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

Traces of Tripoli’s modernist wonderland

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

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.

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

Specters of war thwart efforts to forget

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

A distraught woman screams at the guide in Armenian as the audience stands by. Photo by Ziad Ceblany, courtesy Sahar Assaf

May 5, 2014

BEIRUT: As we troop awkwardly through the narrow streets of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, our guide gestures to the decaying facade of a once-stunning building.

The balconies are crumbling, their wrought-iron rails rusted. The masonry is pocked with bullet holes, window frames empty or fringed with jagged, lethal-looking shards of glass.

As if unaware of the devastation that has been wrought on the building, the guide orders us to take note of the beautiful architecture. The derelict-looking structure is occupied, he notes in passing, but the inhabitants in the area are forbidden to hang washing outside to dry.

Pointing out one building where residents have blithely ignored this stipulation, he complains that he has called the police several times but no one ever shows up.

The washing, he claims, ruins the area’s historic appearance.

“Watch Your Step: Beirut Heritage Walking Tour,” is an interactive, site-specific performance directed by actress and AUB theater studies lecturer Sahar Assad and written by Robert Myers, cultural historian and AUB professor of English and Creative Writing. Continue reading

The War on Words

This story was originally published in The Outpost.

Haddad was invited to sign English copies of her book at the Emirates Literature Festival, even though the Arabic version is banned in the UAE.

“To become a great writer – regardless of which Arab country one is in – one must be truthful; to be truthful, one must be free; and to be free, one must be alive; yet to be alive, one must hold one’s tongue!” – Syrian poet, dramatist and radio journalist Muhammad al-Maghut

In the Arab world, words are used as weapons. First occupied by colonial powers then presided over by authoritarian rulers, in many countries in the region literature has become a battleground between the state and those seeking to voice a perspective that challenges the status quo. Novels, stories and poems have been both exploited by the state as a vessel for spreading propaganda and feared as a means of smuggling subversive messages to the public. Continue reading

Solving Lebanon’s child labor crisis

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

child labor
Children sell flowers to motorists in Beirut. Photo courtesy Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star

October 29, 2013

BEIRUT: Mohammad says he’s 13, but it’s hard to believe him. With his tiny, hunched form, cavernous cheeks and emaciated limbs, he looks closer to 8 or 9 years old.

Having fled Syria without his family, Mohammad works as a shoe-shiner on the streets of Hamra, beginning at 7 a.m. every day and working until 7 p.m. At the end of his 12-hour shift he will have earned a total of LL 5,000 – just over $3.

As the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues and the economic situation in the country declines, the number of child laborers is increasing.

Thousands of Syrian children are working to support their families, while the country’s declining economy has also had an effect on Lebanese and Palestinian children, who are increasingly expected to work. Continue reading

Closed adoption system helping child traffickers

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

Newborns sleep in incubators at a hospital in Sidon. Photo courtesy Mohammed Zaatari/The Daily Star

September 9, 2013

BEIRUT: Adoption is often seen as a benevolent act. Rather than being brought up in an orphanage, a parentless child is given a home, stability and a loving family. In Lebanon, however, the closed adoption system has helped to transform the practice into something less than benign: a business. When Daniel Ibn Zayd was adopted in 1963, the details of his biological family were fabricated. “In the paperwork we have from the orphanage it lists family name, mother, father, birth date, birthplace,” he explains. “You grow up thinking that this is true.

“It was my fellow adoptees in France who enlightened me to the fact that these [were] false names … There was a kind of comfort in knowing that link was there if I needed it, and the minute it was ruptured, then I felt this need to establish that link.” Continue reading

Shahrazad was like my mother

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

Hanan al-Shaykh (right) performs with Nidal al-Ashkar at the Hay Festival. Photo courtesy The Daily Star

May 10, 2013

BEIRUT: Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh has had a long and complicated relationship with “One Thousand and One Nights.” As a child, she recalls, she was “utterly smitten” by a radio dramatization of the tales. As time passed, she distanced herself from the epic fable of the storytelling Shahrazad, her murderous King Shahrayar, and all it evoked.

“When I was young I wanted to be so Westernized,” the London-based author admits. “I was brought up in a district in Beirut, Ras al-Nabaa, which was very traditional. … I think because of books and films I felt that I wanted to be somewhere else completely.

“I started changing my mind a little bit,” she continues, “because in the West whenever I published a book they’d say ‘The New Shahrazad!’ and I’d say ‘What is this cliché?’ Then I read a few stories and I thought ‘Hmm, not bad.’ … I was intrigued because it reminded me of the women in my family. I thought ‘Yes, I can see that – this is why they were cunning and crafty, especially my mother, because it is the weapon of the weak in such a society.’” Continue reading