaps the most telling scene, the morning after a violent bout of nocturnal shelling enterprising locals peddle replacement glass windows. The message of resilience is clear: with or without war, people grow up, grow old, fall in and out of love — the human tragedy, and joy, of life continues.
DUBAI: Dubai Vegan Days held its latest event — an Indonesian plant-based brunch — at the city’s Rove Healthcare City hotel on July 6. Zendy Marsam, an experienced vegan chef of Indonesian heritage, created the menu, which — on the main course platter, following the salad buffet appetizer — included her flavorsome signature vegan rendang, an excellent banana-blossom curry, spiced tempeh, an inviting Balinese satay, a baked Javanese corn cake, and a delicious serundeng (a mix of peanut and spiced coconut floss). The only real let-down was the yellow rice cone that formed the centerpiece of the platter — which was undercooked and clumpy.
The dessert platter held a sumptuous tropical fruit gelato (created by Vegan Artiserie) and a bubur ketan hitam (a black-rice pudding with passion fruit, mango and coconut-pandan sauce).
For those looking to work up an appetite ahead of the brunch, there was a free 30-minute neuropilates class included in the $27 price per head.
This was a fairly typical example of a Dubai Vegan Days event, according to founder Ananda Shakespeare, who launched the initiative around 18 months ago as a pop-up “just to bring the community together.” Many of the events since have taken place at Rove Healthcare City — its funky, rustic space is a great setting for a community event — but Shakespeare has also taken her project to other locations in the city, including a sunset event at Dubai Herbal & Treatment Center, as well as various restaurants (usually around the time they launch a vegan menu).
“It’s not really run to make money,” Shakespeare explained. “The philosophy behind it is more just talking about veganism and encouraging people to come along and try it.
“I thought I was the only vegan in Dubai,” she continued. “I didn’t realize there was this whole movement happening over here and it was becoming so popular. I joined a vegan meet-up and realized there were other vegans around, and now I’ve made loads of vegan friends. We’ll meet up for barbeques and pool parties. It’s great.”
Veganism is becoming increasingly popular globally, and the UAE, it seems, is no exception. The Indonesian brunch had a crowd of around 50 when we attended, in an 80-seater restaurant, and with two hours still to run by the time we left.
“None of it’s new,” said Shakespeare. “I’m 45 years old and I’ve never eaten meat, fish or eggs. My parents were vegetarian and vegan 50 years ago. So it’s not new to me, but there’s definitely a movement that makes it very of-the-moment right now, and that’s probably because of celebrities endorsing it. But we’ve known these things for ages: We know they’re cutting down rainforests just to raise cattle for the meat that we want to eat. We know about battery farms. We know about fish farming. It’s crazy. It’s not a sustainable way to live.”
There are, she believes, three main reasons (apart from celebrity endorsements) that people turn to veganism.
“It’s either for health, for the environment, or for animals,” she said. “I’m an environmental activist. I’ve started two environmental charities in the UK. So, if anything, I’m vegan from an environmental standpoint. I do think it’s good for your health to not consume dairy or meat or fish too. I believe fish are just in the dustbin of our world — the oceans. I think animal cruelty is probably the biggest reason that people turn vegan. That’s the power of films like ‘Forks Over Knives,’ that have really opened people’s eyes.”
She stressed, too, that Dubai Vegan Days isn’t just for vegans: “I don’t consider myself very militant about it. I really welcome non-vegans along. People who just want to try it. There’s room for everyone. It’s not nice to have a them-and-us mentality.”
She is aware, however, that just as veganism is growing in popularity globally, it is also attracting a lot of negative attention.
“There’s a lot of vegan hatred. You see it everywhere,” she said. “For years, I told people I was vegetarian, I didn’t say I was vegan because people see it as so extreme and they don’t understand it. I think maybe people feel like you’re judging them by what’s on your plate. The truth is, they know they’re eating an animal that’s been killed for them. And that’s hard to cope with, I think, so they’ll attack you and put you down. But if you break down most of the arguments, they’re not very logical.”