10 Signs You’re a Lebanese Designer

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Have Your Lebanon

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And I have mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Launch of Maktoub 3 Loubnan

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

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

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

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

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

Care to be a part of it?

A Community without a President

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Today marks two anniversaries for Lebanon: 15 years since the liberation of the South and 1 year since the beginning of our presidential vacuum. Twelve months of a second round of headless chicken syndrome and yet, I find that there are signs that Lebanon’s community is still there. We are still pushing forward, trying to create a country out of what we have.

Instead of having Lebanon associated with suicide bombings, political ambivalence, or whether or not it can withstand the increasing number of refugees, there is evidence that this place is made of more than the troubles it carries.

It seems there is more to a country than the person who runs it – there is its people.

The community is those who are fighting against domestic violence. They are the youth who give the staircases in Mar Mikhael a fresh coat of paint. They are the organizers of street festivals that remind us of the beauty of our Mediterranean sunshine and attraction to life. The community is the designers and artists coming together for Beirut’s 3rd Design Week. They are the people coming up with a civil campaign against the privatization of Dalieh. They are the activists pushing for more public green space, equal rights of migrant workers, and ethical treatment of animals. They are the dignified Armenians who ask for recognition of a crime against humanity rather than an apology or vengeance. Sure, they’re the ones throwing and attending the parties and concerts too. The community is those who are not waiting for a president to create their Lebanon. The community is made up of people who are building it anyway.

Big Questions in Brooklyn

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Being in New York City can make you feel small. And when you’re arriving from a dot on the map, it can make you feel like a speck of dust in a sandstorm. It was the first time that I stopped to think, not only about all that has happened to me in the last few years, but also where I may be heading in the ones to come. Turns out, I didn’t want to wait another 3 years to reevaluate – by then, it would be too late.

Spending a week in NYC was more of an investigative trip. I wanted to see if it could be a new frontier, the next step that would shove me out of my comfort zone and teach me more about who I am. The more I thought this way, the more I felt like a high school senior in need of a gap year, a lost guppy who wanted to find herself or was on some journey of self-discovery, a walking millennial cliche. Basically, I felt like a spoiled brat because I wanted more when I was and am already quite fortunate.

Honestly, only those who are blessed enough to have options at their fingertips have the luxury to think this way. When you are tied down with responsibilities and bills to pay, the path in front of you has limitations. But when you’re not surrounded by commitments that dictate your decisions, you only have you to answer to. The possibilities are overwhelming and have never been more daunting. It brings on inner monologues and sidewalk soliloquies that have your brain pondering things like What am I really doing? Why am I restless after 3 years at the region’s best agency? Am I satisfied with where my life is now? And if not, why am I wasting time being stuck? But where do I go?

If I were to move to NYC, or move anywhere that wasn’t my dear Lebanon, would I survive it? Am I as strong as I think I am? Like many people who were strolling the streets of Brooklyn, I found that I was having discussions with myself out loud; I was asking the big questions that come with being in a big city. Am I doing everything in my power to make sure the life I want will come to be? What is the life I want?

My closest friends are all abroad and the days are numbered when it comes to those who are still here. Most of my phone contacts have country acronyms next to their names because they’re abroad trying to make something of themselves. Am I selling myself short by staying behind? Is there more for me out there? In a country that can be so much but give so little, I am finding it increasingly difficult to pass up opportunities that would empower me as a young professional, experiences that would equip me with new skills, and chances that would expose me to hidden facets of myself I have yet to know. Can Lebanon give me that? Am I still betraying my country if I want more for myself? If I stay but don’t move forward, who am I really helping? In the end, wasted potential serves no one.

I’m grateful I don’t have parents that poke and prod about when I’m going to walk down the aisle or make them grandparents. Instead they entertain the same questions that I struggle with. My dad recently asked me if I ever give any thought to where my personal life is at. I think he worries that he instilled in me such a spirit of ambition that my careerist ways have backfired. Regardless of whether it shows or not, I do think about it. Even more now that I have entered Wedding Territory. For the next 5-7 years of my life, I will have, on average, 3 engagements/weddings to attend annually. Not out of desperation, lack of self-esteem, or fear of becoming a cat lady, but this brings on big questions as well: Will I find that person? Would I notice them if I did? Have we already met? What am I missing? and then the worst one of all: Is something wrong with me? 

If I were to move to NYC, or any other city that disconnects me from the world I’ve known for so long, would I become more guarded than I already am? Would I be so good at surviving that I become too strong? Would I be lonely? Will I miss out on special milestones for the sake of my own selfish drive? Does going solo really matter if it means you’re sacrificing moments with the ones you care about the most? If I leave, dad won’t be around to make Spanish omelettes with Kalamata olives on Sunday mornings. If I stay, I’ll never make them for myself. There’s always a fine line when trying to decide what’s best for you. In the Arab world, sometimes you have to cut the cord yourself.

I resigned from my job before boarding my flight to the States. A week after landing, as I stood on the edge of East River Park looking at the Manhattan skyline on my last morning in Brooklyn, a small voice asked, will Beirut be okay without me?

