Abboudi Abou Jaoudé and the Forgotten Era of Arab Cinema

IMG_8183

My recent patronage to Metro al Madina to see shows like Hishik Bishik and Bar Farouk has made me curious about the Lebanese history of entertainment. With Mounia Akl making it to Cannes, Nadine Labaki being a voice for our city, and Fayrouz being my morning muse – ever since that first taste of early Arab cinema at a British exhibit years ago, I wanted to learn more about this era but also see the beauty that was premature Arab graphic design.

A random Google search brought me to an Independent article from 2010 that talked about a man with an astounding collection of Lebanese (and other Arab) film posters. The investigation wasn’t fruitful; I couldn’t find out where this mysterious movie man was six years later.  No Facebook page, no Instagram, no pixelated website with an 8-bit mouse cursor shaped like an Aladdin’s lamp. Yes, that’s what I imagined for an off-the-grid poster hoarder.

Then after one Iftar with my old advertising friends, I’d asked the production peeps if they had heard of this Abboudi. I got his phone number and was told that he was operating out of a space at the end of Hamra. A few phone calls and a scavenger hunt led me to AlFurat Publishing & Distribution, an underground warehouse that smells of old paper, hidden behind a black iron door. Abboudi welcomed us in and immediately pointed to a row of large individually wrapped posters. “All originals,” he said. Apparently he’d been collecting them for some 40 years, jacking them off the walls of the theatres in the city.

 

IMG_8171

 

IMG_8185

 

Roaming the shelves of yellowing pages, my immediate thought was, “I’ve found the Lebanese cemetery of forgotten books.” In his back room, you can go through the digitized archive of his collection while sitting among legends like Fayrouz, Souad Husni, Abdel Halim, Sabah, and Rushdi Abaza.

 

 

There are racks of A0s and stacks of the thinnest fragile prints, some for sale starting from as little as $10 and reaching $500. When I asked if he’s afraid he’ll run out by selling them, he said, “No no, I’ve got plenty. These are multiples.” To which I think, “damn Boudi, you sly fox, you really cleaned up.” And the meticulous care this friendly man put into preserving these pieces. Chapeau freaking bas.

 

IMG_8182

 

Only after my visit did I connect the dots and find that Abboudi’s collection was documented in a publication called “Hathal Masa’” (Tonight in Arabic), designed by the wonderfully elegant Studio Safar. So if you can’t choose one of Abboudi’s originals, you can always go for the full book instead. It’s sold at Antoine branches and the Sursock Museum Store. Although an exhibition was held last December at Le Yacht Club for the launch of the book, Abboudi’s collection deserves a museum of its own. Being in a storage room under a building has its appeal but I worry for their long-term conservation.

 

IMG_8189

But let me tell you, having one of these babies in your possession makes you understand what made Abboudi camp out at the Piccadilly as a young man. Just look at that magic?

If you’re interested in visiting AlFurat, shoot me an email and I’ll pass on his contact. Otherwise, you can try your luck and pass by whenever you’re free and need a dose of nostalgic tangible culture. Abboudi’s collection also includes old books and magazines. He’s open 9-5pm. Read more about him here.

 

DIRECTIONS: Continue along main Hamra St all the way to the end. Take a right at the fork after Bendakji cafe (driving parallel to Diabco Stationery and the gas station). Continue straight until the intersection. Touch store should be in your face. Take a right up toward Bliss St. Take another right before reaching Bliss and the fork with the tree in the middle (so you’re on the road that leads to Fakhani, Hussein’s Parking, Socrate, etc). And a final right into a small alley before you continue down the road. There’s a sign but it’s barely visible. Go all the way to the building at the end (same one that’s home to Inaash). Abboudi’s warehouse is at the bottom of the driveway below.

Italian Vernacular Typography in Rome with Louise Fili

DSC_0702

Louise speaks with owner of Ristorante Settimo about their signage from the 1960s

“Fare la coda” or the inability to stand in line is not the only thing that Rome and Beirut have in common. Much like my own home city, Rome has a tangible warmth to it and I’m not just talking about the temperature. There is history here that can be seen in the ochre tones of the buildings, heard in the undulations of the language, and even tasted in every scoop of black raspberry gelato. When it comes to design, it’s as if things look the way they’re supposed to without much thought put into it. As our first lecturer, Louise Fili, said, “in Italy, everything is beautifully designed even though no one is a designer.”

She walks us through 35 years worth of her carefully curated collection of signage. Not only is Italy the birthplace of Latin typography, it seems it’s also where every sign has a lineage. Rather than reading a plaque or pocketbook guide, each sign forms a graphic timeline because the style of type used corresponds to a particular historic era. Leave it to graphic designers to learn about history via type, right?

