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

Championing culture in Lebanon’s south

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

Opening a theatre in Tyre was Istanbouli’s father’s dream [Photo courtesy Kassem Istanbouli]
August 8, 2016

Tyre, Lebanon – Palestinian-Lebanese actor and director Kassem Istanbouli is on a mission: to bring the performing arts back to the south of Lebanon.

Before the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon had a thriving film and theatre scene. Tyre’s introduction to cinema came in the late 1930s, when a cafe owner bought a 35mm projector and began screening films on a tablecloth hung on a wall beside his cafe.

The makeshift theatre was an immediate hit, and more formal establishments soon opened; by the mid-1950s there were four cinemas in Tyre, and four more soon opened in nearby Nabatieh. Many also hosted live performances by famous actors and musicians, serving as community spaces where people from different backgrounds came together.

But one by one, amid the chaos of the conflict, they closed their doors. Some were damaged by shelling, while others were occupied by fighters or simply unable to make ends meet in a country at war. Continue reading

The scars of war on Lebanon’s Holiday Inn

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

holiday inn
A symbol of cosmopolitan prewar Beirut, the derelict Holiday Inn now stands incongruously beside the glitzy downtown area. Photo courtesy Jad El Khoury

December 30, 2015

Beirut – In the early hours of the morning, Lebanese artist Jad El Khoury, who goes by the name Potato Nose, entered the carcass of Beirut’s abandoned Holiday Inn through the military base that now occupies the ground floor.

He climbed the 26 flights of narrow service stairs, then descended down the side of the building on ropes. Over the course of the next two hours, he painted a series of cartoonish, blue-and-white creatures on the building’s facade, composing them around the bullet holes and craters caused decades ago by shelling.

When Beirut residents awoke to discover Khoury’s artwork last month, they responded passionately, with many expressing anger at his alteration of the landmark building.

“It was really surprising,” Khoury, 27, told Al Jazeera. “But I understand that many people will see it like I am doodling over history, which is not the case. I opened up a debate that was already there – should we fix all the scars of the war, or should we keep them?” Continue reading

Theatre: A cure for Lebanon’s sectarian tensions?

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

The play was inspired by the day-to-day lives of the actors. Photo courtesy of Samer Ghorayeb

June 24, 2015

Beirut, Lebanon – Less than a year ago, 24-year-old Tareq Hebbewe was a militiaman wielding an AK-47 and participating in bloody clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

The fighting pitted Bab al-Tabbaneh, Hebbewe’s predominantly Sunni neighbourhood that supports the Syrian opposition, against the largely Alawite population of Jabal Mohsen, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I used to think that if I saw someone from Jabal Mohsen I’d kill him,” said Hebbewe. “Now, I love them a lot.”

Today, the only gun Hebbewe carries is the fake one he takes on stage when he acts out the role of the sniper in “Love and War on the Rooftop – a Tripolitan Tale”.

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Drama therapy workshop in Lebanon helps heal wounds for displaced Syrians

This article was originally published in The National.

A performance of Antigone by Aperta Productions. Photo courtesy of Aperta Productions

March 23, 2015

The pen is mightier than the sword, so the saying goes. In Lebanon, Zeina Daccache is trying to overcome modern warfare’s guns, shells and barrel bombs, armed with nothing more than an arsenal of therapeutic theatre techniques.

Since 2011, more than three million Syrians have fled their homeland to escape the continuing violence. In Lebanon, theatre techniques are being used as a means of empowering these displaced people, both intellectually and psychologically.

In a society where therapy is taboo, drama workshops serve as a socially acceptable means for refugees to talk about their experiences and emotions. Amid growing tensions between displaced Syrians and their Lebanese hosts, theatre productions also allow ­refugee voices to be heard by a wider public.

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Beirut’s historical houses rise again as cultural hubs

This story was originally published in The National.

red house
The Rose House in Beirut. Photo courtesy Tom Young.

March 9, 2015

It has all the makings of a fairy tale: something beautiful, fragile and irreplaceable, saved from destruction by a painter with a vision. Earlier this year, the crumbling edifice of La Maison Rose, perhaps Beirut’s most iconic Ottoman villa, was brought to international attention after British painter Tom Young held an exhibition there, opening it up to the public for the first time in its nearly 150-year history. The overwhelming response helped convince the new owner, a property developer, to restore the mansion and turn it into a museum.

The story stimulated debate about the status of Lebanon’s vanishing architectural heritage. But La Maison Rose is simply the latest in a line of historical houses that have found new leases of life as cultural spaces.

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A battle of museums in Downtown Beirut

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

The bottom of the dig would be filled with water, representing the Mediterranean Sea. Photo courtesy GM Architects

July 22, 2014

BEIRUT: Archaeological museums are a bit like buses, it seems. You wait ages and then two come along at once. At the Venice Architecture Biennale this summer are plans for an archeological museum, designed by Lebanese firm GM Architects. The curator, Rem Koolhaas, invited the firm to present a project on the theme of “Fundamentals,” for his exhibition “Time Space Existence,” now up at Venice’s Palazzo Bembo.

“I had the option of showing one of my [existing] projects or trying to think out of the box and create something from scratch,” GM founder Galal Mahmoud told The Daily Star. “We thought, ‘We’re not going to show a hotel in the biennale. It’s ridiculous. Let’s be architects and try and think of something that’s beneficial to Lebanon.’” Continue reading