I know I want to find out.

My First Visit to Tripoli

The men in the mosque

The men in the mosque

While waiting for the bus to take us there, a few Americans told me about how they had been living in Lebanon for over two years and still hadn’t made the trip to Tripoli. I think I relieved their guilt when I told them that, after 15 years, I had never been either…and I’m Lebanese. After posting a few photos and sharing my trip with friends, their reactions were, “shu akhadik 3a trablos?” (what made you go to Tripoli?). I need justification for going to a place that is a fundamental part of my nation’s history.

Mira Minkara has been organizing walking tours of Tripoli since last year and also does a separate tour dedicated to Oscar Niemeyer’s abandoned architectural projects there. I can’t say that the tour was well-planned: we didn’t go to the crusader’s castle or the valley of the churches because the priests were out for Sunday lunch or enter the Taynal Mosque because it was prayer time and there was a funeral right after. We also didn’t get to walk through the city streets like a local. Compared to other walking tours I’ve been on, I did not feel like an inconspicuous fly on the wall experiencing an area’s dynamic. When you’re in a group of over 40 people, mostly foreigners, being led through tight low-ceiling alleys by a woman yelling through a megaphone, you tend to stand out. At some point, as we were all buying kaak and barazi, a store owner jokingly yelled out, “el ingleez ehtalo elbalad!” to his friend across the way. It means “the English have occupied the country!”

Mira walked us through the old souk, various hamams, and a few khans. Unlike Beirut, Tripoli’s older parts are not mixed with the new ones. Old and new Tripoli are separated but, like Beirut, its heritage sites are under the threat of development: the site where the Ottoman serail once stood is going to be converted into a parking lot.

The old souk itself feels more authentic than that of Byblos which has become more commercialized: catering to the tourists looking for fez hats, belly-dancer scarves with dangly gold coins, and fossil replicas. Tripoli’s souk has yet to be overrun with that sort of merchandise or clientele. The hamams, some renovated and some rotting, are magnificent. Hamam el Nouri, hidden behind a saj place, is aging beautifully. I’m a fan of the way it’s disintegrating naturally. Hamam Ezzeddine, on the other hand, is freshly painted and adorned with roll-up banners explaining each room and process. I do hope that the renovation stays true to its original design but I won’t deny that architectural botox can remove some of the historical spice. When you enter a space that was once occupied by the Ottomans ages ago, you want to feel that. It would be a shame to wipe away the wrinkles, dabbing some foundation on the rough edges should be enough for preservation. Khans, inns with a courtyard, were areas that seemed to be dedicated to one type of craft. Khan el saboun for soap makers, khan al khayateen for tailors, and so on. The soap makers were my favorite. Besides the smells and spirals of colorful bricks, it was endearing watching an old man tell his young daughter where the mint-scented soaps were. It was a family business of craftsmen. I’m a sucker for artisanal families.

OTHER TRIPOLI TIDBITS:

  • In a workshop loaded with copper and brass pieces, we found a man hammering away at a bowl. Some artforms are still alive if you look for them. I got a little copper rakweh (Arab coffee pot) for $5. What a steal.
  • Outside of Mzaar Saydit Younes, a small altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a veiled Muslim woman was asking a Christian woman about sainthood and differing beliefs. When I see Lebanese people trying to understand one another rather than argue over what they believe in, I am comforted that we are not all sectarian sheep.
  • An Arabic-speaking German woman living in Ras el Nabaa, who previously lived in Egypt, was talking to the table of other Lebanese while she ordered her own hummus. I’m pretty sure we all assumed she’s a spy. That’s just how it is.
  • Hamam el Abed was named as such because an escaped slave from Akkar used it as a refuge before he was murdered there. It’s the only operational hamam left but it’s only for men.
  • Although I want to believe that our Lebanon hasn’t been tainted, I saw ISIS stickers on the plaque of a tomb. Uh oh.
  • New Arabic word: tawashiya means eunuchs.

Right now, Tripoli has a reputation for being dangerous so most tend to avoid heading that direction unless they have to. But what was our excuse when things were calmer? Perhaps it’s more about the fear of the unknown. The ripples from terror that affect Tripoli don’t reach our capital city with the strength you would expect. Unless you are from there, what happens in Tripoli might as well happen in Iraq; the reactions are the same. To a lot of the people of Beirut, Tripoli is far, off in the north, almost its own state. In reality, it’s less than a two-hour drive away. Next time you’re there for halawit el-jibn from Abdulrahman Hallab, take a stroll in the city too. Buy a bar of soap. See Lebanon.

Hezbollah, Skybar, and Sex

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Based on Habib Battah‘s lecture about digital accountability held at AUB a few weeks back, those three are the topics that get attention here in Lebanon. Naturally, I threw them in my headline to make sure people pause when scrolling down their timelines. After MTV’s banana song stunt, there is some truth in our tendency to be attracted to the dangerous, the trivial, or the naked. However, I refuse to believe that all of us are that easily distracted or amused. I know there are others out there worrying about the most fundamental issues that we face every day.

