It’s Like I Never Left

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When I had friends visiting from their stints abroad during the summer or Christmas season, I couldn’t help feeling like they were in a state of growth & discovery while Lebanon, and I along with it, was frozen in an endless loop. Now that I’m the one coming back, I see that it wasn’t just an illusion.

I’ve been back for less than a week and it feels like I never left. Granted I’ve only been gone for 3 months and that’s not even long enough to digest a Thanksgiving dinner but not much has shifted. My cats are fatter (and thus, cuter) yet still unfriendly. Even my car’s side mirror is still faulty because it sat in my parking space collecting dust for 87 days. The most that’s changed is that my parents have become Beliebers because my sisters subjected them to so much One Direction in my absence. However, I’m not talking about my personal circle. Lebanon hasn’t moved a millimeter.

Perhaps that’s why those abroad love to come home: there are no surprises. You can lose a job in the middle of a divorce, pay a mortgage, get a 4th degree in Switzerland. But with all of that, when you come back home, you’ll still have unreliable utilities, corrupt politicians, and the best manoushe hot off the forn around the corner. Lebanon, in all her stunted glory, is the constant in their life of uncertainties and responsibilities. It’s comfort in the form of a country.

And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is that I’m not visiting. The level of comfort wears off when you’re not just passing through. I would’ve loved to come back to a solved garbage crisis, a president in office, and maybe even a feline who wants to cuddle.

Lebanon is the perfect home base in that you can go live another life elsewhere, return, and still find everything as you left it. There is no FOMO because you can always be there for the next cycle. It’s bittersweet but, isn’t that the case for all things Lebanese?

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Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East

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Never has that statement been so morbidly disturbing.

What happened last night in France is a horrendous tragedy.

I know that Paris has been a stop for travelers from all ends of the earth. I know it’s been romanticized and dreamed about in media, film, and poetry. Writers and artists consider the city a muse, the one they connect with and pour their souls out to. I know that residents adore it and visitors are enamored with its elegance and effortless sophistication.

But that’s what my Beirut is too.

I won’t paint illusions. We’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch but Beirut has also been the breeding grounds for creative minds and has captured the hearts of globetrotters who want to return for a second round. Maybe even a third and fourth. We’re just as sexy as Paris.

This isn’t jealousy, it’s sadness as Joey says. This post is in no way said with anger or bitterness towards the suffering people in France or its sympathizers. I type this because I wonder why Beirut has been forgotten or put on the list of places where death is just a number and it’s normal for the city’s name to be on the ticker at the bottom of your TV screen. You know which cities I mean. They’re the ones that have casualties and increasing death tolls as you pour almond milk onto your Cinnamon Toast without flinching.

And yet, when Paris is attacked, the world is shaken. Towers are lit with red, white, and blue. Don’t we deserve the same prayers? Doesn’t every city on that list mentioned above deserve them? Last night, Paris was the Beirut of Europe. These comparisons are unfair. “Beirut” equals carnage and chaos while “Paris” equals savoir faire and luxury.

Beirut, you have always wanted to be like Paris, the mother that left you when you were young. But dear Beirut, Paris never wanted to be like you because being like you would mean she doesn’t matter to the rest of the world and we all know that’s not true.

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To all,
It’s an ugly world these days.
Stay strong and stay safe.

On Defacing Downtown Beirut

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I understand that people are pissed. I understand that Solidere’s Downtown Beirut has become a blocked off part of the city that seems to cater to the fortunate and wealthy, void of the majority of typical Lebanese citizens and taxpayers. I understand that the #YouStink movement has given people an outlet to release all their pent up grievances. But the resentment toward this place is because it is supposed to be for all the people, not just the ones who can afford the strip of shops on Foch.

That is why I can’t understand why it seems okay to vandalize the properties there. Defacing the statues and buildings isn’t going to serve anyone. It is still our central district and we should ask for rights by proving that we are respectful of the historical significance of the squares, open public access, and the collective heritage of the area. Doing the opposite will only prove their claim that we are a people undeserving of our own metropolis.

