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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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I recently stumbled upon a familiar sight at a Middle Eastern art exhibit in Chelsea, New York. It was a view anyone living in Lebanon during the 2006 war may have seen.

The piece by Ali Cherri was projected on the wall at the center of the gallery:

The viewer watches a slide show, revealing military ships appearing on the horizon.

First one:

Then two:

Then three:

The rhythm of the slides bring back the mix of monotony and fear we felt during those days. The ships–most of them from the US Navy- were evacuating American and European nationals during a brief truce.

Watching it was a bit agonizing for those who would not go. All day long ships would disappear and reappear. Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated by the time it was over after about a week. And everyday we wondered anxiously what was in store for us when it ended and the bombing resumed.

The piece was also accompanied by an audio recording of a message by the Israeli military, which had infiltrated the Lebanese radio waves and played the following message.

I too photographed and video taped the ships at the time but the footage seemed so mundane I never really used it.

Looking at the price tag suggested for these few slides, I really wish I had!

You can bid on this piece and watch Ali’s full slideshow and audio here. And you can view all the Middle Eastern works in the auction which will benefit the New York-based Alwan for the Arts, a non-profit which regularly brings Arab and regionally-focused film screenings, lectures, book readings and other great events to the city.

The creative people at 5Ampere have just come up with this striking piece of protest art. The caption reads: “A country that is worth 10 Liras”

Of course this relates to very real fencing of Dalieh, the rocky promontory near the famous Raouche “Pigeon Rocks”

Fences started going up a few weeks ago:

Beirut Report

Developers are attempting to privatize and likely end public access to the area, which has been a picturesque picnic and swimming spot for generations of Beirutis.

First came the steel posts:

A week later they added razor wire, which seems quite dangerous to the public, as people regularly congregate near the Corniche rails:

Beirut Report
Finally, last week an additional layer of barbed wire was added to the top:
Photo: Mona El Hallak

…making the area look more like Guantanamo Bay than a place for a sunset stroll.

Curiously, municipal police have been deployed to monitor the scene. Do they have orders to protect the rights of the developer or the citizens’ access to the shore?

Mona El Hallak
Nevertheless, activists are resisting hard and their campaign has gained significant media coverage and momentum. Every Sunday, they have gathered with music and banners.
Mona El Hallak
Watch a recent drum circle here:

There have also been rap, beatbox and impromptu musical performances:

Live rap show at Dalieh– crowd growing #savedalieh #beirut #nonviolent #resistance #publicspace pic.twitter.com/VyhU8YbggC
— Habib Battah (@habib_b) May 18, 2014

And last weekend, artists began working on the fence:
Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh
Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh
Civl Campaign to Protect Dalieh
Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh
See previous post for background on the campaign including an AUB video about the shaky legal and constitutional grounds this massive development rests upon.
Source
The campaign will be arranging new activities this Sunday. Check/like the Facebook group for updates on events and times. It’s an all volunteer group and they are always looking for new recruits of all skills, including the skill of just showing up and enjoying the site. The Sunday gatherings are growing every week.
And be sure to visit the array of natural caves and pools at the Dalieh peninsula and its rare biodiversity (including a family of sea lions) before it is too late.
UPDATE: The architect behind the project has been revealed and activists have launched a lawsuit to sue the state over unlawful attempts by developers and political elites to change laws in their favor. Read more in this follow-up post.

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    A protest was held last night in Mar Mikhael after residents learned that a historic passageway through their neighborhood was being eyed by developers.

    Residents told me surveyors arrived last week and planned to remove telephone poles along the old steps known as the Massad Stairs, which lead to their homes. When residents questioned the surveyors activity, the workers reportedly replied: “If removing the telephone poles bothers you, what are you going to do when we tear up the whole stairway?”

    This led to last night’s protest:

    Here’s what the stairs look like during the day:

    Source: Paint up

    Only recently a group of students pitched in to beautify the steps:

    Source: Ashrafieh Stairs

    Residents told me the developer plans to demolish the Massad Stairs to make way for trucks and bulldozers to access a plot of property about midway up the stairs.

    That would mean destroying a historic passageway, one that links to several other sets of steps throughout the neighborhood.

    The Massad Steps form part of a network of steps that interconnect throughout the hilly, historic Ashrafieh neighborhood. The steps served as a stop along the old trolley car line and were also known as the Salwan Steps, a nearby shopkeeper told me:

    He couldn’t put a date on them but said the stairs were easily 150 years old. Back when he was a young man in the 1960s, droves of people used to take them on their way to or from the tramway.  He also remembers an old man about 90 years old who used to come and pray at the stairwell every few days. When asked why he was praying, the old man told him people were buried underneath the steps–that the site was once an ancient graveyard, “like much of Ashrafieh.”

    Indeed a number of Roman grave sites have been found in the Ashrafieh area over the last decade and some have been demolished to make way for new developments. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine that this practice is not new, that graves have been built over in past decades as well.

    The residents are meeting this week again and plan to take sustained action to protect the Massad Steps– they’ve also set up a Facebook page “Ashrafieh Steps” for updates.

