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  • Chantal Brocca

Where Do We Go From Here?

Image courtesy of Yasmina Hilal

Published in Harpers Bazaar Arabia, August 2021 Issue

A year after the devastating August 4th blast, Lebanon’s creative community has reached a peak existential moment. 6 local artists across the creative industries relay their experience grappling with a question that hangs over the head of the Lebanese community as a whole: to leave and protect their individual futures or to stay, fight, and face the consequences of potentially losing everything?

The question seems to be a contentious one. Lebanon is slowly drowning. A year after the explosion on August 4th, an unexpected disaster that further exacerbated the deep rooted economic and political issues that seem to have fractured the nation beyond repair, the foundations of an entire country are in shambles. Against a backdrop of soaring inflation and loss in real purchasing power, colossal public debt, ingrained mechanics of corruption that have seeped themselves into the socio-political fabric of the country over decades like a parasite that swallows its host, and what effectively amounts to a negligence in national leadership so astronomical it amounts to malicious abandonment, Lebanon’s young and talented are escaping in droves.

“ Its really sad because it really took us a lot of time to build this pool of talent we have; this creative community strong enough to get recognition on an international level, “ notes Roni Helou, founder of an emerging, Lebanese ready-to-wear label that defines itself through its activism, sustainability and ethical practices. “ I mean, obviously there’s the Elie Saabs but there’s a lot more emerging designers, it took us time to get people to forget about haute couture and understand that there’s this new thing called ready-to-wear and to prove ourselves and show people we are worth buying from. Now, it seems like all our efforts were washed away. It’s sad to see that the fashion nucleus of the city has transferred elsewhere - obviously there’s still creatives in Lebanon but not enough to found a stable community. The whole industry will be hugely impacted, not just among designers and front line creatives but also within the whole supply chain and network on which it is based - the production houses, the suppliers - the whole market shrank, how will they survive?”

Image by Roni Helou

Many businesses in Lebanon are local ones, and without a footing abroad or online, their chances of survival seem extraordinarily bleak. It’s not simply a case of dwindling demand - within the framework of a crumbling economic structure, basic necessities such as gas, electricity and healthcare are urgently lacking, making daily life extremely complicated.

For local thrift and vintage store Depot-Vente, what this amounts to is akin to “a slow motion car wreck.” A member of the team notes, “ Even though the crisis is here and the cessations are on the horizon - you can still get what you need to some extent. That’s not true for everything, but you can still find what keeps you going for the coming week. The owner Nawal Akl has to take this into consideration; will she be able to drive to get new merchandise, will it be there? It’s a constant worry. As a business projecting for the future, preemptive solutions are done to a certain extent and that’s the thing - you can stockpile, but you project only for a future short-term period - till where you can gage a specific time horizon. At the same time you’re aware that things can go belly up from one day to the next.”

Image by Depot-Vente Beirut

As they say: keep it going until the machine stops. With 50 percent of Lebanese citizens living under the poverty line as declared by the UN-ESCWA, life for most has become monumentally expensive and unsustainable. “Lebanon is going backwards,” says Yasmina Hilal, a local fashion photographer and creative activist that spent the first few months after the blast documenting the drastic circumstances of 40 families whose lives were entirely destroyed by the compounding series of crises affecting the country, in attempts to raise emergency funds through her personal Instagram profile. “ We have to plan and calculate everything - nothing is easy. We have to wait in a line of 300 cars simply to get gas and you can’t get basic over the counter medicine; the dollar to Lebanese lira rate is changing every day - everything is so expensive. A lot of the youth are leaving simply because they can’t sustain themselves. I don’t know what to do, if I should travel to find work or stay here and support the country. It’s a big tension. We are the last ones standing. I feel like we need to be here, if we leave then there’s no-one left to create and the talent we have is so important.”

Roni grappled with the same dilemma when the adrenaline eventually subsided after his initial manic work launching a fundraising initiative called United for Lebanese Creatives right after the blast, “ I was analysing my situation and that’s when I realized that the country is kind of doomed and that the revolution we started wasn’t really going to fix much, at least for now. I’m not willing to just shut down my business. I think I can give a lot more to my country by being based abroad and surviving.”

