Taking a Walk in Mar Mikhael

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What’s In Mar Mikhael?

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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.

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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.

My 1st Card Collection at Dar’s 1st Christmas Market

Some of you may know that I dabble in what is known as graphic design. And by dabble, I mean I have a degree in it and work in the creative department at an ad agency. Tough hours and strict clients mean you don’t always get to stretch your artsy muscles so you must turn to side projects for that much needed exercise.

And so…

I will be participating in this weekend’s Dar Bistro & Books 1st Annual Christmas Market. Although I wasn’t prepared to jump into something like this, I’ll have my first small collection of Christmas/NYE cards on sale for the 3-day affair. Nothing like pressure to make you start & finish a side project you always wanted to do…in one week. Here’s a sneak peek of my collection: IMG_0869 IMG_0874 IMG_0873 IMG_0875 Each card will be sold for 8,000 L.L. and 3 for 20,000 L.L. (including a gold or silver envelope for each). Hala, my former classmate and AIGA ME teammate, will be splitting the stand with me so be sure to check out her illustrated totebags and postcards too! IMG_0882 IMG_0883 Dar Bistro is located between the Central Bank and the AUB Alumni Association office in Hamra (go down the small alley next to the Wardieh station before CMC). It’s all weekend long so pass by for a hello, a coffee, and a card!

Touch Surgery: The Flight Simulator of Medical Operations

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At the BDL Accelerate 2014 two-day conference, plastic surgeon Dr. Jean Nehme gave a presentation about an app he co-founded: Touch Surgery. By visually showing doctors (and med students) surgeries step-by-step, they can learn about the process through interactive diagrams of a digital patient rather than read it from a book, wait for a cadaver, or practice on a living patient. It also allows for the patients to understand procedures and what would happen to them if they were to undergo a surgery of some kind. After all, when you have all the information available on the internet, you end up going to Google for medical answers…which is a huge mistake. Touch Surgery provides you with accurate information from credible sources and can show you what will happen by mapping out the entire operation in detail.

It’s got two phases: learning and testing. Learning comes with instructions as the user is taught a procedure with 3D simulations and testing comes without the instructions. And get this, the app is for FREE because, as Dr. Nehme put it, this is the age of the knowledge economy and information should be open and shared.

This is a great use of technology and I can imagine many pre-med students (and med students) using this as a new way to review material and train your brain. When it comes to operating, Dr. Nehme said, “it’s about 75% decision making and 25% technical skill.” The interactive method enables a physician a chance to practice and, thus, be able to operate without having to waste precious time and energy figuring out what the next step is. You eliminate the decision-making pauses and increase efficiency without using up physical resources or risking anyone’s life. The app also indicates things to look out for when someone’s under the knife (like important arteries).

Clearly, this doesn’t rule out shadowing and actual rounds at the hospital. All surgeons need to learn technique and IRL skills. Plus, not all medical situations are predictable and not all patients have a 3D model’s anatomy. There are unexpected complications and specifics that go into each case; however, Touch Surgery is still an excellent app to use when learning the ABC’s of an appendectomy, for example.

THE EXPERTISE
The app is created by practicing surgeons so you know it’s got the doctor’s seal of approval. Since it’s an app for smartphones, it can constantly be updated with new discoveries, experiences from numerous sources, and techniques meaning that it will be cutting edge (no pun intended), unlike an old textbook or an outdated resident. The procedures are downloadable so the possibilities are endless in terms of variety and inventory.

TEAMING UP WITH OCULUS RIFT
The learning isn’t restricted to your fingertips. There are plans to incorporate Oculus Rift headsets into the existing app’s functionality. The virtual reality device would allow for users to enter an operating room and perform a surgery as if it were actually happening. #nerdilicious

My Morning with Edgard Chaya

DSC_0193_2 “Do you like your coffee with or without sugar?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not a fan of Turkish coffee. It reminded me of how my teta still asks if I want chai with my eggs on the morning of every Eid even though she knows I don’t like tea. I was never good at being a hardcore Arab. How do you say “no, thanks” to a man who is the embodiment of the Lebanese jiddo? Although my jiddo was more of a Paul Sorvino kind of grandpa, Mr. Edgard Chaya is the man I would imagine when I hear about an artisanal craft that requires patience and pride but has long been locked away in a drawer. He smokes a pipe, wears suspenders with his suit, and tucks a handkerchief in his jacket lapel. He is the essence of Blatt Chaya because he has an old-school aura, as if he is from the time of the tiles that bear his name: a time when elegance was done for one’s self not for everyone else, when it was effortlessly debonair and respected. IMG_7402 I wanted to learn about the process that created these tiles that I’d seen in various places around town. So after shooting an email and making a few calls, there I was, not entirely awake at the Blatt Chaya factory in the industrial quarter of Dekwaneh, meeting with Mr. Chaya for very dark coffee on a very early random Saturday morning. Blatt Chaya has been operating for fifteen years but it took Mr. Chaya four to perfect the technique of producing terrazzo tiles like his great-grandfather. It wasn’t just a matter of finding the old molds but also figuring out how to keep the colors from mixing when removing the metal stencil. Not that he wanted impeccable tiles – Mr. Chaya prefers the ones with mistakes because it makes them human. “Every tile is unique,” he says, because the dyes are mixed each time so the color isn’t always the exact same hue, the molds are manually set, and even the sand used is sifted and laid out to dry by hand. The imperfections that result from this process are evidence that these pieces were made by a person, not a plugged-in machine. DSC_0191 “Finish your coffee and then I’ll walk you through the whole process.” I kept drinking until I tasted the coffee grinds. I realized I’d gone too far to prove I’d finished my cup but it was my initiation into the fraternity of Blatt Chaya: it had to be done if I wanted to make it into the factory. With a small team of 12, the sand is first sifted through a netted strainer to remove all dust and impurities then washed with water five times. The wet sand is set out on fabric in gray cottage cheese-like mounds until it dries, resulting in a fine clean powder. Using the molds within a framing, naturally-colored or dyed cement is poured into the stencil and sealed. The frame is pressed at 130 psi to solidify the tile. After being dried and sanded down to a smooth finish, the environmentally friendly ingredients have become immortalized works of art. Because terrazzo tiles have color within the cement mix, it withstands weathering and deterioration. Unlike painted tiles, the design and color remain as the tile is worn down over time.