    It was nice to see a number of reporters on the site last night such as Bassam Kuntar from Al Akhbar. Fellow blogger Gino Raidy also has a interesting post up, recalling the stairs from his childhood.

    It looks like this site is getting a lot of attention, which may make it difficult for developers to have it their way.

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    Here is a copy of my monthly column published in last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.

    By Habib Battah


    At one point in Syria’s most anticipated new TV series, a commander dressed in an army uniform kills several of his fellow men in a fit of rage.
    “Blame it on an armed group,” he tells a junior soldier looking on in disbelief, invoking a well-worn regime line to delegitimize opposition fighters.
    It was one of several unexpected moments in this year’s Ramadan television selection, where scores of new shows are debuted. All eyes this season were on Syria, one of the biggest regional television producers, revived partially by a relocation to Lebanon for many of its writers and directors.
    Yet true to Arab television’s all-too-often avoidance of realism, “Wiladi Min El Khasiri” (Birth from the Waist) was the only show based on the war that has plagued the country for the last two years. It painted a messy picture of the battlefield with both rebels and government forces engaging in savage violence, implying that two sides shared blame for the conflict and its victims.

    Though simplistic in its portrayal of social grievances, this was a far cry from typical state television propaganda, which is largely devoid of self-criticism, especially on the war front.

    Screen shot from Wiladi Min El Khasiri

    Unexpected soul searching also crept into the script of “Sanoud Baad Kalil” (We will Return Shortly), which follows the life of a divided Syrian family taking refuge in Lebanon. Listening to the evening news with despair, the father bemoans the loss of old Damascus, “where we lived so well” as the son nods in agreement.

    But his daughter-in-law, who has devoted her time to helping refugees, sharply disagrees. “Not everyone lived like us,” she replies cooly, followed by a dramatic pause.   
    Still, all of the show’s protagonists–there are around 10– live comfortable, if not luxurious, lives in exile. Far from the desperate, jobless masses of refugees flooding over the Lebanese border every day, the cast of “Sanoud Baad Kalil” are gainfully employed, well-dressed iphone-wielding professionals. Some even inhabit mansions and five-star hotels. None resemble the destitute families begging and sleeping on the streets of Beirut.

    Screen shot from Sanoud Baad Kalil

    Of course the wide disconnect between life on and off screen is a hallmark of Arab production, not limited to the Syrian industry. Plots often revolve around a wealthy– if not obscenely rich– family with a palatial home as the main set.

    The other significant genre of Ramadan programing is the period piece, usually set either in medieval times or during mid-twentieth century colonialism. In both cases, the enemy is an uncomplicated foreign element and the heroes are poets of bygone Arab nationalism. But again this Ramadan TV season brought a surprising spin on the formula with the series “Ya Mal El Sham” which reverts between the present day and 1948 Palestine.
    Interestingly, the series features a number of Syrian Jewish characters, complicating the frequent archetype of a Jewish enemy. One of the leads is Wedad, who is cared deeply for by Muslim friends and constantly waxing lyrically about Damascus, “where people know how to live and love.” Her husband however plays a menacing Zionist collaborator, engaging in various acts of sedition and criminal activity. His character is juxtaposed with a town myth of an untrustworthy Jewish Damascene who once butchered a local and used his blood for ritual.
    Known as blood libel, the accusation springs from centuries-old xenophobic and antisemitic discourse. But instead of dismissing the tale as imaginary, it is re-enacted as fact in a gory flashback sequence featuring a bucket of blood. It is hard to imagine that the director, who seemed bent on portraying religious coexistence as a central theme, allowed his piece to perpetuate such a damaging sectarian narrative.

    Zionist Syrian Jewish character plots in screenshot from Ya Mal El Sham. 

    Mal El Sham ends with the loss of Palestine and the demise of a certain Arab revolutionary spirit, a metaphor fit for the societal dissolution that looms before Syria and much of the region today. This somber tone is echoed throughout this season’s productions, a natural reflection of the turmoil perhaps, but made all the worse by wholly unrealistic portrayals and medieval defamatory tales.  

    Aside from scripts, this year’s productions suffer from the usual ailments. Lighting, sound mixing and camera operation are either rushed or not taken seriously. Skilled art directors and actors also remain in short supply. For years now, multiple shows have been shot at the exact same “old neighborhood” or “Hara” stone courtyard studio, meant to emulate the Syrian capital’s glory days. Meanwhile the same actors play different roles in simultaneously airing shows, in some cases up to three at a time. All this becomes very confusing to the viewer. For example in one series, two actors play siblings and in another, the same two actors play a married couple.

    The ever-present “Hara” or neighborhood, a set used in multiple Syrian soap operas. Shot from Ya Mal El Sham.

    In spite of all this, productions are prolific, with major Arab channels typically purchasing upwards of four shows each during the holy month alone. One would think quality could be improved if resources were pooled into fewer products. The subtle improvements and surprises this year prove that talent does exist, but often seems to be stretched too thin to keep audiences begging for more.


    For those that are accustomed to other languages, low budget productions can make Arab television feel like a chore to watch. And for those who are not, it is simply the only option and an easy excuse for Arab media corporations to continue producing average quality output.