BEIRUT: Utopia Now in Starco is shaping up to be a place where the trendy 20-somethings of Beirut would want to flock. The restaurant is being readied for its scheduled opening by the end of next week, and the basics are already in place. The walls are covered with stenciled quotes by Oscar Wilde and the like, and along the floor are framed pictures that will soon be hung up on the walls. Most are of singers or bands, but there are a few of Michel Elefteriades. “Because I like myself,” he explains unabashedly, a self-professed megalomaniac.
Elefteriades concedes the fare at Utopia Now will be fairly humble: no smoked salmon or caviar. Patrons will have to content themselves with simpler menu items like labneh and hummos.
Elefteriades was recently asked whether Music Hall would be free too, to which he responded, with his trademark dry humor: “No no, that is very expensive, and they will make you wait at the door and all that.”
Utopia Now is a two-storey restaurant, and the upper floor has a room that is being transformed into a “torture chamber.” At the center is an electric chair and “blood” is painted onto the tiles. When it’s complete, the room will be sealed permanently, viewable to patrons only from a couple of brick-sized windows built into the exterior wall.
The room is a form of catharsis, says Elefteriades, who was tortured when he was 15. When he acquired the Utopia Now location, the room was untouched since the days of the Civil War and the blue tiles reminded him of the ones in the room where he was held. Back then he was a communist, he says, and the “Christian militias” of the day arrested him while he was distributing photocopies of Karl Marx’s manifesto during the war and tortured him.
The experience was the catalyst for Elefteriades’ venture into politics. “This is how I started … being more and more involved in politics to take my revenge on the militias. I joined the army of Michel Aoun when I was 17,” he says. “Being tortured at the age of 15 is not something very easy to swallow for a proud young man, when you are beaten for two days, two consecutive days, and tortured it’s not something that you can forget.”
He says he stayed with Aoun until the former general’s military defeat in 1990 and flight to France the following year.
Elefteriades returned to lead the anti-Syrian, clandestine Unified Movements of Resistance from 1991-94, but after two assassination attempts, he fled to France again and then Cuba.
“I stayed in Cuba for over a year, and this is when I understood that maybe what I was doing wasn’t the right way. I’m not going to spend my life working for the Cuban revolution, or being sent to Angola or elsewhere. Then I realized that I had to do something else, that this is not the way to do it, that this would lead nowhere,” he says.
During this time period, Elefteriades’ thoughts began to crystallize into what would become the idea of Nowheristan - his manifesto on how the world should work.
“The concept springs from the unorthodox belief that many of our sacred and established truths are in fact falsehoods that we have imposed on ourselves: borders, identities, nationalisms, economic divisions, and so forth,” reads the manifesto.
Elefteriades essentially imagines a world where the playing field is leveled, and mankind is treated as a unified, albeit extremely pluralistic, society free of national borders and competing national interests, and where global resources are equally divided among the population.
His ideal society would be run by a “Senate of Elders,” composed of 1,200 brilliant figures from professional fields, all over the age of 60, and divided into two chambers and located in different parts of the world. The senators would vote and debate in private, the media would have no access, and in order for a decision to be adopted, it would have to be accepted by both Senate of Elder chambers, after they have debated the issue separately.
“It ends up by having the Nowheristan ideology implemented everywhere, by dissolving the armies, by dissolving the frontiers, by having one unified GDP for the entire planet, by not having politicians’ elections, but by having the Senate of Elders taking all the important decisions then people everywhere will have the same rights,” Elefteriades explains.
It’s a Utopian idea, he concedes, but one that he is serious about; the second floor of Utopia Now also houses the “Headquarters of Nowheristan” next to the torture chamber.
Besides, he thinks implementing his idea isn’t that unrealistic, given world history. Elefteriades points out that both Christianity and Islam developed behind singular figures that didn’t have television, radio or Internet. Today, around 2,000 and 1,400 years later respectively, both have billions of followers.
“I think that what I’m asking for is not very utopian, compared to other things that have existed,” he says.
Via the Nowheristan website he has already recruited more than 56,000 “naturalized Nowheristanis.” The plan is that once there are enough citizens across the world, they will be called on to perform nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that will topple governments. Once the Nowheristani ideology has taken hold globally, its formal name will change to Everywheristan.
“So, at the moment I registered Nowheristan [the website] I registered all the Everywheristans, dot com, dot net, you name it,” he says, illustrating his practical side.
But before Elefteriades could go public with his ideas on global reform, he knew he had to become successful. To avoid being perceived as someone criticizing the system because he had nothing to lose, based on feelings of resentment, he opted to succeed within the system. So he proceeded to dedicate himself to building a financial empire.
Elefteriades dabbled in music back in Cuba, producing a Cuban-Arabic fusion CD that was so successful it led to the creation of Elefteriades Records, a Warner music label.
He invested in real estate in places others found dubious, such as in Serbia while the country was being bombed by NATO. Five years ago he went with his gut and opened Music Hall, after the club concept failed a contracted feasibility study. It has now sold franchises in Qatar, Dubai, Belgrade, Istanbul and Egypt, with a venue in Sao Paolo under consideration.
If he were just smart and loud with good ideas, no one would listen to him, he says. But, with a smile, he notes he’s all of those, but also rich and successful.