Interview with Warren Singh-Bartlett, author of “Getting Lost in Lebanon”
You came to Lebanon for a three-day stay in the ’90s; and you’re still here! Tell us about your journey.
How long do you have? Lebanon and I have a love at first sight kind of relationship. Well, maybe at second sight. My first impressions, formed during the cab ride between Masnaa and Aley were not terribly fond. It was a cold, rainy day in March, when I arrived. I was in a shared taxi coming from Damascus. My intention was to see Beirut, Byblos and Ba’albak and then return to Syria and make my way overland to China. It rained torrentially from the moment I crossed the Lebanese border, all the way across the Beka’a and up to Dahr al-Baidar. The clouds were low, so I couldn’t see the mountains or any views. It was freezing cold and everywhere I looked, there were tanks, mukhabarat, soldiers and ruined buildings. Lebanon looked awful, really uninviting. I was considering staying in the cab and going straight back to Damascus. Then, around Sawfar, the rain abruptly stopped. It was like someone had turned off a tap. A small gap appeared in the clouds and a beam of sunlight shone down, illuminating Beirut beneath us. The city, wet from the rain, glittered and glimmered with a golden light and the Mediterranean turned silver. At that moment, my heart stopped and I was lost.
Your Lebanese chronicles were first destined for Instagram. What made you want to turn them into a book?
Honestly, I didn’t even think about it at first. I’ve always viewed myself as a writer, rather than a photographer and I began initially to Instagram as a way to keep a record of my own meanderings. Then, as I slowly got more followers, conversations that resulted from my posts began on and offline. Then sometime towards the end of last year, a couple of my followers mentioned that they’d like to see the posts in book form and was I thinking about producing one? I spoke to you at Tamyras and now here we are today.
Instagram is more of a visual media. How did you come to add texts to the photos, and why?
I am a writer, not a photographer, so that part came naturally. Also, I don’t post about my life, my lifestyle or anything like that. I post about places and people that interest me, for some reason, many of which have a story of their own and so I thought that it would be fun to experiment with what is known as micro story-telling. I’m not alone in this. There are quite a few other Instagrammers who do the same.
Which Lebanese sites are still on your bucket list?
I’ve poked about pretty thoroughly during the 19 years I’ve been here but there’s always plenty to discover. I’d say that Qornet al-Sawda, the hike to the top of Jabal al-Sheikh, Seth’s tomb in Nabi Sheeth and the further reaches of the eastern Beka’a are places I’d still like to visit and get to know better.
Which one(s) of the sites you visited would you recommend the most?
Oh God, that’s an impossible question to answer. Everywhere is interesting in its own right and it depends what interests you most but perhaps the stretch of the country between Wadi Jahannam and Sahel al-Qammoua. It’s beautiful, mostly unspoiled and an absolutely magical part of the country to walk through.
Which one of your stories is the most personal? The most fun to experience/write about?
Ha! The most personal stories I don’t publish on Instagram, as I have no desire to drive my followers away and I enjoy everything I post, otherwise I wouldn’t post about it to begin with — so in that sense, you could say that my selection of subjects is very personal. But most recently, I’d say that I had a great deal of fun doing the series of snowy posts I took in al-Arz back in February — snowshoeing into the Cedars after a heavy fall was magical, as we had the entire place to ourselves.
You have a knack for history, particularly that of Lebanon. How did you acquire all this knowledge?
I’m a journalist and writer, so I was born curious. I’ve always loved history, an underrated subject that’s often badly taught, or thought of as just dates and names of dead people, when it’s actually the study of the way we lived and often, of the way we still do. History, especially in this part of the world, is anything but dead. Lebanon has a long, rich and complex history and so naturally, this aspect of the country captured my attention. I’ve learned by reading a lot, browsing endless websites and by talking to people. I’ve got a bit of a magpie mind for curiosities and so I tend to remember the odd things that I read or hear, like Sidon’s role in the downfall of the Knights Templar, for example, or why there’s a neighbourhood in Beirut called the ‘Greek Fridge’.
Which existing book about Lebanon would you have wanted to write yourself?
Nice question. I can’t say that I’ve read them all and most of what I have read has been in English, but I’d say it’s a toss-up between Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids and Samir Kassir’s Beirut.