10 Signs You’re a Lebanese Designer

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

1. You frequent coffee shops based on their internet connection, not their coffee. That, and their interior decor. If you can pretend you’re in Brooklyn or Berlin, then you’re a loyal customer. This is why Urbanista is designer headquarters; it’s got the best wifi and if you stay there long enough, you’ll eventually feel like your #deskfortheday is across from Central Park on Lex.

2. The words “hipster” and “designer” are not interchangeable although you are the token-hipster amongst your non-designer friends. This has nothing to do with the fact that you like fedoras, plaid shirts, and craft beer. One pair of fruit socks does not a hipster you make. Okay maybe it does? But it’s not your fault H&M released a Coachella collection in Lebanon. You only shop there for basics anyway. And Balmain in November.

3. Papercup and Antoine Stationery are places you cannot visit if you are past the 20th of the month. If you do, you will not be eating until your next paycheck because you pulled a Carrie Bradshaw and bought a design biannual issue that costs $40. You don’t need another Moleskine notebook, a Rifle Paper Thank You card, or Choux a la Creme stickers. It’s best to stay away otherwise you’ll be caressing paper goods like you’re in a romcom sponsored by Fabriano.

4. If you identify yourself as an illustrator, you probably wear Converse. If you’re an art director, you have at least one pair of Nike AirMax. And if you’re a fashion designer, you probably own one pair of laced up brogues. If you’re just a creative in general, you have all three.

5. You use yamli.com to get words typed in Arabic.

6. As an undergrad, you interned at a top ad agency and you a) decided that that’s what you’ll do for a few years b) despised it and went to work in a boutique design firm in an old house in Gemmayzeh with high ceilings c) eventually left the country to do your Masters in Milan, Amsterdam, or the States

7. You’ve never bought original Adobe CS software (or any other software) because your university/office/Interlink installed it for you.

8. Your MacBook Pro had the price tag of a small used car. It is your child and if it were to ever get hurt, you would sit in the corner wondering which organ to sell to replace it.

9. Working on anything bilingual makes you go cross-eyed because Arabic and Latin have different rules when it comes to typography. Let’s not even mention the existence of trilingual briefs.

10. Your Teta still doesn’t know what you do. As far as she’s concerned, you’re a “drawing engineer” which got her approval because it means you studied هندسة. Thanks Yamli.

Bourdain: Off-Balance in Beirut

Being a fan of “No Reservations” and other various food-travel TV shows, I was very excited to see Anthony Bourdain’s take on his 3rd visit to Beirut. After reading his thoughts on it and seeing the teaser flood my Newsfeed, it looks like we were all hoping for the visual version of what he says below:

“We soon met lovely people from every kind of background. We found fantastic food everywhere. A city with a proud, almost frenetic party and nightclub culture. A place where bikinis and hijabs appeared to coexist seamlessly — where all the evils, all the problems of the world could be easily found, right next to and among all the best things about being human and being alive.

This was a city where nothing made any damn sense at all — in the best possible way. A country with no president for over a year — ruled by a power sharing coalition of oligarchs and Hezbollah, neighbor problems as serious as anyone could have, history so awful and tragic that one would assume the various factions would be at each others throats for the next century. Yet you can go to a seaside fish restaurant and see people happily eating with their families and smoking shisha, who in any other place would be shooting at each other.”

When you read this, you expect that Bourdain is going to tell the world’s greatest love story. I couldn’t wait for YouTube. I streamed it last night. After watching all 42 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is heavy.

It’s not that he didn’t show an accurate side of Lebanon, it’s that he stressed more on one than the other. A massive refugee population, a strong resistance party fighting in Syria, and ISIS in our backyard. All true. After all, we were recently named the no.1 country with the most refugees/1000 inhabitants. BUT,  there are other “parts unknown” that Bourdain didn’t highlight which is a major disservice for a country that already has a negative connotation in the media. Just ask Jad Aoun.

