Photograph: Soniya Karpalani / British Council

Getting off the airport in Beirut, walking into a slew of army fatigues, is a painful reminder of a city in conflict. War and wariness lurks around every street corner of this picturesque nation. But it hasn’t diminished Beirut’s natural scenic beauty, from the mountains to the azure shoreline.

This was my first visit to attend the Cultural Leadership International (CLI) Development Days – the training and networking meeting for the Middle East and North Africa winners of the Cultural Leadership Award, a programme organised by the British Council.

I couldn’t resist taking a self exploratory journey. With no addresses, no maps and most rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and French, I took my granddad’s words to heart, ‘Remember Lebanese have an indomitable spirit of living, between life and death, they capture every moment, they are hospitable even in their hostile environs’ he had said; this proved to be the biblical truth.

From the scenic waterfront, I walked towards Saifi Village along a freshly paved cobble-stone path, flashy facades suddenly giving way to a twisted wreck of a building, standing right beside a fantastically Warhol-esque painted structure, design and destruction in stark juxtaposition.

The pastel-shaded buildings of this village, originally ‘Le Quartier De Arts’, had been completely destroyed during the war. It now rises like a Phoenix from its own ashes; filled with uber-chic stores, boasting of modern Lebanese artefacts, artists and design.

Feeling hungry I asked a local resident for Felafels; he sent me to Al Sayoon, the street-food store, where I was soon devouring a falafel sandwich with pure delight. Between hand gestures and a polite shukraan (thank you), I requested the address of Sarah’s Bag. I was in for a surprise; even the modest vendor knew where the swank designer store was.

Their delivery boy offered me a ride on his bike to Gemmayzeh. Reaching Sarah’s Bag, I rushed into the store, like a kid in the candy shop, tempted by every irresistible item. Sarah is one of the winners of the British Council’s International Young Fashion Entrepreneur award; she took time out to share her learning and experiences with me, helping me create a blue print for my own programme.

Despite their harsh realities, of having witnessed three wars before turning twenty, the youth are an active part of the country’s arts and socio-cultural fabric. Gemmayzeh, Hamra, Downtown, Egg Theatre, Beirut Art Centre, and the university areas are spotted with cafes and pubs, art centre and walls filled with graffiti, visible proof that Beirut is definitely creating its own renaissance!

The Cultural Leadership development days were about learning and unlearning, a tough process. It’s a bit like flying a plane when you are building it, terribly risky. With few footprints left in the shifting sands before me, I had to set my own trajectory. At CLI, I was lucky to find like minded people, on similar journeys of their own who helped me to understand my own journey.

For five days the British Council’s Creative Unit team gave us all the support and encouragement we could want – their ability to connect with people across such diverse demographics is a case study in itself! This cultural leadership program has become a teaching tool that will assist all of us who participated, to return home and contribute to our future economies.

The panel discussions we great, but what made it more valuable were the wide range of opinions, across such diverse cultures. With a certain sadness we bid each other adieu. Separating us into support group, helping each other develop our professional plans, it’s incredible how a few days have broadened our horizons and built an everlasting network of friends.

Soniya Karpalani is one of the winners of the British Council’s Cultural Leadership Awards.
Find out more at our Cultural Leadership International page.