But oddly enough, it works. Not only does Louise tell us about each sign’s historical significance but also how the style of signage can tell you what part of Italy you’re in. It seems that each part – be it Florence, Bolognia, Rome, or Torino – has its own flavor and trademark when it comes to their storefronts.

What I find most interesting is the businesses that the signs represent tend to belong to a family that has been in that business for generations. The symbol becomes representative of part of their legacy, not just indicative of what they’re selling thus becoming a visual landmark in that neighborhood’s collective memory. It reminds you that there’s a story behind every sign and all you have to do to find out more is walk through the doorway underneath it.

First published on SVA’s website.

Interning with Tarek Atrissi | The Art & Science of Arabic in Barcelona

Death_to_stock_communicate_hands_5

Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

It’s been exactly 3 months since I left Barcelona where I spent another 3 months interning for Tarek Atrissi, a Lebanese graphic designer who runs his own design studio out of the Catalonian city after relocating from the colder Hilversum, the Netherlands.

I’ve written a lot about what I did to prepare for this trip and what I learned on a personal level while there but I thought it would be helpful to see what I got out of this trip from a professional standpoint as a designer from and working in the Arab world. The environment of Barcelona seemed like an unconventional backdrop for learning about Arabic type & script but it made one thing more evident: capable designers with a background in Arabic design are needed, regardless of location.

Lesson 1: The Difference between Arabic Typography, Lettering, and Calligraphy

As an introduction, Tarek walked me through a breakdown of different uses of the Arabic language in design. Typography refers to creating typefaces or designing a print layout using Arabic text. Lettering is when Arabic letters or words are built by drawing them out piece by piece. The focus would be on one element as an artistic composition or unit instead of an entire alphabet or page of text. Calligraphy is an old artform that takes years to reach the pro level. If there’s no time to learn the trade, this is usually outsourced if you want it done right.

Lesson 2: Making Arabic Versions of Logos

A skill highly underrated and glossed over when it comes to designing Latin logos is the ability to adapt them to Arabic while retaining their aesthetic and iconic attributes. A visit to Dubai will tell you how poor adaptations of your non-Arabic logo can hurt your brand’s image. It is hard enough to do from the start of a project but even more challenging when it comes after the logo is already in use and plastered all over the world. Icons or graphic elements become gimmicks or are forced into the Arabic script. Creating an Arabic version of a non-Arabic logo takes practice and understanding of both languages; not only how they are similar but how their differences will affect the visual outcome. Arabic differs from a lot of commonly used languages in many ways; two main concerns being that 1) the letters are connected (at times) and don’t align with non-Arabic glyphs because they adhere to different guidelines and have fluctuating proportions and 2) it’s read from right to left.

 

Lesson 3: Looking at Arabic Glyphs like Shapes, not Letters

During my GD undergrad years, a calligrapher who was giving us a workshop had told me that people who don’t know Arabic tend to be less constricted when sketching forms because they look at the letters like shapes. They have no linguistic knowledge of what the aleph is; it’s just a long line. I was reminded of this when drawing up endless versions of Arabic glyphs. When lettering, you have to let go of what you know of the defined structure of each letter – to a certain extent – in order to let your hand freely take over.

Lesson 4: The Importance of Arabic as a Language in Design

Coming from an advertising background, I rarely had the chance to dabble in typographic design, much less anything in Arabic since I worked on international accounts. Working on fonts and logotypes in Arabic made me realize how neglected it is as a skill in our part of the world. Sure, most Arab designers can read and write in Arabic but can they design in it? Do we have the understanding of it as a language to tackle it the way an Arab national should? This should be our added bonus as designers from the region: we should know how to work with our own language with respect – in a way that does it justice as a beautiful form of communication.

Lesson 5: Give More, Keep Less

What was surprising about Tarek was that he was so willing to give and teach. It is rare to find a successful professional who is open to mentoring you as a designer, in skill but also in thought-process. Tarek was never condescending in his approach when it came to finding solutions and he gave me the confidence I lacked when it came to discovering my strengths as a designer. He was leading by example and a true team player. He taught me to be open with what I know and even with what I don’t. And by constantly sharing and exchanging, there was a flow of stories and experience that brought fresh energy to the office each day.

You can learn more, the more you give away.

_________________________________

IMG_0798

A big thanks to Tarek and everyone at TAD.
See you guys soon!

“Dressing the Body” at Museu del Disseny de Barcelona

IMG_8339_2

“Dressing the Body” is a permanent exhibition at the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona (Design Museum of Barcelona). It’s about how people have manipulated their appearance via accessories, hairstyles, and clothing.

As someone who worked in advertising for luxury brands and hair care, a lot of our research went into desire, beauty, and self-image. Perhaps this is partially why I found this exhibition so fascinating. However, the other part of me, the science nerd, found it fascinating because it addressed how human behavior has shifted with fashion: how we react to arbitrary definitions of beauty and how our perception keeps changing over time. Our behavior has shaped how we view those around us, including ourselves. We are constantly modifying our bodies, whether it’s through padding, feathery hats, or tattoos.