For most of the creative community, the period right after the blast was a key turning point in the direction of their work. Yasmina went from fashion to documentary photography, immersing herself in helping the community pick up the pieces. “ Eventually, I had to put a stop to it because the trauma I was repressing came back to bite me - it was hard to witness so much devastation and swallow it, to take photos and write about it. It was an extremely meaningful and organic process, I was face to face with people and their sadness and hardships for close to 3 months before I collapsed emotionally. I had to shut it out and work on myself, I was so busy trying to help I forgot to ask myself if I was ok.” A year on, she’s now working on her own art and has gone back to her projects, but the uncertainty of her circumstances still weighs heavily on her shoulders; it reflects what many others are feeling - a constant sense of being lost, of being at a standstill. There is no choice but to take the future day by day.

Image by Yasmina Hilal

The immediate adrenaline rush that fueled so many grassroots initiatives and its eventual crash into long bouts of self-care seems to be an almost universal ordeal. Abed Al-Kadiri, a local artist whose solo exhibition at Galerie Tanit was destroyed by the blast a mere 6 days after its opening, recalls the traumatic experience as something that will always stay with him, “ The first few days I was trying to get my paintings from underneath the rubble - the adrenaline was still high, you wanted to support your community and salvage what was left. I couldn’t sit still - I knew I had to so something; I always embrace pain in our lives through my work and turn it into something that I believe is beautiful and has meaning because I believe pain should always lead us to new places of expression.”

Almost overnight, Abed developed a project he titled Today, I Would Like To Be A Tree; immense murals he put up in the only standing ruins of the gallery and sold as numbered fragments to raise funds for victims of the blast who lost their homes. The point, he says, was to buy something not because of the art, but because you were joining something bigger than yourself. “ I worked for almost 2 months where the blast occurred - now that I think about it, this was the most challenging thing, to work within this destroyed space. The experience really drained me because I didn’t have the chance to reflect and understand exactly what had happened. I suddenly found myself at rock bottom - the dark energy I was living in those 2 months seeped into me subconsciously and this is one of the reasons that I stopped creating. Now I’m still trying to heal. The blast opened doors that had stayed closed for good reason, I couldn’t give the way I used to. I still don’t feel like I’ve processed it. I’m just meditating and taking care of my mental health.”

Image by Abed Al-Kadiri

Like many others, the blast was the straw that broke the camel’s back: Abed moved to Paris to start over. After almost 7 months in a creative block, Abed is finally creating again - but there’s still a lot of emotional trauma to unpack. “ Creatively speaking, the country was doing really well before Covid - there was a real scene and then suddenly the country collapsed. What I feel now after all we went through is that we have this amazing chance to connect with ourselves and to learn a great collective lesson on a multitude of levels. Imagine, I’m here in Paris but I haven’t gone to see anything - I didn’t have the chance to embrace this isolation, this existentialist moment where you question your existence and beliefs and career - this is my chance.”

Although the blast is still felt as an indelible trauma, for some such as fashion photographer Aly Saab, the implosion of his country and his near bush with death was simultaneously taken as a wake up call to rebuild his inner self. “ Pre-blast I was in a period of struggle, I was in a creative lull and accepting a lot of things in my life I wasn’t happy with. I was one of those that escaped certain death by minutes and this forced me to ask myself, what the hell are you waiting for? What do you want to show to the world; what’s your identity as an artist? What do you want from this life?”

Like Yasmina, Aly belongs to the few that have stayed behind. “ You always get asked this question in Lebanon - ‘Are you staying or will you go?’ It faces you constantly, and till now my answer is always that as long as I’m making a living, then I’m not leaving. My whole life is here, and to be honest, I made a name for myself in this region that I’m not willing to throw away. I built it slowly, it was really hard. I’ve been working on myself for the past 10 years, why should I have to leave and start the same struggle all over again? It’s not fair on me and my well being, I’ve suffered enough stress - that’s whats keeping me from leaving.”

Image by Aly Saab

In many ways, it’s a question of preserving whatever crumbs of stability are left. “ Just like me, there’s a lot of people that still believe in this country, and try to keep the creative and artistic scene alive - we have a lot of local talent that have really made something for themselves. We can’t leave, it’s not fair. If we go, so does the potential to rise again - we lost our security, our stability and our sanity, and yet, there’s something that ties you down to this country in different ways. I don’t know what it is, I’m still searching for it, this thing that keeps me here and that gives me the drive to give back to a country that’s really not giving me much back. There’s just a something - we’ve rebuilt it in less than 8 months after the blast. That says a lot about the people here; about every individual I’ve met in the past year that’s been through the same trauma. I see the sadness in their eyes but at the same time, I don’t know, call it survival, call it strength, there’s an attachment to the little things. We’re not ready to let go.”

