J.D. Harlock is a Lebanese Palestinian Syrian writer and editor. He is one of six young writers chosen from Beirut, Lebanon to collaborate with writers and spoken word artists in Coventry, UK as part of the Coventry City of Culture Trust Youthful Cities Programme.
We spoke to J.D. about the process of a literary exchange in a period of local and global challenges, the work that was created, and how he continues to be involved in the Coventry City of Culture through the Global Youth Series steering group.
What is the Youthful Cities Programme and what did being involved mean to you?
The Youthful Cities Programme is a cultural exchange initiative between Coventry (UK’s 2021 City of Culture) and four international cities— Beirut, gratefully, being one of them. Young adults from these cities, aged 18-25 years, were asked to respond artistically to pressing issues they were facing, culminating in the creation of four new artworks and an event that brought together the ideas and innovations from these exchanges to the ‘BBC Contains Strong Language Festival’ and a digital three-day Global Youth Summit in Coventry.
My acceptance into the Youthful Cities Programme in 2021 was a silver lining amidst an otherwise difficult period. 2020 will, no doubt, go down as one of the worst years in Lebanon’s infamously turbulent history. Not only did the country witness one of the worst financial crashes since the 19th century, the explosion at Beirut port – one of the most powerful artificial non-nuclear explosions in history – left half the capital in ruins and the entire nation in tears. That is why, as 2021 rolled around, few, if any of us, expected the situation to change, and I, for the first time in my life, was feeling the same when the opportunity to collaborate with artists from Coventry came along.
How did it feel to be a part of this initiative?
Initially, the prospect of working with six British writers from Coventry alongside a team of five other Lebanese writers from Beirut was daunting, not merely due to the situation in Lebanon, but because I had never been a part of a project of this scope, size, and gravitas. Those worries, however, were soon put to rest when I finally had the chance to meet my collaborators, who, much to my joy, I realized I had more in common with than I was expecting— a minor miracle considering the wonderful diversity on display there.
What were the challenges the Beirut team faced during the project?
No sooner did we all meet for the first time than the challenges of this international collaboration became clear. Besides the pandemic preventing the Beirut team from meeting amongst ourselves for the first few months, it also led to the cancellation of our trip to the UK that would’ve seen us perform on stage alongside our collaborators. Adding to our woes was the Lebanese oil and electricity crisis. Power outages and internet cuts were all too common, and team members were stranded in both virtual and literal darkness, as the cost of keeping our generators running became far too much for many of us to handle. That’s not to mention the extended lockdowns, food and medicine shortages, and inflammatory inflation rates that had us hoarding US dollars and begging anyone to take the local currency out of our wallets and bank accounts.
What was it like working in a cross-cultural team? Were there any creative differences?
A number of cultural and philosophical differences between the Beirut and British teams came to the fore, and led to quite a few sessions that left us drained and weary of our prospects. Where the Beirut team felt it necessary to stage a meticulously scripted performance, the Coventry team preferred that we figure out what we wanted to present improvisationally in a series of rehearsals that we could only participate in through online conference calls. Prior to the cancellation of our trips, we were encouraged to integrate video in some form into the performance, and much to our chagrin, we succumbed to a self-inflicted pressure to perform from Lebanon through a mixture of live online calls and pre-recorded segments— the former being a nightmarish prospect when you take into account that before the crisis Lebanon had one of the slowest internet speeds in the world, and the state-run broadband internet provider was now bankrupt and in no way trying hide it.
Though few dared to say it, we all knew that if we were to continue like this, nothing would come of our collaboration, and the months we had poured our hearts and souls were to leave us with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy. There was no doubt that things had to change, and as we came to accept the situation for what it really was, we, as all collaborators should, found a compromise that allowed us to proceed. We agreed that the Beirut team was to produce a short film to complement Coventry’s solo performance. Not everyone was pleased with this approach of course, it came to a vote that was won by one marginal ballot, but there is no doubt that it is at this point, with only a month left, that the bulk of our work was completed, and we not only managed to come together and meet our deadline but put on a performance that we were all proud to call our own.
Having never been a part of a diverse team of international creatives before, the true value of this kind of collaboration wasn’t immediately apparent to me. It was only made clear when I, as a member of the audience, watched our hard-earned performance with wonder, in awe of a depth and complexity that could only come from artists whose underrepresented voices in unison had yet to be heard before on a world stage. For though I will always be proud of what came of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, what I really took away from this journey was an experience that opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities a world that embraces our differences will offer us.
What has been your main takeaway from this experience?
If there is one thing I’ve learned from this experience, and I’ve really taken this to heart, is that a willingness to compromise is integral to the success of a cross-cultural project. But more importantly, I urge anyone in this position to not settle on one form of compromise and instead try to find new ways in which to find common ground. More often than not failing to compromise is a consequence of not finding the right common ground, as opposed to one not existing at all.