Who owns an idea?

This piece was originally published by The Economist.

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Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox via The Economist

May 28, 2018

THE SAME basic plotlines form the basis for thousands of stories. A joke has it that there are only two plots: a stranger arrives, or a man goes on a journey. Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” and J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series both feature a young orphan boy who discovers he has magical powers, attends a wizarding school and defeats an evil adversary, but no one would argue that they tell the same story. (Much the same could be said of Luke Skywalker.) Several recent lawsuits regarding alleged copyright infringements raise an important question. When it comes to an overlap of theme, plot or character, how close is too close?

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Explosive art in Beirut explores power of cultural identity

This piece was originally published by Al-Monitor

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Photo courtesy of Saleh Barakat Gallery

March 16, 2018

“When you have kids, you live in constant fear of the future,” says Katya Traboulsi, seated in the spacious underground exhibition hall of the Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut. Behind her are 47 sculptures. Each is made from different materials and decorated in a unique style, but all of them share the same basic shape: They are modeled on the bombshells that razed swaths of Beirut’s urban fabric to the ground during the horrific civil war that formed the backdrop to Traboulsi’s teenage years.

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The Partition Museum: Opening up about the pain

This piece was originally published by The National.

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A traditional embroidered pulkhari coat and a water pot carried by a family fleeing Pakistan. Photo courtesy of the Partition Museum

January 11, 2018

In July 1947, British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe was ordered to travel to India, which at that time was under colonial rule. After two decades of increasingly violent struggle, India had won its independence but amid rising calls for a Muslim state, the British agreed that the territory would be divided, keeping India primarily for the Hindus and Sikhs and also creating Pakistan, an independent Muslim country.

Radcliffe, who had never visited India before, had one month to decide where the line between the two countries should be drawn. When his decision was made public on August 17, millions found themselves on the wrong side of the border.

There was a bloodbath. While disputed, it was estimated that more than a million people were massacred and between 12 and 18 million displaced in what is thought to be the largest mass migration of all time.

Now, at the world’s first museum dedicated to exploring the history of Partition, an entire gallery offers insights into Radcliffe’s thought process. His decision was ultimately made by drawing a line on a map – he had never visited the places involved.

For decades, survivors of Partition were surrounded by a “veil of silence”, explains Mallika Ahluwalia, the Partition Museum’s chief executive, co-founder and curator. But in recent years, several cultural and story-driven projects have started to shed light on their memories and experiences.

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Autobiographical storytelling is bridging divides in Beirut

This piece was originally published by The Economist.

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Dima Matta tells a story about her love of letter writing at Cliffhangers. Photo via The Economist.

June 28, 2017

MARAM, an eloquent 14-year-old from Ain el-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, stood behind the microphone and began her story. After a minute she faltered, flushing as she turned to a lady in the front row for her hand-written notes. The audience burst into a round of spontaneous applause, calling out words of encouragement. One of five storytellers to speak on the theme of “Borders, Frontiers and Road Blocks” at the June edition of the Hakaya Storytelling Night in Beirut, Maram shared her feelings on the stigmatisation she faces growing up as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.

Hakawatis—storytellers—have historically been an integral part of Middle Eastern culture, orating popular myths and fables to audiences in cafés and public squares. In Beirut, where the tradition of public storytelling has faded in recent decades, a new phenomenon is drawing crowds: autobiographical storytelling events where participants share their experiences on a theme such as “love”, “transition” or “roots”.

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Writing the end of the world

This story was originally published on The Economist’s culture blog, Prospero.

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A still from the film adaptation of World War Z. Photo via The Economist

April 12, 2017

THE apocalypse has proved fertile ground for writers of popular fiction. In “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), John Wyndham saw mankind’s end hastened by perambulating carnivorous plants; Stephen King made a case for murderous mobile phones in “Cell” (2006). Readers are invited time and again to imagine a world devastated by natural disaster, destroyed by radiation or wracked by plague.

The Doomsday Clock is another touchstone of the geopolitical mood. A countdown to global catastrophe devised by scientists in 1947 in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was conceived as an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war. The clock started at seven minutes to midnight, with midnight symbolising the end of life as we know it. The hands have been adjusted 22 times, fluctuating between two and 17 minutes to midnight. Since 2007, it has reflected global challenges more generally, encompassing climate change and artificial intelligence as well as nuclear war. Continue reading

Calligraffiti

This story was originally published in 1843.

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“Perception”, a mural by eL Seed, spans more than 50 buildings in Cairo. Courtesy of eL Seed and 1843

April/May 2017

The boxy red-brick buildings of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district are uniform in colour but slightly different in size and shape. Tightly packed together with a ramshackle appearance, they stand along narrow alleyways, where green and white sacks stuffed with rubbish lie in malodorous heaps. More bulging bags spill over balcony rails or pile up on rooftops beside dusty satellite dishes. One of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods and home to the city’s rubbish collectors, Manshiyat Naser is the unlikely canvas on which French-Tunisian artist eL Seed chose to paint “Perception”, a sprawling mural spanning more than 50 buildings.

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Beirut as it might have been

This story was originally published by 1843.

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Illustration: Michel Streich for 1843

March 1, 2017

A couple of weeks after I moved into my last flat in Beirut, I asked my new landlord for the address. “Geitawi,” he said, referring to the name of the neighbourhood, a collection of mismatched concrete buildings with flat roofs that sprout like mushrooms from a hillside. When I pressed him for a more precise location, he looked at me suspiciously. “Just say it’s near Bank Libano-Française,” he said, in the voice of someone addressing an imbecile.

After persuading him that visa forms require more detail than “I live near a bank,” he finally conceded that I could write St. Louis Street as my address. But that turned out to be the winding road off which my street led – the one where the bank is located. My street had no name at all.

Offices and hotels in Beirut have addresses and so, supposedly, do private residences. But give a taxi driver the name of any but the most major thoroughfare and he’ll stare at you blankly and wait for you to elaborate. Beirutis navigate using landmarks agreed upon by some mysterious consensus. These are subject to an informal hierarchy. Government and religious buildings, hospitals and universities come first, followed by garages, banks and pharmacies, all the way down to billboards, dustbins and large jasmine bushes – the landmark I used to direct people to my flat.

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