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.