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.

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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.

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

TEDxBeirut 2014 Series: Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesuit Garden, Geitawi – Ashrafieh

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

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

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

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

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

Partying Out of Spite or Ignorance?

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Last month, after attending Wickerpark, a friend abroad said he was impressed that Lebanon was still able to have events full of life when terror was “infesting everything else.”

For a second, I agreed. It was something to be proud of. It was a packed summer night with bands playing by the sea, people shoulder-to-shoulder with beers in hand. That we could have such a lively crowd in the middle of Batroun when the Islamic State was playing hopscotch on our borders was quite the feat. I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s a way to fight back. To prove that Beirut will not topple over and be conquered. I’ve heard it’s a way to distract people from reality, to keep their spirits up in a situation that is out of their control, to keep their quality of life soaring in one aspect since they can’t even expect to have basic utilities available 24/7. After all, how do you stay sane in Beirut when you have every reason to lose it?

In Beirut, you party.

And I say “Beirut” because the country is not acting as one whole unit. Other cities are enduring turmoil while Beirut is in a bubble, disconnected from the other kilometers that make up our 10,452 km dot on the map. These same cities are not as far away as people imagine, it’s just that Lebanon has a different scale of distance since we’re such a small country.

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But then I thought, “what if it’s not out of spite?” Maybe we’re not doing this to say “F*ck Daesh.” What if that’s not the real reason people party? What if the majority have gotten so distracted that they don’t know how bad things may get because they’ve distanced themselves so much from what is really going on? The more you surround yourself with the comforting feeling that nothing’s changed and everything is okay, the more you will begin to believe that nothing is at risk of disappearing. I had heard about the beheading of another Lebanese Army soldier while being at a Decks on the Beach party. People danced the night away and I couldn’t help but wonder if they all knew the news.

I’m tired of this place being known for two extremes mashed together: bombs and hedonism. There is more to us than shrapnel and bikinis. Read Warren Singh-Bartlett’s post on Why Beirut Really Matters. Sure, I go to concerts and parties, and I live my life like nothing’s changed but maybe that’s the problem. Our spirit shouldn’t be sacrificed; I’m not suggesting we should stay indoors and just wait for the shit to hit the fan. I just worry that we may not even see the shit coming until it hits us in the face.