Tanya Traboulsi
15 September 2016

A city of contradictions: meet the people shaping Beirut's creative future


Tanya Traboulsi
15 September 2016


Beirut is a city of contradictions, both buoyed and bound by its past and present; the push and pull between its history and future is particularly acute in the divergent experiences of older and younger generations. The Lebanese Civil War ended in the autumn of 1990, and now the generation born at or towards its end, who have lived through its consequences and inherited its legacy from their families are working towards a new creativity, one that recognises but is not necessarily defined by history.

Ayla Hibri, a photographer who returned to Beirut in 2015 after stints all over the world, says: “Not only have we experienced a lot of trauma but we’ve inherited a lot of baggage from our parents. You want to move on and put the ugly past behind you, but you also want to analyse it and understand what the hell happened. There is the residue of war but we don’t have the same frustrations, the work being produced now is very different.”

A steadily increasing number of residency programmes, collective workspaces, independent galleries and publications have played a significant role in the emergence of a new design movement. Mansion, a 1930s villa that had been abandoned during the civil war, reopened in 2012 as a collective space. Funded by donations, as well as providing studios for local artists, designers and architects, Mansion hosts a public programme of films, discussions and exhibitions. Ghaith Abi Ghanem and Jad Melki, who run an architectural firm from Mansion say “it opens up possibilities outside of typical employment and encourages young designers to have a space to experiment and produce in the heart of the city.”

As well as Mansion, there is Alt City and The Olive Grove which is due to open this year. Designed by TWIG Collaborative, an interdisciplinary group of architects and designers who have also worked on the concept, operating model and branding for the site, The Olive Grove will be a co-working space designed to encourage collaboration. “As a design firm, but even more as a collaborative platform, we think socially responsible design is of the utmost importance. Designers play a key role in improving and enriching our lives, how we interact and the world around us,” says TWIG Collaborative’s Sirena Varma. “Our problems arise from the political situation, which has caused so many young and talented people to leave Lebanon. ‘Brain drain’ is an unfortunate phenomenon here, which is why The Olive Grove encouraging and guiding young entrepreneurs is so important," she continues.

“There are amazing initiatives popping up everywhere despite the barriers of the city, it’s extremely motivating,” says Maya Moumne of graphic design studio Studio Safar. They launched a journal two years ago, “inspired by Mohieddine El Labbad’s series of publications, Nazar, which is Arabic for ‘vision’. Dubbed the ‘Egyptian Milton Glaser’, El Labbad’s Nazar observed and critiqued the visual culture and graphic design in the Arab world from the 1980s onwards.” It was one of few publications to focus on design in the region, and in Journal Safar they are continuing the legacy, publishing bilingual stories on graphic design, food, film, art, comics and poetry.

As is the case in most cities, there is a balance of people working freelance, in collectives or at larger studios and agencies. Beirut is fast-paced, the creative scene thriving against the odds. “It’s still nascent,” says illustrator and designer Cynthia Merhej". “But it’s becoming more diverse. When people come back [after studying abroad] they want to do something that is going to make a change. We are more flexible [than older generations], you kind of have to be. I work as a photographer, illustrator, DJ, and now as a fashion designer. I used to also be a graphic designer. You have to diversify, nowadays you are just expected to know more”.

“There are amazing initiatives popping up everywhere despite the barriers of the city, it’s extremely motivating”

Maya Moumne

Working collaboratively, in groups such as Samandal Comics, a non-profit releasing magazines and comics anthologies, which was founded in 2007, can also motivate broader impact. “Samandal Comics draws attention to authors in Lebanon and the Arab world. We have gained notoriety and inspired similar initiatives in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia,” says Joseph Kai. Late last year they were found guilty of inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, publishing false news, defamation and slander with a fine of the equivalent of close to £15,000. The case had been opened in 2008 after the minister of information had taken a disliking to panels in two satirical comics, which he then took out of context. On the Samandal Comics website a statement describes how “the court fell back on the vagaries of an elastic censorship law and a cohort of complacent public servants to criminalise and punish us, in the process committing several legal violations to wit.”

Beirutis defy being defined by trauma, understanding how to tackle day-to-day challenges with flexibility and adaptability. Electricity and water supplies are regularly shut off – sometimes for months; post must be sent via airmail or private couriers due to a lack of infrastructure and volatile neighbours; and in last year’s garbage crisis, refuse wasn’t collected for more than eight months after the closure of a waste dump south of the city.

