“I’m just afraid of rats and dead animals,” says 23-year-old Jana Mezher, flicking her long brown hair out of the way, as she bends down to inspect a battered schoolbook full of handwritten notes on the floor of an abandoned apartment in Beirut. A student at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, Mezher is what’s known as an urbexer. She spends her spare time sneaking into abandoned buildings to excavate the forgotten stories within.
In a small, soundproof rehearsal room in the mountains just outside Beirut, Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, Slave to Sirens, is getting ready to make some noise. Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, the five-piece’s lead and rhythm guitarists, respectively, unzip cases to reveal their V-shaped axes, and vocalist Maya Khairallah warms up with a practice growl, the raw sound ripping out of her small frame with startling volume. Bassist Alma Doumani is tuning up her instrument while drummer Tatyana Boughaba shakes her thick, waist-length hair out of the way, adjusts her leather jacket and gives her sticks a twirl.
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?
Decriminalising homosexuality, abolishing child marriage, improving women’s rights and introducing secular laws. These are just some of the issues that are cropping up as a new Lebanese generation votes for the first time on May 6th. The last election was in 2009—when the iPhone was two years old and Barack Obama was six months into office.
“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.
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.
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”.