What bugged me was his episode didn’t look any different than what is normally featured on CNN: a statue of the Virgin Mary followed by a slow pan of a lingerie ad in a window, a duality common to their productions involving anything Lebanese. The channel tends to present Beirut in a very polarized manner: we’re either the really sexy party-animals of the Levant or a war-ravaged diamond lost in the backward ways of the Arabian peninsula. In Beirut by Samir Kassir, the city is described as “a convenient stopover on the road to the romance of the East, far enough from home that travelers could claim to have penetrated a remote world, but one that at the same time was agreeable enough to dissuade them from pressing on into the interior.” Yup, that sounds about right. That’s what I was told Singapore was to the rest of the Far East: the right ratio of West and East so that you felt like you were comfortably away from home.

He did state that his first visit to Beirut made him feel like his shows needed to be about more than just food:

“I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused—and determined to make television differently than I’d done before. I didn’t know how I was going to do it—or whether my then network was going to allow me—but the days of “happy horseshit”, the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act, that ended right there.”  

But seriously, where was the food? He’s done Beirut food episodes so maybe he was trying to look at it with a new lens, serving us another installment of his experience here. Nothing featured in the episode was an untrue depiction of our city. Bourj el Barajneh and Dahieh are not our finest areas but they’re still part of Beirut (Greater Beirut) and we cannot deny what exists just because it isn’t shiny or flattering. It was a straight dose of what we’re currently dealing with. The only thing Bourdain is guilty of is not showing both sides of the coin for viewers who’s first helping of Bourdain’s Beirut would be this episode alone. That, and using the ski-and-swim-in-one-day cliche. Just no.

The beauty of Beirut is that it is home to destruction and decadence, a playground for the unfortunate plight of Syrian refugees, the vacationing Arabs of the gulf, and the rainbow of multifaceted Lebanese people. There was a lot missing if he was going to go the socioeconomic route: where was the talk about our activists fighting for equal human rights and heritage? The focus on the gentrification/development of the creative hub of Mar Mikhael that doesn’t solely revolve around hip-hop music, but also includes an old train station, design studios, and an at-risk semi-private garden? The start-up ecosystem brewing here? Hanna Mitri’s homemade ice cream? Our culinary game isn’t just about kibbeh neyyeh.

I’m sure Bourdain would’ve been bashed if he only talked about Joseph’s shawarma and parties at Garten/Decks/Grand Factory. It is a challenge to find a balance when talking about Beirut’s pros and cons – but it’s an even bigger challenge to capture them all on film and pack them into 42 minutes. He ended it nicely. I’ll give him that.

“Everybody should come here. Everyone should see how complicated, how deeply troubled, and yet at the same time, beautiful and awesome the world can be. Everyone should experience, even as the clouds gather, what’s at stake, what could be lost, what’s still here.”

I read through some of the episode’s comments on his Facebook page. Bourdain’s team did not include enough of what the Lebanese think of their own city and he’s definitely hearing what they think now. I just hope that the Lebanese people are as honest with their country’s reality as he was. We should keep in mind that, like the bullet holes in the buildings, we don’t see everything the way an outsider would. He was off-balance when it comes to showing the world what Beirut is about but let’s make sure we don’t do the same mistake when we defend it.

Now can someone tell me where Broasted Rizk is?!

You Have Your Lebanon

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And I have mine.

Sietske, a Dutch blogger who’s been in Lebanon for ~20 years, recently posted about the tendency we have to sulk about our “situation.” It is a topic that I’ve discussed with my friends on multiple occasions: how there is an inclination for some nationals to diss Lebanon, be it from home or abroad.

Well, guess what? I can’t have that. You may have your Lebanon and I may have mine but, to the outside world, they are one and the same.

By being Lebanese, or a citizen of anywhere, you are effectively a representative of your nation. This does not mean that you gloss over its problems, pretend that it’s perfect, or downplay the serious obstacles that are incessantly popping up there. It does mean that you put these problems into their historical context, that you try to create understanding with an audience that may be misinformed or not know enough to pass judgment, and that you contribute to the inspiring image that your country can have if you let it.