IMG_8326_2

The exhibition is divided by the decades and the dominating trend of each era starting from the 16th century. It’s an eye-opener because you usually don’t think about how your clothes are also a device that you use to change your silhouette. There are 5 ways what you wear can affect your overall appearance:

  1. Increasing: adding volume to your body by inflating your lower body via structures like wooden hoop skirts or layered petticoats.
  2. Reducing: corsets and belts, anything that reduces or squeezes you into a certain mold.
  3. Elongating: adding height through heels, large hats/hairstyles, or long trains.
  4. Profiling: contouring the outline of your body through stockings or tight body hugging fabrics.
  5. Revealing: Self-explanatory. That skin tho.

    “If you alter the way the body comes across in the space around it then the body alters everything in the space that affects it.” – Hussein Chalayan, 2002

IMG_8331_2

Check out a sneak peek here. An appropriate part two of this would be an extensive cosmetic surgery exhibition over the decades. If you’re in Barcelona, visit the museum. This exhibition alone is worth the 5 Euro entrance or you can wait until Sundays when it’s free!

What to Pack for a Design Internship Abroad

Besides the standard toothbrush and lots of undies, here’s a list of the top 15 things I’m bringing so I can let the art director in me go crazy in my new Mediterranean city that I shall call home for 3 months. Let me know if I’ve left anything out, I feel like I’ll be packing until midnight.

IMG_7920

A Medium Sized Notebook
I’m a fan of the ~A5 size because it fits in your purse and is good enough for notes, doodles and random thought bubbles. If the heavy duty Moleskines are too pricey for your taste (and frequent use of journals), Paper Concept is an affordable alternative that I’ve come to love. Their products are made in Lebanon. They’re pretty malleable too so they can handle being transported daily, getting soaked in coffee, or just beat up by life. I plan on covering this baby in Spain stickers.

3 A4 Sketchbooks
As a creative who’s on the job, you’re going to need to put your ideas somewhere. I prefer using the tangible approach: on paper. Going straight to the computer is restrictive when you want to let your mind go and allow your hands to take charge of the creative flow. Moleskine sells a pack of 3 skinny lightweight A4 notebooks (lined and blank) that are perfect for this purpose and they’re not too expensive considering what the brand’s usual price tags say. There are packs of solid or mixed colors for 27,000 LL (18 USD). I like that the covers are cardboard so it’s easy to personalize them. And once your internship is over, you have a hardcopy record of all the eggs you laid there, rotten or not.

Agenda
I ordered the I AM VERY BUSY 17-month agenda above from Paper Source. It’s imperative that you stay organized as a creative since most of your work, if not all, is deadline-based. It can be used to keep track of your multiple to-do lists, events coming up, groceries that need to be bought, and even when to do laundry. It also doubles as another record of everything you did on your trip and where you went.

Drawing Pencils, Winsor & Newton Watercolors Travel SetWashi Tapes, Glue, and Mini Scissors
Basically, you need supplies. It may be wishful thinking but it’s still a good idea to pack your preferred tools. Tape and glue are for the snippings, business cards, and other paper souvenirs that you’ll be sticking in your notebooks. Some will be for the memory of it and others will be for the design; either way, they could be references for inspiration at some point. Not included in the picture above is my collection of pens and colored pencils but just assume that I’m addicted to Sharpies. Btw, that UFO glue is a knock-off UHU from Karout.

Appropriate Literature
Since my internship is with a skilled typographer, I bought Type Matters! to use as a guide for my work and the Fodor’s Barcelona guidebook to use as my guide to the city. I’m also reading Cathedral of the Sea, a historical novel about Barcelona.

IMG_7907

Business Cards
You never know who you’ll meet abroad and you have to be prepared to network at all times. Nowadays, when people can work remotely, there are no borders to opportunities. I hope everyone likes receiving free olive oil soap!

IMG_7918

iPhone and Power Bank, Macbook Pro and Wacom Tablet, Laptop Bag
No explanation necessary for these. I mean really.

IMG_7915

Headphones, Earphones, DSLR Camera
The headphones will come in handy on your flights and while you’re working at home or in the office. The earphones have a different purpose: they’re useful for creating a protective forcefield when you’re using public transport. I don’t know if Barcelona’s metro is anything like NYC’s but I shy away from making friends on the subway. The camera is when you want to get artsy and take some decent shots that can be blown up into posters and other graphic artwork once you return.