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Sifting through the sand

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The sifted and washed sand is laid out to dry

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Sand drying out among the stacked tiles

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Metal molds used as stencils for the cement

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Blatt Chaya’s color palette

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Videos of the process are on my Instagram account

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Four 20x20cm Macanaka tiles come together

Because you can choose the colors you want for each part of the mold, every tile has a different outcome. Once laid together to create the final pattern, it’s a whole new canvas. Even the simplest mold can make an intricate geometric motif once multiplied on a larger scale. On the Blatt Chaya website, you can simulate how your desired pattern will turn out based on the mold and colors you want. I told him I wanted to recreate the tiles of my jiddo’s house in the South and asked him if he would name it after our day3a because each mold is named after an area or village in Lebanon. When I asked Mr. Chaya which mold was his favorite, he told me “I don’t have a favorite, they’re my children.” That’s not far from the truth; one 20 x 20 cm tile is named Macanaka, an amalgam of the names of his children: Maxime, Caline, Nabil, and Karim. He says it takes passion. He says you need to love it for the process because it’s not easy or rewarding. He says that crafts like his family’s are dying out because the number of people who appreciate the art are outnumbered by the number of people who want to make a profit that is easier to get from mass production high-tech factories. He knows that his work is being recognized though. Blatt Chaya has become its own class of tiles in the same way that Kleenex is tissue paper. They’re not interchangeable but they are their own category; when choosing tiles for a home, architects and designers have marble tiles, ceramic tiles, or Blatt Chaya. DSC_0174_2 DSC_0175_2 DSC_0181_2 DSC_0165_2 DSC_0182_2 DSC_0183_2 DSC_0196_2 When asked about expanding, Mr. Chaya is not interested. He wants to preserve the artisanal expertise and you can’t do that if you take on more than you can handle. Will it stay in the family? Fortunately enough, his children, Karim and Caline, are his biggest supporters and the ones who want to continue the Chaya legacy. Karim is a prominent industrial designer who works on new molds and tile designs for the company. Caline’s daughter, Youmna, also has a knack for the business. Besides working with her jiddo, Youmna dabbles in cuisine and recently designed the menu of new Mar Mikhael deli, The Food Dealer, also home to blue Bhorsaf Blatt Chaya. She’s even painted the portrait of her jiddo that hangs in his office, a room appropriately adorned with flawed mismatched tiles.

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Blatt Chaya at The Food Dealer, Mar Mikhael

Screen shot 2014-10-21 at 9.10.39 PM Although I was like a clueless American on a Double Decker tour bus, he was patient with me. When Mr. Chaya was done walking me through the factory and answering all my amateur questions, he left me to take all the photos I want. “Wait no, don’t take photos.” He hosed down all the tiles: “you have to see them the way they truly are, haram not to get the colors.” Perhaps this newfound need it is just part of the vintage trend that is infecting people worldwide. Regardless, I’m all for it if it creates support for an art form that keeps some of our architectural heritage alive. Trendy or not, you won’t be changing your floor tiles ever time the tide shifts. Those cement tiles don’t change with the season, they’re going to grow old with you…but you know they’re going to look damn good doing it. Blatt Chaya Dekwaneh +961 1 695 222

Crowdfunding for GGRIL

Crowdfunding projects, like Mashrou3 Leila’s Raasuk album and THIS Toothbrush, have been pretty successful over here and it’s even more satisfying when those projects are ones that have a positive impact on society environmentally and culturally. GGRIL, featured numerous times on the blog, is a green initiative that recycles glass bottles while simultaneously saving the glass-blowing artisanal business from dying out. Now, they need some funding help to keep the operation going.

Go to their campaign page on Indiegogo to read more about what they’re doing and what they need. In exchange for donations, you’ll get “perks” or GGRIL products once the campaign ends in December.

Every little bit counts.