Hope and Homecoming in Lebanon’s Capital

In light of the recent disaster in Beirut, and in sympathy with those affected, we’re retrospectively publishing this story from Vol. 25: The Pioneer Issue.

This article appears in Vol. 25: The
Pioneer Issue

I propel north through Beirut from the city’s airport I pass
battered suburbs, ageing apartment blocks and sandstone monoliths.
Creeping into the centre, the number of JG Ballard-esque, high-rise
developments increases. Like many cities,
is in a state of metamorphosis. Unlike most, the marks
of recent ferocious conflict are everywhere. Lebanon’s civil war
lasted from 1975 until 1990 and left gaping holes in the country’s
population, mirrored by the pockmarks of sniper bullets and bomb
blasts in its tranquil leafy streets.

Today the city is on the move – but for our host, Samer
Ghorayeb, the preservation of Beirut’s past is a concern. “Fifteen
years ago,” he tells us, “there were 1,300 protected buildings in
this city. Now there are around 200.” Government-supported
construction companies requisition and develop damaged buildings
and empty plots around the city and more often than not the real
estate holds infinitely more value without a bombed-out,
dilapidated palace atop it.

Samer’s own commitment to preservation finds form in Baffa
House, a 1940s building that mixes Ottoman and European
architectural styles with high ceilings, tiled floors and airy
French windows, all bathed in that oh-so-lovely Mediterranean
light. Lived in by his grandparents – the house is named for his
Italian-immigrant grandfather Antonio Baffa – Samer kickstarted the
building’s substantial renovation and reopened it as a guesthouse
in 2014. For myself and photographer Abbi, both based in Dubai and
used to desert-scapes and “executive” skyscrapers, it’s disparate

Baffa House is riding a wave. After years of political
uncertainty and security concerns, Beirut’s tourist industry and
small businesses are once again in bloom. Samer tells us that
diaspora Lebanese are returning to the city, some gone as long as
three generations and from all corners of the globe. He is
cautiously hopeful but the situation is still far from

Lebanon’s patchwork demographic includes sizeable communities of
who have settled here since the 1948 Palestine War. There has also
been a substantial influx of Syrians into the country since the
start of Syria’s civil war in 2011. The country’s map of ethnic
groups and religious denominations – Armenian and Druze, Muslim and
Christian – is labyrinthine. Presided over by a Maronite Christian
President, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister and a Shi’i Muslim Head of
Parliament, politics are often in deadlock. The Shi’a political
organisation Hezbollah garners strong support in certain areas of
Lebanon, including Beirut’s southern suburbs, providing public
services where the government has failed.

As a result Samer’s guesthouse retains a healthy dose of
nostalgia for the era of his grandparents in the 1950s, 1960s and
1970s, a golden pre-war period of peace. Samer still owns pieces of
their well-loved furniture and photos of happy days gone by are
enshrined on the walls.

His mother, Diva, makes the breakfast preserves and a dairy-free
saffron cake called Sfouf, an accidental vegan masterpiece and an
ingenious answer to electricity shortages and unreliable
refrigerators during the war. Images by his brother, the
photographer Jad Ghorayeb, and his aunt, the renowned contemporary
artist Laure Ghorayeb, line the walls. Laure’s works also hang in
the Sursock Museum, a contemporary Lebanese art museum in the
next-door Achrafieh neighbourhood that Abbi and I visit after a
Baffa breakfast-of-champions. Born in 1931 and still creating,
Laure’s frenzied mixed-media collages and stark, surreal paintings
confront heritage, war and violence with a dark, humorous energy.
In two of her collages she has decorated images of long-gone
ancestors and divisive Lebanese politicians with baubles, string,
cartoons and childlike scribbles.

This energy is a common theme in modern Beirut, where
imagination and a hunger for change spring from a thorny past. At
Souk el Tayeb, a Beirut-based co-operative, founder Kamal Mouzawak
aims to soothe his fractured nation one meal at a time. Kamal
started the Souk el Tayeb farmers’ market in 2004 for producers
from all of Lebanon’s regions, religions and ethnic groups to come
together to bring soul food to the city. Nearly 100 producers are
now involved in the effort, with all profits going directly back
into the production process. Souk el Tayeb’s simple message of good
food and goodwill has now mushroomed into five guesthouses, seven
restaurants and training schemes for migrant workers and
underprivileged refugee women.

In a leafy enclave off Mar Mikhael’s Armenia Street lies Tawlet
Souk el Tayeb, the organisation’s Beirut restaurant. There are five
menu changes a week here, each cooked by a chef from a different
region of the country with their own distinct versions of fattoush,
kibbeh and other
Lebanese staples
. Before a lunch cooked by Nada from Lebanon’s
eastern Bekaa Valley (where the fertile ground produces much of the
country’s wine, vegetables and dairy produce), we settle into a
light-filled corner with Hana, Tawlet’s manager.