Please don’t deface our face to the world. We should reclaim it, bring it back to what it is supposed to represent – a hub for commerce, tourism, and history. We can take it back or we can let it continue to be a beacon of inequality. Once again, it’s up to the people to decide.

Beirut, Be Good

  

The other day, I was thinking that this has been the longest stint I’ve had in Beirut in the last 2 years. Personal trips and business flights had me in and out of Lebanon a lot. People used to say that that is why living here was bearable. I had the breaks needed to cope. It was the opposite though. Only after I started traveling more did it get harder and harder for me to stay.

This week has shown me a side of my country that has left me uneasy. I feel the violence that occurred on Saturday was a blessing in disguise. Although people were assaulted and violated, we were shown where we stand in the eyes of “our leaders.” The Lebanese public demanded basic rights and were met with force. The government brought on the same response that every action they’ve done leads to: bringing the people to tears, only this time it was via tear gas and brutality rather than frustration and disappointment.

Had the demonstration remained civil and truly peaceful, the woes of the protesters may not have reached the rest of the public at home and abroad. Escalation and injustice attracts international media attention and creates necessary pressure on those responsible.

I admit that I was not there on the 22nd. I was discouraged, time after time, feeling that our efforts were wasted and heading in an unclear direction. And I will also admit, hearing about the water cannons made me fear for my own safety. After seeing my friends fall, my fellow citizens take hits – I was relieved that I was safe at home and repulsed by how they were treated. I had given up. That didn’t last very long though; sitting behind screens felt wrong and their fire rekindled mine. My dad and I decided to join the protesters earlier this afternoon before the shit hit the fan again. Seeing the crowd slowly grow as the hours passed is the kind of thing that needs to be felt so the public knows their voice matters, that maybe they’re not powerless. I’m not a fan of movements that ask for the fall of the government and do not propose plans; we need strategy. With that said, I am an advocate of supporting the community that shows what Lebanon is really about. 

Unfortunately, it got dangerous after we left and my spirits are sinking again. The test now will be when the demands of daily life return. What worries me is what happens next. Did we just need a weekend to vent? What is our long-term plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes? How do we ensure that we will have new leaders that will respect our existence and represent the public instead of their own interests? Will the fall of our broken system really improve this situation? Things need to change. If not now, then when?

My expat friends abroad have made me feel like I’m one of the last guardians still here, still trying to build a future in dysfunctional purgatory. This coming Saturday, however, I’m leaving you Beirut. I will be back but I don’t know if I’ll stick around once I’ve had a taste of a stable nurturing environment that will feed my hunger for more. I’m choosing the same path that many before me have: to invest in myself first so that I can invest in my country more effectively later on. I need to do this. If not now, then when?

I hope that the bond that unified us against corruption doesn’t buckle, I hope that our media stays objective, and I hope that we maintain our stance with dignity. Lebanon, I don’t know how to love you anymore but I don’t know how to stop. I haven’t left yet but all I ask of you while I’m gone is that you be smart, be strong, and be good.

Saying No to Temporary Fixes

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It’s ironic that in mob movies, members of the mafia use “waste management” as their cover when asked what they do for a living. Here, our mafia of politicians also has nothing to do with waste management. As has been the trend, whenever there has been an injustice in our society, a Facebook event pops up announcing a march against it. After the garbage fiasco this past week, an anti-corruption demonstration was planned for Saturday afternoon (yesterday) in front of the Grand Serail in Downtown.