Sarah Hermez, a Lebanese-American fashion designer who launched Beirut’s non-profit fashion school The Creative Space, says: “Lebanon is a pretty politically unstable country. We lack basic government services and have not had a president in place for over two years, let alone being in between Syria and Palestine, two extremely volatile places. The political gridlock and the greater humanitarian strife around us causes a lot of dissatisfaction and unrest. This, juxtaposed with our very pleasant Mediterranean environment, causes a strange tension which manifests in much of the creative work that comes out of the country.”

Unlike most cities with warmer climes, life stirs up in the summer as much of the diaspora return. “In spite of high temperatures and humidity, people keep working, running and sweating… The messiness of the city makes us want to escape but somehow we can’t seem to live anywhere else,” says art director Tala Safié". “It’s a peculiar city. When you are away from it, it’s all you talk about. It’s alive, the food is great, the weather is perfect and it’s so small you can ski and swim in the same day. When you’re there, all you do is complain about how chaotic, loud and suffocating it is. You’re stuck in this never-ending love-hate loop – wanting to be there and wanting to leave, wanting to nurture it and turn your back on it,” says Ayla Hibri.

For writer Gilles Khoury", it’s possible to find the positive among the chaos. “I talk about frustration with a filter of sarcasm; sadness with an aftertaste of hope, that’s how I function. In a way, political life in Lebanon can become a weapon rather than an enemy.”

Stylist Makram Bitar" adds: “I feel scattered when it comes to describing the creative scene in Beirut. There is a certain dynamism and optimism that I appreciate in people, it requires so much courage and energy to make things happen in the turmoil of a city like Beirut.”

"There is a certain dynamism and optimism that I appreciate in people, it requires so much courage and energy to make things happen in the turmoil of a city like Beirut.”

Makram Bitar

An issue that is mirrored the world over is the lack of diversity within the arts, Sarah Hermez from The Creative Space says: “I think in order for design to be an effective tool for progress in society it needs to be inclusive. We can’t let only a select few design the world around us.” But progress is being made via the collective work-spaces and the free school, as well as new museums and galleries opening, supporting and exhibiting both contemporary and historic work. Online publications such as Raghunter also contribute: “We experience, and offer a lot of support to people around us. Especially with emerging talent, the scene is pretty open… We appreciate each other’s work, and having that type of support really helps to expand business reach and dynamism”, says editor Serene Abbas.

Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led campaign, which in May of this year won an unprecedented 40% of the municipality vote. The campaign goal was to elect a council of non-partisan experts in the fields of urban planning, economics and waste management, who would address core problems of liveability in the city, as well as broader issues of transparency and social justice.

Graphic designers and illustrators Jana Traboulsi, Maya Saikali, Sana Asseh and Tala Safié were some of the local creatives to work on the campaign, of which Tala says: “Creative work can always be employed as an effective political tool, whether in a subtle or loud voice. The trick I think is to challenge and engage the audience, favouring active, critical readings rather than passive reception.”

Cynthia Merhej, who returned to Beirut to start a clothing line, studied at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. When she graduated in 2013 “it was ‘immigrants out’ – with the new government situation I had to leave immediately. My visa didn’t even last passed the graduation ceremony. I had to leave the country and come back on a tourist visa to be able to pack my stuff and leave. I didn’t want to come back yet so I went to New Zealand but ultimately, it didn’t work out. When I came back to Lebanon I realised opening my own business is more feasible here. There’s a good support network, people are encouraging, they like something new happening.”

But there are still social rules and expectations in Beirut, and as photographer Tanya Traboulsi describes they “stem from traditions that date back decades if not more. Some are beautiful, some are discriminating and outdated. But the period of abiding to expectations is slowly changing into more independent mindsets and ways of living.” Generations crystallise in hindsight, and in Beirut “everything somehow keeps moving” as Cynthia Merhej says. “Okay it’s not super-easy, it’s the kind of place where people just to try to find a way around things, they’re not just going to stop living because there’s no water or tourists aren’t coming anymore. You just try to be creative about it.”

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About the Author

Billie Muraben

Billie studied illustration at Camberwell College of Art before completing an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. She joined It’s Nice That as a Freelance Editorial Assistant back in January 2015 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis.

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