IMG_7916

Cross-body Bag, Whistle Necklace, and Something That Reminds You of Home

Barcelona is famous for pickpockets so make sure your bag has a zipper that remains shut. This one is a leather purse that’s pretty sturdy despite the gnawed tears from my fiesty cat, Katniss. I don’t mind its weathered appearance since it’s got Mary Poppins magic: it’s a bottomless pit with multiple pockets. It may be left behind once I find a good Spanish leather replacement.

As a paranoid female traveling solo, I feel the need to equip myself with some form of security. I saw Tiffany & Co release a whistle necklace and thought that would be a great accessory that had a bonus protective function. I opted for the cheaper, less fashionable version.

DON’T FORGET: Something that reminds you of home. I chose the cedar keychain I got 3 years ago from Bcharre.

Will Blog for Apples

Courtesy of Gratisography

Courtesy of Gratisography


Next week, I’ll be flying to Barcelona, Spain for a 3-month design internship. Although temporary, this will be the first time I’m living on my own away from home.

First World Problem
My 5S needs upgrading. The only issue I had was its disintegrating battery life that has only gotten worse over time. Now, having a power bank has rectified the battery woes but the 13GB capacity is not enough for a typical smartphone user, let alone one who depends so heavily on documentation. I mean, how else am I going to show people my tie-dye laundry, ramen noodle buffet, or create a video montage of the various Spanish sausage flavors of La Boqueria? I mean G-rated sausage, you 12-year old.

I’ll admit that the larger screens of the new generations were a turn-off at first. Why would I want to use a phone that was the same size as my Moleskine? Then, I used one to cover an event and saw the beauty of having a phablet when it came to capturing an experience. It was much like the preference of using a 22-in iMac versus a 15-in MacBook Pro; a larger interface to command while maintaining ease of usability. Don’t get me wrong, my MacBook is currently at the doctor’s and it feels like my child is in Afghanistan but, as a designer, having a larger workspace is always better, just less convenient and more expensive. But being the size of a Moleskine suddenly made sense if you look at your phone for what it actually is: more than a thing you use to call your parents (let’s be honest, they’re the only people who still use phones primarily for calling). Your iPhone is your diary, without the doodled hearts and ripped pages that ruin the binding. It’s what you use to absorb your surroundings and share it with the ones who can’t be with you. 

You see, I’m considering a lot of new content (intense blogging, continuous fitness tracking, photography, and a webisode series) during this trip but I want a device that has the memory and hardware to keep up. That, and it’s plain snazzy.

Since this is an internship abroad, I have a lot of expenses to cover and a new shiny gadget like the 6 Plus with decent memory has a hefty price tag. I’m not able to drop that kind of cash nor do I have the moxie to ask for a little parental gifting. They’re already helping me out as it is and this little trans-mediterranean move is supposed to be my training wheels for how to be an adult, not a pampered failure to launch. Stop thinking about SJP and horses.

I’ve read reviews about the Samsung’s competing device but, knowing that I switch out phones every 2-3 years, I don’t imagine making that kind of commitment to a brand I haven’t clicked with in the past. We’re like me and Daniel Craig; I can appreciate him as a Bond who’s handsome and got all the right stuff but Pierce Brosnan is my man. I test-drove their product before but I couldn’t convert; I guess I’m Apple to the core. I’ve heard about the rumored 6S/S Plus release but I’d be completely fine with a 6 Plus joining me on the journey, I’ll even share my bed with it.

So…like…what do you say manzana gods?
Can you hook me up por favor?
I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
Love you, kthxbye.

10 Signs You’re a Lebanese Designer

DeathtoStock_Clementine6-2

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.

Taking a Walk in Mar Mikhael

IMG_1856

As part of the In Mar Mikhael event, two walking tours were given this weekend. I went along for the afternoon activity this Saturday thinking that I knew a lot about the neighborhood I spend so much time in. Seriously, Google thinks I live in Mar Mikhael because I’m in Ashrafieh (work and play) so much. Turns out, there’s more to this place than I thought.

IMG_1846_2

The beginning, EDL

The tour began in front of Electricite du Liban where we were divided into 3 groups departing every 10 minutes. Since I opted for English, Elisabetta was our guide, and started with a brief intro about the Brazilian-influenced EDL building. It was built in the mid 1960s, designed by a Lebanese architect, Pierre Neema.

From EDL walking toward the rest of MK, there is a new geometric modern building with a green wall on one side, home to Gallery Tanit. This building is the only one that respects urban law because of the existence of a sidewalk. Most developments disregard this and it results in what I call “l’extinction du trottoir,” leaving us to navigate between parked cars hoping we’re not pummeled by a service driver. From this spot, you can see the three different forms of architecture found within MK: 60s, modern, and classic French. Across from this mammoth is an old house of two architectural styles conjoined with a common stairwell, a practice that shows there used to be consideration for economy of space.