“Lebanon has a lot of ideologies when it comes to religion and
politics,” she tells us. “People are very conflicted. There’s
always been war and differences that have torn people apart. The
only thing we have in common is our food, the produce, the land we
create it from.” She also quietly reveals that many of Souk el
Tayeb’s producers and chefs have deeply touching stories related to
Lebanon’s traumatic past. “It’s nice to see that out of all this
heartbreak we’re creating a sense of home.”

Hana joined Souk el Tayeb after an education abroad and an
unsatisfying corporate job, following the increasing current of
diaspora Lebanese returning to the country. “I felt like I needed
to give back – these people represent my family, my ideology…
Lebanese are fed up with the plateau, the politics, the economy –
the new generation is trying to create more change so that people
can have hope.” She describes a craving for patriotism from
Lebanon’s young: “This is why you’ll see a lot of places around
Beirut hinting towards the 1960s and 1970s – that was the time when
Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, when it was
lively, it was beautiful. My parents and grandparents talk about
that time as if it was a dream. We’re trying to bring that

Leaving Tawlet, we tread west through the city through elegant
residential streets to Beirut’s downtown, home of Creative Space
Beirut (CSB). A social enterprise providing free fashion design
education, CSB is the brainchild of Sarah Hermez. Born to Lebanese
parents, Sarah grew up in Kuwait and studied at New York’s Parsons
School of Design and the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. “I
wanted to come back to Lebanon to give something back – and to
combine my passions for social justice and fashion,” she explains.
“There’s no quality design education here and at CSB we believe
that fostering talent helps a country to grow.”

With the support of friends and her co-founder Caroline
Simonelli (Sarah’s professor from Parsons, who still travels from
the US to teach courses each year), CSB was born in 2011. Courses
include fashion history, concept, design, sewing and business
skills, and applications are open to all who reside in the country,
be they Lebanese, Palestinian or Syrian. Sarah
explains that the school funds itself through grants, tireless
networking, events and three in-house brands – CSB Ready To Wear,
Second St and Roni Helou, himself a 2016 graduate who’ll be
showcasing his designs at London’s Somerset House in February 2019
as part of the International Fashion Showcase.

CSB has recently relocated to donated premises in the downtown
Beirut Souks, bringing life to a largely empty modern development.
Three years of intense study and a small number of pupils has
formed a close-knit group and many graduates return to work
alongside the students when they can.

We gatecrash a late lunch where graduate Ahmed and second-year
student Najah share their food and enthusiasm. Ahmed is currently
working on his own brand – a Japanese-inspired line of T-shirts,
abayas and cardigans – while Najah combines her studies with
working at a hospice. “I was at work one day,” she explains, “and I
saw Sarah’s TED Talk [a 2015 speech given at TEDxBeirut]. I applied
just like that”. While they’d like international reach, both
students want to remain based in Lebanon. “CSB is a great
opportunity,” Ahmed says. “It’s an incentive to stay at home and
work hard.” For Najah, Sarah’s enthusiasm for Lebanon is an
inspiration. “She thought about her home country and how much it
needs – the people who are thirsty to express their talents but
don’t have the means.”

The evening sweeps us from CSB along the Beirut Corniche into
Hamra, a frenetic neighbourhood in the west of the city. We feast
on Beiruti Almaza beer, halloumi and tabbouleh at T’Marbouta, a
favoured haunt of students (the American University of Beirut is a
few minutes’ walk away) hidden behind Hamra’s main drag. Then we go

Tucked away in the basement of an unassuming Hamra shopping
centre, Metro Al Madina, is a hyper-funked, neon homage to an
hedonistic Beirut of decades past. Formed in 2012 by a collective
of artists, actors and musicians led by Hisham Jaber, this
small-but-mighty venue is a fixed star in Beirut’s performance
scene. Staples include Hishik Bishik and Bar Farouk, hectic
tributes to Egyptian and Lebanese cabaret culture through the
decades. There’s a constant stream of fresh acts and musical
concerts, with “Midnight Metro” resident DJs powering the venue
from – you guessed it – midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

We settle into plush velvet seats for an evening of Koudoud
Halabiya, a form of classical-folk music originating from the
Syrian city of Aleppo. There’s a heavy presence of Beiruti Syrians
in the audience bantering back and forth with the group’s singer
and his ensemble, who play an assortment of traditional string and
percussive instruments.

The mood of the room rises and falls as the music swells from
celebration to mourning. The catharsis of Koudoud Halabiya to the
citizens of a war-torn homeland is potent – and nowhere understands
that better than Beirut. Many threads make up the city’s story,
from European immigrants to its Armenian, Palestinian and Syrian
diaspora, war-sick generations to returning expatriates. Yet from
this chaos a modern, incomparable Beirut stands proud.

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