Autobiographical storytelling is bridging divides in Beirut

This piece was originally published by The Economist.

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.

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


This story was originally published in 1843.

eL Seed
“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.

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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How drama is helping prisoners to change Lebanon’s penal code

This story was originally published in The National.

Zeina Deccache (second from right) with the cast of Johar… Up in the Air, in Roumieh Prison. (Photo by Patrick Baz, courtesy of Catharsis)

January 17, 2017

BEIRUT // While drama therapy has long been recognised as a tool for working with convicted criminals, one woman has found success in using theatre to fight for the rights of prisoners and bring change to Lebanon’s penal code.

Drama therapist Zeina Deccache holds drama therapy workshops for inmates of Lebanon’s prisons, including Roumieh – the country’s largest and most notorious high-security men’s prison.

“It’s a rehearsal for life,” she says. “They make meaning of what happened. They learn to take responsibility.”

Simultaneously, she employs theatre as a tool of public policy, using it to petition for changes to the penal code.

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Alsarah & the Nubatones’ latest album is an overflowing emotional ode to the Nile

This story was originally published in The National.

The diverse members of Alsarah & the Nubatones have personal experiences of displacement. Photo by Jack Vartoogian

January 2, 2017

At the heart of Alsarah & the Nubatones’ second album, Manara, is the concept of home. What is it? Where is it? What does it sound like? The Brooklyn-based quintet define their sound as “East African retro pop”, drawing from a wide range of musical influences – from Ethiopia and Zanzibar to Kenya, Egypt and Sudan – and particularly traditional Nubian “songs of return”.

Nubia, a region along the Nile spanning from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, was one of the earliest civilisations in ancient Africa, but in the early 1970s, the community was displaced en masse as a result of the construction of dams at Aswan, which submerged large swathes of land under an artificial lake.

Songs of return are a communal expression of regret for these lost homelands – songs of exile and remembrance that transcend cultural barriers to speak to displaced communities around the world. Continue reading

Surviving the test of time, National Museum of Beirut opens its treasure trove

This story was originally published in The National.

The highlight of the National Museum of Beirut is its collection of anthropoid sarcophogi. Photo courtesy Anne-Marie Afeiche

October 23, 2016

The National Museum of Beirut was once one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Closed for over two decades as a result of the bloody Lebanese Civil War, it finally reopened its basement level this month after more than 40 years.

The museum was constructed between 1930 and 1937 to house a rich collection of artefacts from pre-history to the Ottoman period, all discovered on Lebanese soil. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, the museum was on the infamous Green Line that divided East and West Beirut.

“The director of antiquities then, Maurice Chehab, decided very quickly to remove the small objects from the showcases and hide them inside boxes in the basement of the museum,” says the museum’s curator, Anne-Marie Maïla Afeiche.

“He put them on shelves and then he walled them off, so if you didn’t have the plan you couldn’t even tell that behind the wall the whole collection was protected … The bigger objects like the sarcophagi he couldn’t move, of course, so he decided to protect them by building a cement case around each and every one.” Continue reading