We have enough societal woes to satisfy a stadium full of talented problem solvers. What we don’t have are concrete records of what is going on, what is and isn’t being done, or who is to blame/thank. Lebanon should be an investigative journalist’s wet dream. It’s also that for social workers, policy makers, or anyone interested in urban development, public space, or civil innovation. Unfortunately, when it comes to information and presentation of facts, there is a gap.

In come the activists that have been carrying out intense research on their causes, coming to the field armed with information and ready to tackle the “bad guys” who are usurping land, rights, property, and heritage. Funnily enough, this has pushed journalists to do their homework properly. Activists, bloggers, and anyone with an Internet connection have challenged the media to keep up because they’re bringing expertise, research, and documentation to the table. Booyah.

Habib’s talk focused on the various movements that actually made a difference through online activism. Dalieh, #STOPLIRA, Fouad Boutros Highway, Jesuit Garden in Geitawi, etc. All these projects were disrupted or put on hold in some way. It would be a half-truth to say that these efforts were purely online, Facebook-page avec hashtag-frenzy. All effective groups had grassroots: there was a physical leg to what they were trying to achieve. But the alliances that formed online, the buzz that is created as a result, and the noise that it makes internationally cannot be ignored.They coordinated, organized, and mobilized toward a common goal. The key is to have a very clear issue as a group’s main focus. Baby steps.

Digital accountability has been a useful tool when it comes to exposing wrongdoings and has resulted in officials now seeking the approval of their audiences. Via this digital accountability, a form of digital citizenship has begun because the people feel empowered, like their connection to this country is being valued and their opinions matter.

With all the new ways of communicating, broadcasting, and existence of platforms for public debate, maybe we’ve underestimated our digital voices. We share, post, connect. We tell the world when there is an injustice occurring. We’re not only making noise, we’re being heard.

5 Handcrafted Valentine’s Day Gifts

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Yes, Valentine’s Day is commercial and you don’t need a day to appreciate the ones you love. But if you love someone, what’s the harm in having an excuse to celebrate it? I’m sure each couple has their own way of doing so and, perhaps, has agreed:

a) not to exchange gifts,
b) not to acknowledge this “holiday”
c) to stay in with DVDs & sushi

Nothing is wrong with opting for a sweet bouquet, a handful of Hershey’s Kisses, and an “I love you.” But for those of you who need some ideas, I put together a list of some unisex handcrafted items you could get here in Lebanon so you don’t have to resort to Amazon and fork over shipping fees, go to Pinterest and attempt a DIY project when you’re not the artsy type, or buy a generic fluffy heart-covered monstrosity from [insert gift shop chain name here].

If you want to get your special someone a present that is thoughtful and unique, go for the personalized and custom-made. And don’t forget to wrap it up nice because half the fun is the mystery and anticipation behind a wonderfully packaged surprise. Also, feel free to contact me for a Bambi’s Soapbox love card. I’m selling them at a discount: 5,000 LL each.

5. Creative Space Beirut/Second St

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Featured last month on the blog, these two brands have hand-stitched fashionable pieces done by fashion design students (Creative Space Beirut) and Sarah Hermez & Tracy Moussi (Second St). On top of getting some stylish clothing, the monies you invest in these pieces would go toward keeping a free design school running. They’re available at the Creative Space Beirut or Memory Lane, both in Mar Mikhael.

4. Crochet Friend from Rachel K

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I discovered Rachel at Afkart in December. She has a collection of fashion pieces too but what really caught my eye at her stand was her geeky handmade crochet buddies. From Karl Lagerfeld to Mario, these little guys go for $60 a piece. You can also request a personalized crocheted version of you (or your beau) but I’d refrain from gifting a voodoo-like doll to someone you love. Unless you’re into that. No judgment.

3. GGRIL Glass Goods

From GGRIL's Facebook page

From GGRIL’s Facebook page

It would be wrong to have a list of handcrafted items without including the work of Ziad Abi Chaker and GGRIL. Whether it’s a vase for the bouquet you just got or a lamp to set the mood for the evening, GGRIL has beautiful blown glass items that make great presents. Plus, they’re supporting a dying artisanal craft in Lebanon AND recycling old booze bottles. Sold at various cafes and stores: Dar Bistro & Books in Hamra, Vide-Posh in Badaro, Bayrut Express in Ashrafieh.

2. Madame Cefanie Leather Goods

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I saw this lady’s work at Brut l’Atelier while on the Mar Mikhael walking tour. There, you can purchase a wallet or purse of various colors OR you can contact Madame Cefanie to request a customized bag with size and color of your choice.

1. Baked Goods

Try to bake some cookies or their favorite dessert (given that it’s not soufflé or anything else that would have Gordon Ramsay yelling at you). Baking a sweet treat for your person puts all the tender, love, and care into the pan of fatty goodness you’re whipping up for them. Wrap it up with some nice wax paper and ribbon: instant personal gift! Make sure to use chocolate for the extra aphrodisiac effect. *wink wink*

And when all else fails, if none of the above works for your significant other, go for lingerie (remember what I said about a “wonderfully packaged surprise”?). Buy it for them to wear or wear some yourself: everyone wins.

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.