Part of why Lebanon’s golden age is considered the 60’s is because that period’s been praised and talked about so much since then. How about instead of focusing on a time when Lebanon used to be glorious, we put the same amount of energy into portraying the greatness that Lebanon has today?

When someone asks you about Lebanon, if you answer with all the negatives and are quick to deem it a sinking ship, then you are choosing the easy route. This place can be difficult to defend and there is resentment. You feel that you should not be expected to be loyal to a place that never did anything for you but give you severe road rage, an overpriced lifestyle, and a useless passport.

I can sympathize with those who tease our system, our politics, our obsession with religion. I’m entertained by it just like anyone else who understands how aggravating these things can be. It’s comforting, in a way, to laugh it off when it feels like that’s all that can be done. On the other hand, when you nag just for the sake of it, you are filling a cesspool that does not need replenishing. If you are not satisfied with what is happening (or what isn’t happening) in the country, then there are three options: take action, stay silent, or leave. However, if you do leave, try not to trash the place that shaped you as an individual.

If you are abroad and you’re talking smack about your country, painting an ugly Monet of what we are, then you are being ineffective as citizens. You are lucky that you had the option to pursue other opportunities that may not have been available to you in Lebanon but you are not better than any other Lebanese person just because you left. Leaving does not mean that what you’re saying about the country has no relation to you. You are still Lebanese.

The more you insult your place of origin, the more you give others the right to do the same because it clearly doesn’t bother you since you agree with them. As a result, you’ve perpetuated the Let’s Take a Crap on Lebanon trend.

Let me put it like this: it’s like when you rant about how annoying your sibling is. Only you can complain about her annoying dietary preference for gluten-free no-wheat-flour falafel. As soon as your audience joins in on the bashing, it’s suddenly not okay anymore. It’s also similar to how some girls allow themselves to be called “bitches.” You using the term does not mean that you claimed ownership and made it empowering. It means you’re okay with its use, its derogatory connotation, and you’re indirectly saying “I’m fine with you using this term to describe me.” That’s exactly what you’re doing by allowing someone to call Lebanon a failure. You’re saying you’re okay with them calling you a failure. Should you be critical of its development, its government, its progress? Absolutely, but it should be constructive criticism and come from a place that hopes for more. Is it cosmopolitan, organized, and solid? No. But what you say about your own country, the place that is intertwined with your identity whether you like it or not, is a reflection of your character.

You are an ambassador of Lebanon to the world; after all, the best byproduct this country ever produced was the people that came from it. If the country has not made you proud, then prove that you are worthy of something better. Show others that this place that “still suffers from the echoes of civil war” is not a place that births damaged people. Change what it means to be Lebanese by being successful regardless of what your country couldn’t do for you. Prove that being from Lebanon is a strength, not a curse. Tell Lebanon’s story. Doing otherwise just makes me (and the rest of us) look bad and I won’t stand for someone falsely representing what I am. Stop associating my country, my heritage, and my identity with everything you (and I) don’t want it to be. Start embracing who you are or should be: a member of the community that is pushing back.

The Launch of Maktoub 3 Loubnan

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The more I toy with the idea of leaving Lebanon, the more I realize how many Lebanese have gone through the same contemplation at one point or another. Many left and many returned but most stayed in their new adopted homelands, setting up a life and roots for the future. What I find peculiar about our diaspora is how connected one becomes with the country after leaving it. This is not special to us alone – after all, you can’t be homesick if you never leave home. But beyond the undying tie to the land, for once, you find people identifying themselves as “Lebanese” rather than as a member of a sect or political party. Why must we leave to create this kind of solidarity with the one thing that unites us all together?