IMG_1799_2

Tobbagi Gardens

Behind these lovely old homes is the Tobbagi Gardens, a private space that is open to public visitors. It’s made up of terraces and planting areas and is the biggest green space in MK.

IMG_1806_2

Mr. Tobbagi talks to us about the Fouad Boutros Highway Project

Sadly, the gardens are now at risk. If the Fouad Boutros Highway Project is implemented, the gardens will be destroyed; the neighboring building next to Mr. Tobbagi’s has already been expropriated. The only other green space in MK which is across the road has also been bought and will soon be gutted & developed. Besides the fact that these buildings are solid representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with. For now, the Project is on hold because of the local and international media coverage but no one knows how long that will last.

IMG_1849_2

Massad Stairs 

The walk continued to the colorful Massad stairs that were featured on Vogue.com the other day. This staircase, painted by the Dihzahyners a few years ago, are semi-private semi-public and the place where a Save Beirut Heritage sit-in was organized. I hate to say it but the stairs have undergone a lot of weathering since their first coat of paint. Besides being a site for activism and artistic expression, the stairs also serve to connect the residents of upper Ashrafieh with Mar Mikhael. For example, St. Georges Hospital employees and visitors can use it to jump into a bar for happy hour after a long week since the hospital sits up the street from the top of these stairs. Be careful at night though; sometimes there are punks chucking eggs at unsuspecting pedestrians below.

IMG_1839_2

Vanina

Mar Mikhael used to be a predominately Armenian neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Armenian population shifted over from Qarantina and still make up a big portion of the residents living there now. The area is in full gentrification with the arrival of the new generation who are transforming Mar Mikhael into a bustling creative hub. Of course, with them comes the gastropubs and boutiques that the artsy crowds with purchasing power attract.

The walking tour’s sole purpose was to show us that Mar Mikhael has different facets but it was originally a residential village. If you walk into the alleyway where Vanina has opened its first shop, you can continue into an open courtyard of neighbors that still live like the days of old MK. Some buildings have been restored (mainly to be home to new restaurants like Les Fenetres) but the majority of property owners find it easier to sell than to salvage and/or fight the developers. That, and it’s more profitable for them on a personal level.

IMG_1853_2

Pharaon St

We popped out from the Les Fenetres entryway to walk down the Internazionale alley. Nasawiya’s old location is where In Mar Mikhael is having their Behind the Object exhibition till the 24th of this month. After making this quick stop, we walked down to Pharoan St. Don’t feel bad if you have no idea where this is because I didn’t know it had a name either. Pharaon St. is the street where PaperCup and Frosty’s Palace are. If you’ve ever been to Mar Mikhael, you probably know which street I’m referring to now. If not, you should check out both places. The owners are sisters. Have a coffee and grab a book then walk across the street to inhale a burger and milkshake.

This strip of shops and specialty bookstores make up the “creative cluster” where all owners have made a joint decision that no bars will open on the street there, keeping it quieter than the other crevices of the neighborhood. Next to Papercup is the Maroun Naccache Theatre, the first in Beirut and where they put on Moliere productions. The church on the same road is where the neighborhood got its name. The church was originally in Qarantina. The women felt uncomfortable by the presence of soldiers there so they relocated to its current location in 1855 and, like much of Beirut, it was destroyed then reconstructed several times to make it bigger. The last works date back to 1972 and it has been the main place for community congregation ever since.

IMG_1825_2

A facade leftover to be incorporated into a new tower

Train Station and Bus Warehouse

Mar Mikhael is also home to one of the main train stations that was used when we had a railway that ran along the coast to the north. Rather than create museums or public spaces out of relics that link back to our past, it seems we only know how to reinvent our dilapidated public transportation systems into nightlife venues. After the old train station of Mar Mikhael was used for multiple DJ events, it was morphed into a high-end bar by BO18 management. The abandoned bus graveyard/warehouse is Uberhaus’ station for their indoor electronic raves while Garten is closed until the summer.

Vendome Stairs

Collectif Kahraba’s Aurelien Zouki met us halfway up the Vendome Stairs to talk about Nahna wel Amar wel Jeeran, the yearly festival that happens there. With a name meaning “us, the moon, and the neighbors,” the festival is comprised of visual/musical performances and public interventions in a public space. Through this, they promote collaboration between different fields who join forces to create a neighborhood event. The collective sees itself as a theatre company that puts on free accessible cultural events that involve the residents of the neighborhood in the planning and whole production. For example, Nawal and Camille, two old neighbors on the Vendome Stairs, participate by composing songs and cooking food for the audience and host guests. Once, a puppet performance was done on the building rooftops; the puppets were based on the known neighborhood personalities like Nawal and Camille.

IMG_1832

Nawal and Camille

All these attempts at inserting cultural practice into our daily lives is at risk when homes are replaced by towers. The way the community interacts changes because they function like a village. Breaking this dynamic through modern urban development kills the human aspect of the community.

