Sara Sehnaoui, who conceived the idea behind Dawawine three years ago, sits on a vintage armchair opposite Abed Kobeissy, a musicologist and musician also involved in the project. ‘There is no specialised library in Lebanon, it doesn’t exist,’ he says. ‘Specialist books can only be found inside campuses that are accessible to those studying in university. There are public libraries in Lebanon and though they are doing a wonderful job, they’re only general. This is a completely public space, essentially what a state-funded library should be.’
After studying performing arts in Paris, Sehnaoui moved back to Beirut and set up her own publishing company, Amers Editions. As a publisher and author herself, she knew only too well the inaccessibility of ‘serious, academic literature’ on the field of theatre and other arts in Lebanon. ‘The idea was to build a place where the four domains – cinema, dance, music and theatre – would be joined,’ Sehnaoui says, her knees tucked towards her in the armchair, brushing her unruly hair from her eyes. Here, the bookshelves are full of texts that would otherwise be impossible to find in Lebanon, from Susan Manning’s ‘Ecstasy and the Demon’, on pioneering German dancer Mary Wigman, to ‘Kino-Eye’, writings by an innovator of Soviet cinema, Dziga Vertov.
Sehnaoui first envisioned Dawawine before she became friends with Kobeissy and video director Rami El Sabbagh, who now handles the project’s film department. But it wasn’t until the three became close that the idea began to take form. ‘While Dawawine was being built I knew that roles needed to be filled by people, but I had no idea who,’ Sehnaoui says. ‘I was actually scared of talking to anybody because as soon as you put the word out, a million possibilities open.’
Together, Sehnaoui, Kobeissy and El Sabbagh represent the three cultural branches at Dawawine. Kobeissy is deeply involved in the local music scene. As a musician he has many faces, from tanbur player in a contemporary classical Arabic group, Asil Ensemble, to buzuq player in contemporary Arabic sextet, The Great Departed. Although they’ve only been around for a year, they’re already making ripples in the local music scene.
It’s Kobeissy’s academic approach to music, however, that gives his section of Dawawine its depth. He’s currently working on a thesis that explores a semiotic study of contemporary Arabic music, and the future of traditional music in the region. He’s well-versed in the Middle East’s musical heritage, and committed to helping it evolve into a modern form.
Similarly, El Sabbagh also brings his intellectual pursuits to the Dawawine table. A former audio-visual student, El Sabbagh has spent the last few years delving deep into the history and theory of cinema. His love affair with the medium drives the library’s film selection. Each three-month film cycle is dedicated to a specific, though certainly not predictable, theme. ‘His focus is usually not on a subject or a narrative aspect, but on the aesthetical, plasticity and linguistics of cinema,’ Sehnaoui explains.
Since Dawawine opened, the screenings have varied from a focus on films that feature an angelic intervention – both literal and symbolic – to video art and video reactions to theatre, curated in collaboration with two Italian artists. Currently showing is a collection of films that look at the aesthetics of cinema’s early days, as seen through the lens of modern cinematographers, from David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ to Kenneth Anger’s ‘Lucifer Rising’. One thing appears obvious; the entire process is a collective one. Every idea is discussed, unravelled and put back together again.
At the front desk, El Sabbagh answers a visitor’s question about Dawawine’s inclusion of Arab films. He’s insistent that Middle Eastern cinema shouldn’t be separated or celebrated by region and identity alone. ‘I really dislike all these Arab film-themed cycles. If a film from the region fits with one of our themes and it’s of quality, then we will include it.’
The theatre itself, with its curtained door jutting out between the bookshelves, has something of a blue cinema feel – its concealed entrance makes it seem like an intentional secret. Inside though, the private 32-seat screening experience is, as Sehnaoui puts it ‘the dream of a filmmaker.’ The elaborate speaker system and cinema room were designed by 21dB, the Middle Eastern representatives of Italian audio design company Architettura Sonora, who created near perfect acoustics.
Sehnaoui expresses exasperation at the saturation of cultural events in the city. She tips back her head, hands clasped together. ‘It’s not easy to live in a community where the event is so important,’ she sighs. ‘It’s very difficult and tiring in fact.’ Wanting to escape the schedule-driven event focus of Beirut’s cultural spaces, Sehnaoui’s vision for Dawawine is to provide a space that just quietly continues. ‘If you believe that the event is really important and that on that date something really happens, then okay. But if you believe there is not so much happening…’ she drifts off, ‘Personally I think we need projects that stay for a long time without this starting point, end point and conclusion. Here, I hope that it sits, it stays.’
The trio prefer to keep Dawawine an event-free space, but they are aware of the need to remind people of their existence. And so they host occasional hand-picked projects, such as an impromptu screening of Darina Al Joundi’s play ‘The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing’, presented by the Lebanese actress herself, and a one-off performance from Italian composer and sound artist Lorenzo Brusci – cofounder of Architettura Sonora. There have been book signings too, of course, including Sehnaoui’s own short, personal text ‘Les Histoires Sont Toutes Finalement Assez Banales’.
‘The movement of books across the city is not easy. When I was a student in Europe I bought, borrowed, even stole books,’ Sehnaoui laughs. Finding ‘good essays and studies about music and dance in Arabic’ however, is ‘incredibly tough’. The distribution of books on Dawawine’s shelves is heavily weighted towards French at the moment. So far, the non-profit space has been built and run on private donations. If more funding can be secured in the future, they hope to expand their permanent book collection.
‘I don’t know what it is that makes society so open to books,’ Sehnaoui says. ‘They usually circulate so easily across a city and I know that’s how it’s supposed to be here, it’s Beirut!’ She continues with the romanticism of a booklover, ‘Once we get the books here, we hope that’s only 20 percent of their journey.’
This article appears in issue44 Buy Now