Looking for stories in ruins: Meet Beirut’s urban explorers

This feature was originally published by The National.

Mezher uses the torch on her phone to look through an old scrapbook full of cut-out photographs from vintage magazines
Jana Mezher examines an old scrapbook from the 1970s, left in an abandoned house in Beirut. Photo by India Stoughton for The National.

May 1, 2019

“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.

Urbex – short for urban exploration – is a popular pastime worldwide, but it has only begun to take official form in Lebanon in the last two years. Unsurprisingly, the community is growing quickly. The civil war and decades of political instability and economic uncertainty have resulted in derelict apartment buildings, mansions, stations and factories scattered across the country. Some are empty of all but dust, while others, abandoned overnight by fleeing families, still contain rooms full of sagging sofas and faded chairs, shelves of books, wardrobes packed with outdated clothes and even personal items such as photographs and letters.

In a cramped apartment in Rmeil, which appears to have been abandoned in the mid-1980s, when fighting in East Beirut reached a peak, Mezher carefully pages through an old album, examining sepia images of a family enjoying a boat ride. It’s her first time in this apartment and she is filled with visible excitement as she opens a dusty briefcase to ­examine the documents inside. To reach this hidden home, she has climbed four flights of crumbling stairs and scurried under a length of rusty iron balustrade that hangs precariously by a single twisted metal strut.

Many old buildings are slowly collapsing and can be dangerous to explore
Mezher gingerly touches a length of iron balustrade that is close to plummeting down the stairwell. Photo by India Stoughton for The National

Mezher is one of the youngest active urbexers in Lebanon. Her passion is exploring homes with personal belongings left inside, which she calls “living museums”.

“I can spend five hours in one room, trying to discover things,” she explains. “For me, the most important thing is learning about my heritage, discovering who stayed in an abandoned place, trying to imagine the families who used to live there – the laughter, the pain. It’s a really nostalgic feeling going into these places.”

Urban explorers follow a set of international guidelines when entering abandoned spaces. Although they are often trespassing, they treat each space with respect.

“You’re not supposed to take anything, you’re supposed to leave it there for the next ­urbexer to discover, because it’s a bit like detective work,” explains Yasmine Shuhaiber, one of Lebanon’s veteran urbexers. “In Lebanon, in general, people are very respectful. They know the guidelines: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footsteps behind.’ That’s the motto.”

Shuhaiber is one of the urbexers who inspired Mezher to begin visiting abandoned places, through her popular ­Instagram account, beirut.forget.me.nots. As urban ­exploration has caught on in Lebanon, an increasing ­number of accounts are dedicated to displaying the beauty of the country’s abandoned buildings. Shuhaiber began exploring years ago, driven by a desire to connect with the place she had heard about in her Lebanese mother’s stories. As the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador, she grew up overseas and didn’t move to Lebanon until she was an adult.

“Basically, I’m searching for the Beirut my mum told me about growing up,” she says. “I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that we come from a culture where we had to flee and leave things behind, but I’m just so curious about the way things were. I always loved history. I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was really young, so I think it’s this whole human, social aspect of the history – this idea of time travelling … For me, it’s magical and I like to share the magic.”

Travelling all over the ­country, photographing traditional mansions with broken windows and missing roofs, hidden synagogues, rusting stations, crumbling theatres and abandoned mental asylums, she tries to capture the beauty of buildings that are rotting where they stand. “I bring my rosy glasses to the dirt and I try to give it this nostalgic feeling of what it could have been like,” she says.

“I have old housewives who follow me and comment on the pictures. I have people from Australia who say: ‘Oh my God, this looks like my grandmother’s home.’ I have people from Brazil who write to me and say: ‘Wow, you just brought back memories.’ So for me, this account is so emotional … I like to tell a story through each picture.”

Other urbexers hope that drawing attention to the beauty of Lebanon’s ruined spaces might help to preserve them. Georges Banna was one of the first local urbexers to begin chronicling his adventures on Instagram, under the name abandoned_lebanon. Whenever he passes an interesting ruin on his motorbike, he stops to explore, taking photographs that he shares with more than 8,000 followers. Many of the buildings he has photographed have since been torn down.

“People know that these ­places are treasures,” he says. “But you can’t blame the ­situation on the owners [who sell their homes]. Maybe they need the money. The ­responsibility is with the person buying … Maybe if a lot of people post a picture on Instagram, there is going to be an investor who is interested in the place, not to demolish it but to keep it as it is and make it a museum or an art gallery.”

Mezher sees benefits to ­restoring even the modern apartment blocks that lack the charm of traditional villas and mansions. “We have a really bad housing problem in Lebanon,” she says. “We have lots of refugees. Why do we have a lot of empty apartments we’re not using? Other urbexers won’t have the same philosophy, because some of the Lebanese people are not that friendly with refugees, but I think of them when I go inside and see these abandoned places.”

Fadi Badran co-founded the community-run Instagram account lebaneseurbex last September, dedicated to reposting images of Lebanese ruins sourced from the wider online community. Along with friends, he has established a group of around 30 people who organise weekly outings to abandoned sites and share tips and photos. All are in their 20s and 30s – too young to remember Lebanon before the civil war.

“Every time we have a trip, new people are coming,” he says. “The post-war generation – at least me and some of my friends – are super interested in what we missed in the years when we grew up during the war. And then you have the younger generation who are interested as well, because they only see photos and they want to explore it first-hand.”

Their curiosity is so powerful that it offsets the fear. Urbex is a hobby rife with dangers, particularly for those who prefer to explore alone. “My husband wants to put a tracker on me,” laughs Shuhaiber. “Stray dogs, that’s my fear. Stray men. I get really scared. It does add a bit to the adrenalin.”

For most urbexers, the most pressing fear is of collapse. Many have stories of heart-­stopping moments on crumbling staircases or sagging balconies. “Sometimes the floor is about to fall, or the stairs,” says Banna. “Sometimes you have to climb. Sometimes there are dogs, sometimes there are security guards.” Carrying a professional camera attracts unwanted attention as well, so Banna often takes photographs on his phone.

For Mezher, who discovered urbex a year ago, the hobby has become a passion. “At my age, people like to spend their days at ­restaurants and go clubbing at night, meeting people and goofing around,” she tells me. “But I want to learn more about my country.”

Mezher examines an old recipe book from the 1950s
Mezher photographs the possessions she finds in abandoned homes, like this recipe book from the 1950s. Photo by India Stoughton for The National

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