One intervention done is the bench found at the halfway point of the staircase. Designed by Christian Zahr, he saw that there was a need for a “break” on the way up the steep climb, especially for the elderly that live in the homes of this part of Ashrafieh. The bench that is built like a staircase itself pokes fun at the fact that there’s no public institution taking care of the residents’ needs or the public space of the city.

IMG_1827_2

Grande Brasserie du Levant

Located on the Badawi half of the area, the Brasserie opened in the 1930s and was the oldest brewery in the Middle East. It was where Laziza Beer was made. The brasserie as “La Grande Brasserie du Levant” was closed in 1995 but an entrepreneur used it to produce a beverage at a later stage. With little success, it finally closed in 2003. There have been talks to transform it into lofts or a cultural center but no official decision has been made due to a dispute between the owners. This was where GAIA Heritage held an exhibition last July featuring the work of 15 creatives.

IMG_1855_2

Other MK Fun Facts

  •  The graffiti portrait done by Phat2 at the Mar Mikhael Gas Station is of his sister
  •  Internazionale was a garage between 1954-1970s
  • The army barracks facing the Grande Brasserie were built by the French
  • Brut l’atelier is an open workshop where you can go use their tools and workspace to collaborate and/or assist on handmade projects
  • Across from the Brasserie is a colorful staircase leading back up to an alley by the Vendome Stairs. There used to be a festival there every year until the organizer passed away.

IMG_1857_2

What’s In Mar Mikhael?

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 12.43.30 AM

That’s not an existential question. Well, maybe. But not today.

You may or may not have heard about the upcoming week-long event, IN MAR MIKHAEL, which will be held in Mar Mikhael (just in case the name wasn’t obvious enough). Elisabetta Pietrostefani, the Italian In Mar Mikhael project manager, and I had a chat over cappuccinos about her work with GAIA Heritage, the guys responsible for this week-long collection of exhibitions and workshops.

In Mar Mikhael is part of an EU-funded project (which is part of a larger regional program, MEDNETA) that involves 6 Euro-Mediterranean cities (Beirut, Hebron, Tunis, Florence, Valencia, and Athens).The partner in Beirut, GAIA Heritage, is a consultancy firm that applied for the project years ago through the European Union. The project focuses on urban regeneration through creative activity so the selection of the Mar Mikhael neighborhood as Beirut’s representation of a creative hub is not surprising. Each partner implements the project within their city in there own way and, together, they make up a network for exchange and collaboration between the 6 cities. The end of the project culminates in one giant traveling exhibition that would move from city to city. This exhibition would address issues that are common amongst all the partnering cities. The entire project lasts two years.

GAIA Heritage has been documenting the creative activity within Mar Mikhael since 2010. Their rough analysis was one of the first and was published in USJ’s Travaux et Jours. Since then, especially when the project was launched in January of 2014, they have really delved into MK’s development.

The first 4-5 months was purely research into what made up Mar Mikhael beginning with mapping out the different artsy bubbles that were popping up there. The issue with this was that these bubbles were never constant. As we all know, the only thing constant about Mar Mikhael is that it’s always in flux. You can go there every other day and still find a new boutique, bar, or bookstore that wasn’t there during your last visit – each with its own concept, decor, and extremely random name. GAIA Heritage’s map has come up with 71 as the number of creative activities going down in the neighborhood but I feel that this number may fluctuate by the time I finish typing this sentence. These activities are divided into alternative artforms (artists and their supporting industries), crafts, and design. Creating a printed map for a couple of streets that are home to short-lived businesses and experimental entrepreneurship can prove to be a challenge. How do you navigate in an ever changing city when no one knows street names and we all use relativity for addresses? You move the map online where it can be updated on-the-fly. The digital version of the map is still under construction.

969-1 Gaia _ 2014-10-20 _ Recto - Web

Parallel studies on the neighborhood were also conducted including a morphological study and how the place has evolved in the last few years, how its decayed, why it’s more preserved than other neighborhoods in Beirut, and whether or not it would stay that way. A socio-economic study focused on the real-estate level, mainly the issue of a clash of generations: the old generation that’s been there for decades and the younger generation who recently moved in. With the possibility of the new rent-law being implemented, half of the residents there will not be able to afford to stay.

Their first conference in July held at Grande Brasserie du Levant addressed the different sides of Mar Mikhael: the lack of public space and the arrival of nightlife to a residential area. Right now, there are designers opening ateliers, specialty stores mushrooming in every alley, and studios setting up shop in the old high-ceiling buildings. However, with the cool artsy crowd came the thriving restaurant population and pub culture that litters the sidewalks with Almaza bottles and cigarette butts, creates traffic and noise, etc. Along with the characteristic of being in constant flux comes the question: how long will Mar Mikhael be the hotspot for the creative and the young? Will the crowd migrate to a new neighborhood like it did when it left Gemmayzeh and Monot?

