Zeina Arida: 'Maybe for us in Lebanon, the coronavirus is less of a shock'

The director of Sursock Museum on how Lebanon’s artistic community has been fighting challenges to stay relevant since the 1970s

Zeina Arida was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France in 2019. Zeina Arida 
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Like millions of people worldwide, Zeina Arida is self-isolating at home amid the coronavirus pandemic. Home for her is the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where she has spent the past few weeks indoors as part of the largest quarantine in human history.  

As director of Sursock Museum – a modern and contemporary art museum in the centre of Beirut, which first opened in 1961 – Arida has been at the forefront of her country’s cultural and arts scene for more than two decades.

Since Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990, advocates of arts and culture have often found it hard to get their voices heard amid the chaos – and today’s global pandemic has only added to their concerns.

“Maybe we have had a preparatory phase since October 17,” says Arida, referring to the eruption of mass anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon last year, which brought the nation to a near standstill, but have now fizzled out amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Maybe for us in Lebanon, the coronavirus is less of a shock than for other people in the world because we had already changed our way of life,” she says.

Before the worldwide shutdown, Lebanon’s cultural sphere was already on shaky ground. For example, earlier this year, Beirut’s Metropolis Empire Sofil cinema was forced to close down. As the home of art-house movies, the two-screen theatre had hosted screenings, festivals and events for more than a decade.

A statement on its website, dated Tuesday, January 21, laments “the difficult economic situation” and says that in “light of the ongoing popular uprising in Lebanon, we are inspired to re-evaluate our priorities and rethink our working structure”.

For cultural stalwart Arida, the closure of Metropolis was a bitter pill to swallow. “In September, Sursock hosted a fundraiser for Metropolis because they were facing difficult financial issues,” says Arida, who herself has been forced to close the Sursock Museum’s doors due to the Covid-19 crisis.

'Paralysed' by the uprisings

Lebanon’s fraught political situation, arising from such incidents as the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the simmering military standoff between Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Israel, has made this Mediterranean coastal state one of the most volatile countries in the region.

Arida says that popular protests against government corruption and the country’s dire economic situation “only accelerated what was going to happen”.

Having made her name as director of Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation from 1997-2014, Arida is well placed to speak on Lebanon’s cultural wellbeing.

She says while Sursock became “paralysed” following the mass uprisings, it was simply a response to a political and economic crisis that started long before the protests began.

But as she works from her Beirut home, now amid an international health crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide, Arida continues to plan Sursock’s future, even if the future of Lebanon remains uncertain.

A history in the art world 

Born in Beirut in 1970, Arida is no stranger to the ups and downs of her homeland. In 1983, then a teenager, she left for Paris as the 15-year civil war raged on in Lebanon with impunity. In France, she read literature and theatre at the Sorbonne University and returned to her birthplace, post-war in 1993. Lebanon was then rebuilding its political, economic and structural foundations from the smouldering ashes of a long conflict.

Financially this coronavirus global pandemic is going to make things even harder

Stints with Unesco, the French Cultural Centre and the French Embassy led her to a fledgling organisation, the founders of which were looking for someone to set up an office. In November 1997, Arida took the reins of the non-profit Arab Image Foundation – which today hosts a 500,000-strong photo archive, dating back to the 1860s, from much of the Middle East and its diaspora – and she has not looked back since.

She assumed the directorship of Sursock, housed in an ornate Beirut mansion dating from 1912, right as the museum prepared to reopen after several years in the wilderness.

Zeina Arida during the opening of the Pablo Picasso show at Sursock Museum in September 2019. Zeina Arida

In 2008, it had closed for a major renovation project worth $15 million (Dh55.1m), which expanded the building’s total surface area by five times. “I was hired to prepare for the [2015] reopening,” she says. “I was hired with the opportunity to rethink the whole museum.”

Under her stewardship, the museum welcomed 80,000 visitors in 2019. And last autumn, Sursock hosted Lebanon’s first exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso – titled Picasso et la famille – which ran until January.

While the world remains in lockdown, a host of museums and galleries have set up digital retrospectives. Arida, too, is keen to highlight Sursock’s recently released virtual tour of one its exhibitions, Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity.

Yet, she remains concerned for the country’s cultural future. Arida says while Lebanon is in constant flux, owing to politics and now this virus, it is hard to be hopeful.

“It will be even more fragile and just another struggle,” she says of Lebanon’s arts sector, once the virus has died out and the country tries to adapt to a post-Covid-19 world. “Because financially this coronavirus global pandemic is going to make things even harder,” she says.

Even so, if anyone in Lebanon will fight tooth and nail for the art community, it is Arida. Early last year, she was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government – Lebanon’s one-time colonial master. The order is in recognition of Arida’s distinguished career spent promoting her country’s cultural history – something she intends to continue doing, not least in the difficult months ahead.

“As art and cultural institutions, we do reflect on our contemporary times – otherwise you become irrelevant” she says. “In that sense Covid-19 will definitely change a lot of our work.”