I’ll admit that I haven’t gone to every protest but I felt like it was my civic duty to be present at this one in particular. If I didn’t go, I was a fraud: a hypocrite for not practicing what I preach. In essence, our presence at every march is necessary – we need to stand together when any member of our community or any issue that affects it is being defended and/or highlighted. We need to unite as a common front otherwise we are the ones to blame when our rights are violated or our politicians make poor decisions on our behalf and we quietly accept them. You have to take responsibility for your part of the equation before blaming others or authority. That also applies to the issue of garbage collection. As one citizen was saying at the protest, “this is our trash, we should sort it.” It is the country’s duty to collect and dispose of their people’s waste, but it’s the people’s duty to reduce their individual contribution to it. Once you do your part then you can be angry for them not doing theirs. It’s also about taking responsibility for putting such people in power and then suffering the consequences of our own votes. What’s done is done though so let’s deal with our present situation.

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I’m glad there was a demonstration. I’m amused when, after bumping into a friend there, she told me, “it’s my first mouzahara.” It was admirable to see people bringing their children there, exposing them to the issues that should be fought for instead of surrounding them with sectarian rhetoric. It was good to see the faces I see on Facebook, the ones who write about the problems, also there in person. It was great to see Lebanese flags, no party colors. It was commendable to see a peaceful approach to getting our voices heard. Who was listening though? The crowds looked indistinguishable from the ones at our summer street festivals and that’s what seemed wrong. I wanted more anger. I wanted more people. I wanted more alternatives presented for what happens once everyone goes home. Without a long-term plan, will there be change?

I went to yesterday’s protest knowing that it would either inspire or disappoint me. Sadly, it was more of the latter. I admire the activists that organized it and took action. Enough complaining without movement. But while standing there, I was surprised that there weren’t more people, that the ones there weren’t furious, and that the general consensus of the older generation was a pessimistic “what’s the point?” 

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Last night, I returned to Beirut from Broumanna and, from that altitude, there was a very visible gray cloud suffocating the entire city and we prayed that it wouldn’t rain. Driving (or diving, I should say) into it, the streets were a post-apocalyptic scene of burning dumpsters and filth.

The solution that they came up with yesterday post-protest was new landfills in new locations. But the people aren’t standing for it. Jiyeh residents have closed down the highways to South Lebanon because they don’t want to be the next Naameh. They may have inconvenienced a lot of people heading to/from the South today but they have every right to say no to a decision that will inconvenience them with a nation’s trash for an undetermined amount of time. We cannot let those in charge think that these “solutions” work. After seeing how they handle such crises, I wouldn’t want the trash moved to my backyard either. We have to reject this solution before it’s too late…again.


mouzahara: demonstration

TEDxBeirut 2014 Series: Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project

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“The conversation began 4 years ago,” says Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project, an NGO that focuses on public green spaces in the literal sense – not a green lifestyle that involves recycling, but rather the lack of green parks in our urban landscape. After carrying out public interventions highlighting the need for public green spaces, it was clear that a movement should be formed and thus, the BGP was born. The team came together gradually in parallel with the planning efforts of new interventions.

When it comes to making an impact, BGP uses more of a guerilla strategy. “It’s much more efficient to start from the bottom and create small change on a one-to-one scale that will spread from one person to the next,” says Dima. Rather than going straight to the top and trying to behead the hierarchical monster, using baby steps to make the cause stronger is more effective. “It’s a longer process for sure, but this is how real change can happen.” Working with the system takes time but is advisable for long-term change. However, when there is a violent assault against your rights occurring, you need to take action in an unconventional way. BGP hasn’t used an aggressive approach with municipalities and, as a result, their ideas are not rejected and the officials are open to discussions on new initiatives. Nadim Abou Rizk, Vice President of the Beirut Municipal Council, has been cooperative with BGP efforts and is one of the most concerned members when it comes to the parks of Beirut.

All funds needed for their efforts have been from their own pockets or dependent on sponsorships and donated services. A partnership between BGP and WonderEight formed after AUB’s Talk20. WonderEight, an environmentally-friendly design studio based in Beirut, created their identity, guide, and additional design elements as a pro-bono company CSR project. Such community-based collaborations are what our country needs to get these types of activities off the ground: separate entities coming together for one goal for the common good of the society as a whole.