From this conference, a plan was established for the next activities to be tackled within the project. A physical one being an urban intervention within MK: either renovating one of the staircases in terms of functionality or turning an expropriated green space near EDL into a garden. Approvals for these initiatives are still pending.

In Mar Mikhael as an event has 4 parts:
• Exhibitons: Behind the Object, an exhibition revolving around the process that leads up to the final product, featuring 7 creatives from Mar Mikhael (Creative Space Beirut will be there!). It will be held in the space where Nasawiya used to be. Another exhibition running parallel will be for 3 architecture schools (ALBA, LAU, and AUB) featuring their studies and solutions for the Mar Mikhael neighborhood. That one will be held at Imad Gemayel Architects premises.
• Panels that focus on previously identified problems: public space regulation and rental law. Georges Zouain of GAIA Heritage will be moderating.
• Workshops: One solution-based closed workshop for the major stakeholders of Mar Mikhael to discuss the urban interventions mentioned above and to get feedback on other concerns. Another on-going workshop is for the youth of Mar Mikhael (mainly grandkids of current residents or MK church goers) who meet once a week to come up with a plan for MK with the Design for Change program (active in 30 countries). They will be implementing it for their neighborhood within the coming months, fingers crossed.
• Tours: the weekend has two Arabic/English walking tours of the neighborhood enveloping the history, creativity, and residential aspects, starting from EDL, going through the Tobaggi garden, creative cluster, and ending at Brut.

You can sign up for the workshops and tours here.

Elisabetta also brings up the issue of the people’s reluctance to collaborate which is why Toolbox is being pushed: the 3-day workshop that helps creatives figure out how to start a business by equipping them with the right tools and knowledge. Day 3 is when creatives have to team up to create a quick prototype and present their idea to a jury.

She says she “would hate to be one of those expats who sits in the EU and never sees any Lebanese and doesn’t really understand what happens on the ground.” With that said, she seems to have quite the grasp on how things go here and tells me that, “Lebanon is a complicated place where even if you put all the right cards on the table it doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to happen.” Luckily, this hard truth hasn’t discouraged their efforts. The team hopes that this event will make enough noise so that it will have an impact on the neighborhood itself. I hope so too.

TEDxBeirut 2014 Series: Sarah Hermez of the Creative Space Beirut

10250240_701460626569612_1042371557507432285_nThis is part II of my TEDxBeirut 2014 series.

After attending TEDxBeirut last year, I decided to focus on 3 speakers (Dima Boulad, Sarah Hermez, and Imad Gemayel) based on a common thread between them: designers with consciences. Through their work, it was clear that they each felt they had a social responsibility to better society using their skills.

It’s taking a bit of time to get these up because scheduling meetings gets difficult during the last quarter of the year, especially with Christmas/NYE break. However, this weekend, I caught up with Sarah Hermez, co-founder of the Creative Space Beirut, to talk about their work and what’s been going on since her TEDxB talk in September.

A Bit of Background

For those who don’t know, Creative Space Beirut is a free fashion design school. They bring together a small number of talents from all over Lebanon and teach them the ropes to fashion design through a hands-on practical approach. Sarah says, “the problem is when you’re tuition-based, you’re cutting off most of the talented people because talent doesn’t necessarily come with money,” thus the need for a free school. The format isn’t for everyone; the students need to have three main components: talent, passion, and the ability to be an open tolerant team player. At the moment, students who don’t have the option of attending a private university or fashion school (be it for financial reasons or because they don’t meet the typical eligibility requirements) are the priority when it comes to enrollment.

Previously, pieces were sold by auction to raise funds to keep the school running but it was not a sustainable model. Even though investors helped them move to a new location in Mar Mikhael, relying on donations and grants was proving to be problematic as a long-term source of financial backing. Rather than converting the Space to a for-profit, the team tried to come up with other ways that would allow them to continue offering free education to undiscovered youth who would have otherwise not had the chance to learn the trade. Because the school is free, instructors are willing to dedicate their time pro-bono because it is purely for education, not money.

For now, the school focuses on fashion design but there are plans to expand to accommodate other design programs later on. The aim of the school goes beyond education and employment. “If these talented people can go back into their communities and design, then perhaps they can design their communities in a better way,” says Sarah. One Palestinian Creative Space student got a job with Mercy Corps and is teaching fashion in the refugee camps. The social responsibility mentality seems to be rubbing off on the students, too.