Thinking about how spread out my fellow nationals are led me to start this project:
Maktoub 3 Loubnan. I want to create a record of those who were once here or feel linked to Lebanon by paper, blood, or memory. If you’re Lebanese and not living in Lebanon at the moment, please send a postcard indicating your new homebase to the address below:

Maktoub 3 Loubnan
P.O. Box 16 – 7115
Sassine Square
Beirut, Lebanon

All I ask is that you share a written memory of Lebanon and send it home. I want to unite these memories and share them with the world. I want to tell the story of who Lebanon has given to the world and what Lebanon has given to its people.

Postcards will be uploaded on the photoblog under the same name effectively building a visual archive of the Lebanese diaspora.

Care to be a part of it?

For the Love of Airports

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Although the 3-hour cab rides through the heart of Moscow and the layovers in Istanbul are not always thrilling (not to mention the malfunctioning digestive system side effects of cabin pressure), there was one aspect of travel that you admired in a detached way as if you were a narrator of a Woody Allen film. An outer-body experience that made it feel as if this was the kind of thing you would be explaining to your grandkids one day because they would be of the public space-shuttling generation and they would find these transatlantic journeys so primitively historic. Then again, you were supposed to be of the flying-car generation so who knows what travel will really mean in the decades to come.

You want to roll through an airport and have the narration in your head begin as you people watch, where are they from? Where are they going? A father asks you to photograph him and his daughter in Frankfurt Airport. The little girl has a fabric bracelet with the Jamaican flag colors. What language are they speaking? It’s not French. Where is her mom? Maybe they’re divorced. You try to go Sherlock on them and read their story through their mannerisms and nonverbal behavior, appearance, and clothing. A group of high-schoolers are lining up. Their teacher is screaming who’s on the waiting list and passing out passports to kids in oversized hoodies emblazoned with various college acronyms and university crests. What a strange and fascinating place an airport can be. A stopover where all people abide by a system as if there is a guidebook of rules as to how one is to internationally travel. It’s the one ritual that all citizens do in the same way: carry-ons, portables, chargers for our devices, check-in counters, baggage claims, money exchange. Don’t even think about packing the cosmetic scissors.

And then you observe a foreign city from the air. Residents going about their days because your existence does not relate to theirs. Where are they driving to? All these people living their lives completely unaware that you’re flying over them heading to some plant nursery in Bucharest. I wonder if the driver in that white sedan on the highway is happy. I wonder if he looks up at my plane climbing overhead and thinks, ‘I wonder where that plane is heading. I wonder if the girl on that plane is happy.’ Lives continuing simultaneously while we throttle across the sky and into the clouds. Parallels physically and figuratively.

You spend hours next to strangers, at gates or in lounges or even onboard budget flights that make you feel like you’re flying in a recycled Pringles tube with wings. You judge your neighbor by whether or not they’ve heard of your home country, the notorious troubled Lebanon, that exotic sliver of hedonism and resilience hidden in the bosom of the Arab and thus, conservative Middle East. Beirut usually gets more recognition, although not knowing that it’s a capital (not a country) doesn’t exactly sedate your fears of where the education system is heading. Either way, bonus points if they show geographical knowledge not just polite interest in your brief exchange before either one falls asleep or puts on headphones. Another internationally recognized symbol for travel for please leave me alone, thanks. 

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You find yourself missing cities as if they were people you know. With all of your friends relocated to opposite ends of the earth, you’d think you were not looking for more to miss – the roster should be full by now. And yet, you are longing for breakfast on Brooklyn rooftops, a walk through Gorky Park, and a lazy cappuccino before the Dubai Mall fountains start their sunset dance. You’re homesick for places that were never home and wishing that you didn’t find comfort in those washed-out Tumblr photos with the word wanderlust scribbled in handwritten font across the center.

But maybe, it isn’t wanderlust. Maybe it’s just curiosity and the need to see beyond your balcony or border. Maybe it’s embracing another place’s magic and your own home’s chaos. Maybe it’s just about feeling like you’re part of humanity. That every place can be part of your story that some other person at an airport is trying to read off of you.