“For example, an NGO can propose a space by conducting a study of a tiny area in a neighborhood that has 3 schools – a place that is in need of a space where kids can relax on their way home from school. The municipality can then get the area ready and clear the location, then a private company comes and funds the remodeling and planting. The neighborhood people can come and participate, creating a sense of ownership of spaces. This allows people to feel like it’s their space.”

Dima believes that once you create a sense of ownership with these spaces, people will protect and respect them. By including the people in the process from the start, the Municipality will be giving citizens what they want and the people, in turn, will want to preserve what they have had a part in creating.

When discussing Horsh Beirut and the leading rumor as to why it remains closed,* it’s a bit like the logic that claims abstinence is the best contraceptive. You can’t cut people off from the park claiming that people do not know how to respect public green spaces yet expect them to simultaneously learn park culture without any parks to do so in. How do you learn how to treat a park if you don’t have one to begin with?

There are other rumored reasons as to why the Horsh is still closed ranging from the need for proper security guards, caretakers, and maintenance teams to it being located in a sensitive spot bridging neighborhoods of varying religious beliefs. The latter reason is the most infuriating in both Dima’s and my opinion. It should be a reason for opening the park rather than keeping it closed because it will blur the borders and allow people to socialize sans sect. Dima says, “they’re afraid that it will create conflict and tension. On the contrary, there is conflict and tension because there is no public space. If we had spaces, people would mingle and that fear of the other would go away.”

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Jesuit Garden, Geitawi – Ashrafieh

With the many urban developments happening in our city, we cannot always blame the developers and investors. Dalieh, Ramlet el Baida, Fouad Boutros Highway. All of these developments can be halted and revisited if we, as a combined force, stand up and say no. The Jesuit Garden in Geitawi was a small victory that wasn’t publicized enough. We all heard about its impending conversion into a parking lot; however, we did not hear about how that plan was thwarted once the neighborhood came together to say no. This is evidence that the people can make a difference when they want to. We should not use “Eh, this is Lebanon” as an excuse for being passive. You must hold others accountable for violations of your rights as Lebanese citizens.

“If every person took one small step without thinking about whether or not it was making a difference, together it will create something. You have to look at the whole picture. It’s rare to see the results immediately. Each person has to do their small part and eventually it will create change.”

Up next for BGP is printing and distributing the Beirut Green Guide while educating schools about public green spaces and equipping students with their own copies of the Guide in order to keep the message going. For this month though, Dima has been invited to speak at Arq Futuro‘s Parks of Brazil event in Sao Paolo and will be touring South America for the next few weeks to get some greenspiration, as I’d like to call it. To keep up with BGP’s developments, check out their blog and Facebook page.

*Allowing people inside Horsh Beirut will ultimately ruin it as a green space because of littering and vandalism

AIGA Middle East | Morning Toast Series

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As the first affiliated international AIGA chapter, AIGA Middle East was launched last summer by Mo Saad & Leen Sadder, Lebanese graphic designers based in New York City. After the launch party at Coop d’etat rooftop in June 2013, the duo formed a Beirut Operations Team who would be the crew on the ground, creating a format to be duplicated in cities all over the region once the initial roots were established and AIGA ME was in full swing. Professional and student memberships for AIGA ME will be launched by the end of this year but, in the meantime, the Beirut team’s mission is to build the network, spread the word about AIGA and its importance in our part of the world, and start (and continue) a conversation about design. To avoid any confusion, this is not a promoted post. In full disclosure, I am part of the AIGA ME Beirut core team which is made up of a handful of young professionals who volunteer during their free time to make this organization work.

