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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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

To read, and not to read, in Lebanon

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

A 2007 study found that Lebanese spent an average of 49 minutes a day, 12 days each month, reading books. Photo courtesy Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star

May 9, 2014

BEIRUT: For years, a startling statistic about Middle East literacy has made the rounds. On average, it suggests, Arabs spend six minutes a year reading – about six pages. This vague figure has been attributed to UNESCO, the Arab Thought Foundation and UNDP, but the source of the figure remains unknown. A 2007 study by the Next Page Foundation “What Arabs Read: A Pan-Arab Survey on Readership,” uncovered quite different results. Of the 1,000 Lebanese polled, 44 percent spent an average of 31 minutes a day perusing newspapers and magazines and 50 minutes a day reading online. They spent an average of 49 minutes about 12 days each month reading books.

Najwa Sahmarani was shocked when she read the six-minute stat in a 2011 Arab Thought Foundation report. A passionate advocate of reading for pleasure, she decided to do some research of her own. The Tripoli-based entrepreneur polled 550 students and young professionals resident in the northern city – half through an online survey spread via social media, the other half in person at the Tripoli Book Fair.

She asked respondents the last time they’d finished a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, for pleasure.

“Seventy percent chose the answers either: ‘I’ve never finished a book’ or ‘Before last year,’” Sahmarani recalls. Another 44 percent said they’d read more if part of a reading club or literary community, had easier access to books or received guidance on what to read. Continue reading