The Double-Edged Sword of Certification

The school is not officially certified yet but, with certification, comes drawbacks. The model of the school is fluid and flexible because there isn’t a rigid curriculum or quotas to meet when it comes to being accredited. For example, if they want to fly a visiting professor in to give a workshop, there are no levels of approval or budgets to get cleared, they raise the funds and do it. But without the certification, credibility as a school and as a graduate of the school can suffer (mostly to the parents of the students). When it comes to breaking into the fashion world, the Space can provide a connection or an interview but your talent and attitude is what gets you through the door. An unrestrictive form of certification is in the works but, currently, the credibility of the Creative Space depends on their connections and reputation in the design community alone. With or without certification, Sarah wants the students to be recognized for the quality of their work, not for a certificate.

The Creative Space Beirut Brand

At an exhibition in Kuwait last October, the Creative Space Beirut Ready-to-Wear collection was launched as a new fundraising strategy. Ten pieces of one-size-fits-all that can work for all body shapes due to their loose draping styles. By going into production, they can be sold throughout the year and be a constant source of funding for the Space. This was the beginning of the Creative Space as a brand. All items that are sold are done so under this brand because they are considered products of the open collaboration between students and teachers. The brand is meant to continue post-graduation and encourage alumni to return to teach new students and collaborate all over again.

Kuwait vs. Lebanon

Kuwait welcomed Creative Space Beirut and the “exotic” Lebanese designers’ work with open arms. They were eager to collaborate and put together an exhibition. After speaking at the Nuqat Conference, Sarah was approached by a prominent retailer who wanted to feature the students’ designs in her store. One of the biggest challenges in Lebanon, that became evident after visiting Kuwait, is the lack of support from the local community. Although these blossoming designers are Lebanese and fall within the “underdog breaking through” framework, the Lebanese fashion retailers have been reluctant to carry their designs in their shops. It seems they need a Western stamp of approval before they are willing to empower on-the-cusp talent that could one day be featured in Vogue or the new Elie Saab runway look. Before that happens though, they aren’t willing to pay to feature Lebanese designers’ handmade high-quality pieces in their stores. The Lebanese fashion industry caters to couture and to those who are well-connected or already established; unfortunately, students of the Space do not fall into these categories. Seeing that so many of the big names in the international fashion world are of Lebanese origin, it is sad to see that we are reluctant to boost and praise our own.

Sarah is upfront about the fact that she may not promote the Space enough but she doesn’t seem to be a fan of leveraging the “a free school for students from less fortunate backgrounds” card. She isn’t on board with the language of the sob story; she wants support for talent, not out of pity. She didn’t do that in Kuwait and still had people reach out to her so why aren’t more Lebanese jumping at the opportunity to help the undiscovered?

The Launch of Second St

Second St was launched by Sarah and Tracy Moussi at the end of 2014 as another fundraising strategy to sustain the longevity of the Space. For now, the socially-conscious brand focuses on the reinterpretation of the basic chemise and it gets its name from the fact that it is an alternative path from the exclusive design world, or a second street. It also happens to be the name of the street that Sarah and Tracy lived on while studying at Parsons in NYC.

Although the prices of the shirts are not Vero Moda-esque (they go for around ~190 USD each), you have to keep in mind that:

  1. You are supporting a brand created by local designers
  2. The shirts are original well-studied cuts created by these designers and are not mass produced plain t-shirts
  3. Thirty percent of that fee is going into funding a free design school in Lebanon

It’s a small price to pay when you think about where that money is going and who it’s helping. Second St and some Creative Space Beirut pieces are available at Memory Lane in Mar Mikhael.

If you want to support the Creative Space but can’t fork over that much cash, check out the Dress to Kill Parties. They’re held every few months as another fundraising activity – all the proceeds go to the Creative Space. The last one was held at Behind the Green Door (facing EDL in Mar Mikhael).

Sarah Hermez

It was obvious from her TEDx talk that Sarah was fueling her efforts with an authentic passion that is rare to find. After meeting her in person, I was convinced that this young lady has no idea the kind of change she is creating and has an admirable level of humility; her drive is genuine but she seems to be unaware of the kind of inspiration she (and her team) is to designers who want to do more for the common good, in Lebanon specifically. Something that struck me during her TEDx talk and then again during our morning coffee, was when she was telling me why she decided to move to Lebanon after growing up in Kuwait and studying in NYC. Sarah wanted to put her creativity and effort into something that would lead somewhere, and it wasn’t in the mainstream fashion world. “I knew I wanted to be creative but social justice was very important. For me, it wasn’t a question of where to go. If I wanted to give myself to somewhere, it should be where I come from and a place that has a lot to be done,” and so, with time, through talks with her mentor and co-founder of the Space, Parsons Prof. Caroline Simonelli, a free school in Lebanon was born.

She asked me not to make the post about her and emphasized that she doesn’t like the spotlight. I think she better get used to it because, after being infected by her spirit and hearing about what the team is accomplishing for our community, spotlight is exactly what she deserves.