And it’s important not to on many infrastructural levels. “ The fashion industry is headed back into the hands of the rich, “ says Roni, “ We see a lot of rich kids now launching their own brands because everything is suddenly a lot cheaper. It’s really unfortunate because it’s making fashion elitist again. Coming from a humble family, I can tell you that at a certain point the stigma of elitism surrounding fashion had dropped. Fashion was for everyone. You even see it with the recent influx of brands coming into Lebanon to create cheap content - I don’t see it as necessarily good because eventually we’re going to be labelled as cheap labor, and life for us is not cheap; our universities, our healthcare, costs have stayed the same but our means and wages have dwindled. Sure, there’s money coming in but it’s the difference between making a living and surviving.”

This immense sense of purpose and duty towards the country has reverberated across the global Lebanese diaspora - Ahmad Swaid, Head of Content at Dazed and Nowness, and Co-Founder of Creatives for Lebanon, a support platform launched between 9 strangers over WhatsApp with only the fact of being Lebanese in common, reflects on a subtle change in social dynamics brought on by the blast, “There’s this interesting thing, a sort of exchange happening within the Lebanese community. All of a sudden, everyone abroad is refocusing their attention and efforts back to the country, in an attempt to shine a light back onto those left behind, that perhaps want to leave but don’t have the means to.” It’s the intention CFL was founded on, to leverage the power of the community based abroad and rebuild the country form the outside. In a sense, the troops are coming home. “ What’s important is to support local talent. As someone who is Lebanese but lives abroad, I personally feel like it’s my duty to help my country and my people within the means that I have, based on the experience I have within my industry - it’s really not only about raising funds, it’s also about platforming and giving Lebanese creatives on the ground a voice. I’m actually finally going back after many years abroad and I’m planning to stay at least a month - I want to work with creatives on the ground. I feel like the West needs to hear individual stories to balance perceptions of Lebanon. Yes, we’ve had incessant wars and bombings - but we are not defined by that. All I’m thinking about is, I need to get to Beirut, I need to be there.”

Image via Creatives for Lebanon

And it isn’t purely the reaction of a few instilled with an entrepreneurial spirit of initiative - a dense string of micro-communities and support systems sprouted within the population, among individuals from all walks of life. People were there for each other in a way that their government wasn’t - and still isn’t. Against a divided socio-political history, the people of Lebanon showed a united front when it came to physically helping each other to continue trudging forward amidst the devastation and trauma - and this spirit has never left. Within the creative communities, this translates as a sort of creative energy that’s emerged in an attempt to revitalize moments within the every day, whether it’s a genuine widespread support and happiness for the wins of the individual that reflect onto the whole such as the Lebanese womenswear label Renaissance Renaissance’s official nomination for the LMVH and Fashion Trust Arabia Prize, or the communal upcycling and organic, collaborative culture of creativity open to anyone that steps into the warehouse at Depot-Vente. What’s kept the country afloat thus far, everyone declares fiercely, is this rage and spirit of community that’s allowing Lebanon to drag itself forward and give its people one more day to call it home.

This is by no means a romanticized Hollywood human story of hope and resilience. As one of the artists points out, there is a wall somewhere in Beirut defaced with a poignant message: Resilience is a myth. “In order for that term to mean something,” he notes, “ Give me one example of some people somewhere in the world who are not resilient. Give me an example of people who suffered a disaster and who just sat down and wept.”

This is the opinion shared by the disillusioned collective. “ Lebanon is like an ex,” jokes Ahmad. “ This love- hate relationship, this passion we share for this country - the narrative of resilience has been used for so long; we understand but we can’t live under this idealism of the frustration and anger and sadness.”

“ I refuse to call this hope, “ says Abed, referring to his art, “ The blast and the failed revolution killed my hope. Now, a year on, I’m not sure what to think of this concept of hope - I’ve transformed this into action, into will. It’s something you learn with hardship and it’s a very powerful thing.”

Yes, it’s been almost a year and the country is slowly rebuilding itself - bars, cafes and galleries have reopened and the dancing culture Lebanon is renowned for is beginning to shine through, the people of Lebanon will continue to move forward as they always have, but the feeling is widespread and mutual: enough.

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