“Zeibekiko in Beirut”: A Haunting Dance for Lebanon’s Greeks
A lone dancer expresses his pain against a backdrop of destruction with a melancholy bouzouki providing the haunting sounds that reflect broken dreams, torn ties and feelings of loss.
The man, dressed in black shirt and trousers, is performing the Zeibekiko — improvised steps of what’s also known as the “eagle dance” — surrounded by shattered glass, splintered wood, ripped open walls, mangled wires, see-through window frames and furniture scattered all over an apartment.
“Zeibekiko has no rules, like Beirut; it has no rhythm, exactly like life in Lebanon,” explains George Eid, the producer of a short documentary which he narrates, adding “at one point you’re way up high, and then they floor you.”
“Zeibekiko in Beirut’s” dancer is no Zorba (Anthony Quinn) in the black and white Hollywood classic calling on a young Alan Bates to join him in a festive Sirtaki on a Greek island beach at the end of that iconic movie.
This dancer is a member of Lebanon’s dwindling Greek community lamenting the devastation of Beirut’s Greek Club and the lives and livelihoods of his compatriots following a cataclysmic explosion at the city’s port on August 4 that obliterated almost half the Lebanese capital, left more than 200 dead, and hundreds of thousands wounded, homeless, jobless and broke.
The club, in a neighborhood severely damaged by the port blast, had been a favorite meeting place for Lebanon’s Greeks for decades. They had enjoyed gathering for meals, cultural activities, celebrations and dancing to their favorite tunes.
Its interior was decorated with typical Greek artifacts, notably religious icons, blown glass wall hangings, hand painted plates and scenes of Greek landscapes.
“What do I remember here? We used to come to this place every Sunday with my father, I spent my childhood years here, I learned the Sirtaki dance here 30 or 40 years ago, I don’t remember,” said Ariane Kotchabachi as she surveyed the destruction. “I can’t believe it; what can I say? I remember my father, I remember the scouts troupe.”
She said the club was established in that location overlooking the port because many Greeks lived in the area.
Their children took the bus from the nearby Achrafieh and Mar Mikhael neigborhoods to the Greek community school.
But these areas are no longer home to many Greeks, she added. “Most of them left in 1986 and the following years.”
That was during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that, technically, ended in 1990. But the conflict continues in more ways than one as religious and political factions seem hell-bent on ripping up what’s left of the country’s standing institutions, albeit not in all-out armed battles.
Eid is also part of that shrinking Greek group. His maternal grandfather and grandmother were from Smyrna (Izmir) and Adana, respectively, in what today is Turkey. They had to leave historic Asia Minor (as it was known back then).
“Both were chased out of their homeland,” Eid said.
They joined countless other refugees from Turkey, Armenia and modern-day Iraq who escaped persecution at the turn of the 20th century when Ottoman Turks pushed out or massacred Christian minorities that included Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians.
They settled and thrived in Lebanon, became active citizens, but always maintained a link with their Greek homeland and culture.
The Zeibekiko dancer twirls in the club’s rubble while a drone flies above the cityscape to film the extent of destruction and a camera pans across blood-splattered doors and walls inside Annoula Armao’s apartment.
“I lost my eye,” she said, visibly shaken about the explosion’s impact on her bandaged right eye. “I lost my eye that I relied on for work.”
Asked why she’d stayed alone in her modest home when her siblings lived abroad, Armao said it was because she loved Lebanon a lot.
“It was one of the most beautiful countries in the world but the situation has become catastrophic,” Armao said. “I don’t think life will go back to what it was.”
The drone flies through more destruction and its camera shoots footage of the crumbled grain silos near where the port blast occurred while the juxtaposed Zeibekiko dancer expresses more grief.
Ariane Kotchabachi remembers the Greek scouts organization, community school, and youth and children’s associations that no longer exist. The only physical gathering place was the club.
Armao said she was scared because life wasn’t normal anymore, there was no peace of mind, that she’d sleep not knowing if she’d wake up, and not knowing what will happen in Lebanon.
“A large number of Greeks are trying to leave Lebanon but they don’t have identity papers,” she said of the requisite documents to prove they’re of Greek descent and urged the Greek government to help them. “They want to leave with their children and families but face difficulties.”
Walking amid the club’s debris speaking fluent Greek, Eid said he’d worked for a decade on preserving Greek heritage despite difficulties in Lebanon.
He produced an earlier must-see documentary “Kalimera Men Beirut” (a mixture of Greek and Arabic words meaning “Good Morning from Beirut”) to preserve the memory of Greeks and their history in Lebanon and founded an association that organized the country’s first Greek festival.
His aim was to boost the Greek presence in Lebanon and familiarize his children with that culture.
“But since 2017, all the landmarks I featured in my first documentary have disappeared,” he said. “The houses and streets changed after the Beirut port explosion; I don’t know what awaits us now. Do we start over?”
The dancer twirls in pain as Armao and Kotchabachi also wonder if they should stay or leave.
“My grandfather told me years ago we had to smash plates at the end of the Zeibekiko dance and at the end of every year for a new clean year to be born, free of pain, bad luck and the burdens of the previous year,” Eid recounted. “I hope after all the destruction and damage that befell Beirut following the catastrophic blast, a new Lebanon emerges, but I hope we’ll be here to witness its birth.”
Eid’s bittersweet film was a farewell gift to Lebanon as he left the land he no longer felt represented him or could protect him and his family. He’d left once before but returned to head news operations at a local TV channel.
“I am disappointed by the country and the people, at least most of them; they elected the worst people and now we are all paying for that,” Eid told me.
Eid was referring to the economic/financial meltdown in Lebanon, a dysfunctional government, rampant corruption, total mismanagement of all crises, a spike in coronavirus cases and inability to deal with it, collapse of basic services, stratospheric food and medicine prices, sharply rising unemployment rolls and steep increase in poverty levels.
“I will continue exposing the corruption of the scum politicians we have from wherever I am,” he said. “Unfortunately, Lebanon in its current formula is not sustainable.”
His departure was for a new job in the United Arab Emirates but he plans to settle in Greece for good in a few years.