Doodled by Mo Abdouni, guest at Morning Toast Vol.2

Doodled by Mo Abdouni,
guest at Morning Toast Vol.2

Back in March of this year, we launched Morning Toast, a breakfast think tank series. Held every two months at a local cafe, Morning Toast brings together 7 to 8 designers on a Saturday morning to talk about a design issue over coffee. Each MT is hosted by a professional who acts as a moderator for the discussion. They don’t lead or preach, they just keep everyone on topic during the allocated 2 hours. Usually, who the host is will hint as to what the Toast may be about. Themes for each Toast are announced the morning of, leaving attendees in the dark. This is not an evil surprise tactic, but meant to allow for unprepared and unpracticed rhetoric. In other words, it’s an informal get-together with potential for formal action later on. Conversation about design begins and continues because guests are put in contact with people they may not have met in other contexts. As for the 7-8 people that attend? It’s completely open: first come, first serve. There are a limited number of spots; if you snag one and confirm, you’re in.

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Dar Bistro & Books in Hamra, Beirut
Commonly known for supporting local initiatives, Dar seemed like the right place to launch the first string of Morning Toasts. Located between the AUB Alumni Association offices and the Central Bank, Dar is a popular spot for book and coffee lovers. It’s also a great hideout for work or chitchatting with friends as long as you don’t mind the sound of a coffee machine in the background. During our partnership, Dar was generous and gracious. They signed on for a 6-month period (3 Toasts total), offered complimentary breakfast to the MT guests, and created a space where strangers could have an open and unrehearsed discussion. On top of that, it’s photogenic and very Instagrammable: the perfect ingredients for filming the first MT webisode.

Cutting down a two-hour rich conversation into two-minutes just didn’t seem fair so we are now exploring the possibility of converting our Toasts into bi-monthly podcasts. This way, interested listeners can get a feel for the dynamic on the table and know the whole story. At the conclusion of each breakfast, comment cards are collected so that we can make every Toast better based on the feedback of those who experienced it first-hand. Because this is still a new initiative, there is room to improve and learn from what works and what doesn’t. After all, that is the job of the Beirut Operations Team – treating Beirut as the testing ground for what will eventually be a regional network of creative professionals.

MORNING TOAST VOL. 1
HOST: HANI ASFOUR, POLYPOD
THEME: THE FUTURE OF DESIGN IN THE REGION

MORNING TOAST VOL. 2
HOST: BANA BISSAT, BLOGGER OF BANANAPOOK.COM
THEME: DESIGN IN THE DIGITAL AGE

MORNING TOAST VOL. 3
HOST: KHAJAG APELIAN, MAAJOUN STUDIO & KRISTYAN SARKIS, KRISTYAN SARKIS STUDIO
THEME: DESIGN AND ARABIC TYPOGRAPHY

This is not the only attempt AIGA ME has made when it comes to connecting people. Unfortunately, when finding yourself in a networking event, it always seems forced and uncomfortable. I tend to see people gravitate to those they already know and the actual networking fails to really happen. Because of this, we thought we could learn from ArabNet’s speed-networking event. For Beirut Design Week, AIGA ME started Dak Warak: a gamified speed-networking event at Coop d’etat rooftop once again, symbolically marking our 1-year anniversary. Using a branded AIGA ME Dak Warak deck of cards, people had to go find others with matching suits, colors, or numbers during each 3-minute round, or dak. Seeing that it was a card game where people could exchange business cards too, dubbing it “Dak Warak” made sense since it translates to a round of cards. You could mingle with people, drink in one hand and an actual playing card in the other. Gamification of the networking process was the added layer that made breaking the ice just a little funner. Of course, I’m sure the free beer helped too.

The next Morning Toast is set to be held on the 13th of September at The Beazbee in Hamra, our latest partner in the MT Series. Sign-ups will be open within the next few days. Dr. Yasmine Taan, Chair of the Design Department at LAU, will be hosting this one – can you guess the theme? To stay informed about MT and other AIGA ME events & initiatives, check us out on Facebook,Twitter, or Instagram.