The scars of war on Lebanon’s Holiday Inn

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

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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

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Theatre: A cure for Lebanon’s sectarian tensions?

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Traces of Tripoli’s modernist wonderland

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

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Rashid Karami International Fair in Tripoli. Photo courtesy Fathi Masri/The Daily Star

May 23, 2014

TRIPOLI: As we drive slowly across the paved walkways of the Rashid Karami Tripoli International Fair, tires crushing the weeds that have sprouted between the regimented slabs of stone, a pack of six large wild dogs comes bounding out from the shelter of a derelict concrete construction, barking furiously. The virulent weeds and wild animals that are gradually encroaching on this surreal space are just two of the signs that the site is gradually returning to nature.

The Tripoli International Fair was conceived in the wake of Lebanon’s 1958 civil conflict, one of two grand projects dreamed up by then-President Camille Chamoun to unite citizens and discourage sectarian divisions. The fair was originally slated for Beirut, explains architect and urban planner Mousbah Rajab, but Tripoli’s residents protested and when Fouad Chehab came to power plans for the fair were shifted to the country’s second city.

“Before Lebanese independence, Tripoli used to have many networks with Syrian cities and trade with the whole region,” Rajab explains. “When independence came … these networks were cut and Tripoli was obliged to reinvent its structure and its economy, so the idea of the fair, for the Tripolitans, was the equivalent of everything before independence.” Continue reading

To read, and not to read, in Lebanon

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

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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