The Daily Star: The history of Lebanon though the television screen.


Joseph Haboush: “Television has lost its magic and I am trying to bring back this magic – this is my aim,” said Zaven Kouyoumdjian, a popular TV presenter and the author of a new book on the history of Lebanon through iconic cultural moments as seen on screen. Kouyoumdjian, better known as Zaven, recently published “Lebanon on Screen: The Greatest Moments of Lebanese Television and Pop Culture.”

The 400-plus page book is his most recent piece dealing with documenting Lebanese collective memories that are, until now, undocumented in a single volume.

“I am continuing this mission, my calling, to preserve these collective memories through Lebanese TV ... which was the creator of the Lebanese dream not only here, but across the Arab world,” Zaven told The Daily Star in a recent interview.

Following six years of research that involved watching thousands of hours of archived Lebanese TV and interviews, Zaven released his fourth book to date. What started out as part of his doctoral program quickly became his own story.

“I dropped my Ph.D. and focused on this book because as I was looking for credentials and references [to support my thesis], the few I could find were about me and my work. ... The only international references on Lebanese TV, I found, were on the post-9/11 era dealing with the Gulf and Arab world,” he said.

The popular TV show host realized that there was nothing to unite the Lebanese community other than pop culture, and “Lebanese TV shaped the society and created a common identity.”

Zaven said that if someone wanted to study TV globally, they would find information on France, U.S., London, Brazil and even Israel, but not on Lebanon.

He published his first version in Arabic, “God Bless Your Evening: The Greatest 100 Moments that Shaped Lebanese Television,” in 2015. “I realized that if it was not in English, no one would hear about Lebanese TV and I wanted Lebanese TV to be on the international map,” he said.

The book was rewritten, but Zaven said he wasn’t happy with the result. “I tore it up and, with help, we rewrote the book thinking in English.”

When asked what his definition of pop culture was, Zaven said it was everything related to entertainment, TV, music, film and the spirit of the moment.

“In Lebanon and in the Arab world, we glorify the past ... at the expense of today,” he said, citing singers Fairuz and Umm Kulthum or poet Gebran Khalil Gebran as still living in the minds of many today as the pinnacle of Arabic culture.

Zaven was named one of Newsweek Magazine’s 43 most influential people in the Arab World in 2005 after he famously said, “The problem of the Arab world is that we talk about the past or what is in the future and forget about the present. This is why we are not happy.”

In an attempt to preserve the past and show readers what made Lebanese culture what it is today, the English version chronicled 160 moments, a step up from the Arabic version’s 100.

In order to determine which events made the list, Zaven said each item was put through strict, objective criteria. “I checked to see how much the moment influenced TV or society, how much of a pioneering event it was and how much it was reflective of the age,” he said.

The English version includes historical and social context to help explain the moments included.

“I wanted our TV to be on the map, but it was also a chance to give something to Lebanese expats who are connected to Lebanon through TV since it represents nostalgia and Lebanon for them,” Zaven said.

Speaking of the difference between Lebanese pop culture and the rest of the world, Zaven cited Lebanon’s relatively recent formation in 1943 when provinces and regions that were not connected were brought together.

“We need one identity to bring all these communities together to make Lebanese sleep on the same bedtime stories and have the same bedtime heroes,” he said.

He added that the in the middle of that tapestry of different heroes and stories Lebanese TV came along and a created that missing common denominator. “This is when the Lebanese dream was created in the Middle East, which was freedom, liberty, diversity and coexistence. These values shaped the Lebanese image and Lebanon itself.”

The book starts in 1959, the so-called Golden Age, during Lebanon’s first TV broadcast, and ends with the wartime stories in 1990.

TV always tried to show the better image even during the bloody, sectarian conflicts, he said.

Perhaps one of the most confusing moments for Zaven was during the 1982 World Cup and the Israeli invasion of Beirut.

“We were the first Arab capital to be invaded by Israel, the Sabra and Shatila massacres occurred, [Bachir Gemayel] was assassinated and we were broadcasting the World Cup,” Zaven said.

He recalls the image of people hooking up their 9-inch TV sets to their car batteries and watching football games while the country was under siege.

When asked how he felt about the moment, Zaven said, “Lebanese society was so frustrated that it needed something to ease and distract peoples’ minds.”

“It’s a dilemma, so would you mobilize society for a war or would you distract people and show the World Cup?” he asked.

Turning to the current situation of TV in Lebanon, Zaven said that it was unfortunately in a stage of self-destruction.

Although he admitted, “I have 15 years of war in my book, where TV was a mouthpiece for militias, so I’ve seen worse than what is happening today.”

He said he was against political money in the networks, but said it was no longer being used on media leaving “Lebanese TV thinking small and just trying to survive.”

“I talk about [TV series] Abou Melhem, the Sursock [family’s involvement in TV] and others which taught us the civic values instead of them being religious, and my students don’t know what I am talking about. ... The book turned out to be the history of Lebanon through television because even here, you are not taught the history of Lebanon,” Zaven said.

Sponsors such as the U.S. Embassy and the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts were brought in to make the book affordable for all, including students.

“The beauty of this book and something that puts a big burden on my shoulders is that Lebanese TV will be remembered through it.”