Painting Beirut’s slums

Painting Beirut’s slums

When we hear about real estate developers working in poor neighborhoods, it often means they are tearing them down to build towers and looking to kick old residents out. But in the south Beirut slum of Ouzai, a former developer claims he is actually doing the opposite: making life more livable for existing residents to stay.

The project known as Ouzville began a year and half ago, according to its founder, real estate mogul Ayad Nasser.

Nasser says he spent over $100,000 to bring in 25 graffiti artists, local and foreign, to beautify the neighborhood. Why? Because he grew up here.

“I wanted to give back,” he says. “Lebanon gave me a lot.”

Growing up in poverty and largely without parents helped give him the drive to succeed in business, Nasser explains, adding he has since worked on 12 real estate projects in Lebanon and six in France.

Of course most Ouzai residents have not been so lucky.

Tens of thousands of people live in the crowded slum, which grew rapidly as a squatting community in the 1980s when Israel was bombing south Lebanon. With no help from the state, internally displaced Lebanese from southern villages took up shelter at beach resorts along what had been Lebanon’s Cote d’Azur in the 1950s. Fast forward a few decades later and the place has become a shantytown not unlike Palestinian refugee camps.

Some of the new artwork makes use of the haphazard infrastructure. Once again, the state has largely ignored this impoverished community, alleging that most of the neighborhood is “illegal” and thus had provided few services. Yet today all the chaotic elements can be integrated into an artist’s canvas.

Some locals have even been inspired by the artists and contributed pieces of their own.

I met this young man who said he was so inspired he decided to paint his front door.

A few shops in the neighborhood have also decided to “rebrand” in line with the Ouzville project, such as this “Shisha Bar”

Other residents say the project also inspired them to take garbage collection more seriously. “I used to throw my garbage right into the sea because everyone did that,” said Mohammed Balita, 40,  who was born in Ouzai. “But when I saw everyone else cleaning up, now I take my garbage to the bin.”

Public services and environmental accountability are scarce even in the wealthiest parts of Beirut so the state is even more absent in an informal settlement like Ouzai.

I met Maher al Halabi, one of the neighborhood’s earliest residents, who was born around the 1950s.

He showed me a picture of himself standing in roughly the same spot when he was a child:

The wall he was standing on has been replaced by buildings. But what is also missing is the sand.

Al Halabi said the waterline used to be out where the rocks are today.

Balita, the other resident, added that during low tide a few weeks of the year, the water would recede enough to reveal seaweed marshes ideal for catching shrimp. “It was a beautiful beach,” he added. “My cousins from Australia would visit us and they said it was better here!”

But the tides and the sand vanished about 15 years ago, Balita and others said. And these days Ouzai is known as one of the most polluted places on the Lebanese coast. Much of this may be due to the fact that sewers from the area pour directly into the sea, much like other parts of Beirut. But what happened to the sand and the marshes?

The major event that changed things about 15 years ago seems to be the construction of the new airport in the late 1990s. Balita says everyday large barges were brought in to dredge the area over several months, sucking up all the Ouzai sand to be used in the construction of a the new runway, seen in the background below:

I have reported extensively on the destruction of Beirut’s original coastline, largely by real estate companies, but this was the first time I had heard about the damage done by the airport. If Balita and the others are right, the elimination of tides must create a larger environmental impact that may have occurred on several places along the coast since the end of the war.

But for Ouzville founder Nasser, the small steps are what matter at this point. He is happy the road was paved by local politicians following the start of the graffiti project. Some worried that they were trying to take credit for the project, but Ayad says he is not bothered. “Let them take credit, that’s great!”

Fresh pavement in Ouzville. Political conspiracy or just idle speculation?

Interestingly, a short article in The Economist claims local politicians are “threatened” by Nasser’s project and “suspect” he will run for office. But though the article speaks with certainty, it quotes no sources. Also it’s a little hard to imagine the major political parties present in the area, namely Hezbollah and Amal, with their vast military and economic networks, would be threatened by street murals.

Nasser says he is just trying to clean up his old neighborhood and even inspire some citizenship. Perhaps it is also a reaction to the urban sprawl industry he was so intimately involved in.  “We need to stop building, we should have stopped in 2010- and start beautifying the mess and that is what we are doing.”

Ayad Nasser standing below the home he grew up in in Ouzai.

“I consider Lebanon is more important than my two kids,” he adds. “If every Lebanese considers Lebanon as one of his children, we can save Lebanon and then we will become Lebanese citizens.”

Of course Ouzville is taking place on just one of probably dozens of streets like it in Ouzai, though Nasser says there are plans for expansion. At the very least, the project has also provided a more colorful environment for local children to play in.

Maybe some of them will get inspired to be artists themselves someday.

In fact many of the local children helped during the painting:

Some artists chose to draw greenery to help make up for the lack of trees.

That’s enough from me. I’ll let you enjoy some of the other art works. You can also check out more on the Ouzville Facebook page. Stepfeed also collected some great photos.

And definitely go out and visit. There is a lot more to see than documented here- 120 buildings says Nasser. If anything, this project could encourage more people to visit the area and help break the stereotype of it being a dangerous “illegal” neighborhood.

Also there is apparently a good fish restaurant not far from the murals known as Riba Cafe. Nasser says the fish come from down south and people come from all over Lebanon to eat there. If you get lost, use the restaurant as a landmark.

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