Hamra gets nostalgic for Beirut Design Week

BEIRUT: Walking through a graying dilapidated building directly across the street from a shiny H&M, it is hard to imagine that the abandoned space was once the first mall built in Hamra in the 1970s. “Imagine: This could be more beautiful than any current mall. It just needs work, and nobody wants to invest in it,” said Mona El Hallak during a walking tour of Hamra Tuesday.

The walking tour was organized by the American University of Beirut’s Neighborhood Initiative as part of Beirut Design Week’s seventh consecutive year, inviting participants to engage with the theme “Design and Nostalgia.”

While Design Week is taking place across Beirut until July 7, the concept of nostalgia in Hamra and Ras Beirut takes on a particular meaning.

Before the Lebanese Civil War, Hamra Street and the surrounding area was considered one of the city’s trendiest expanses, attracting Arab elites and tourists from around the world. “Ask an Iraqi, a Syrian, a Kuwaiti - Hamra is the place everyone remembers,” said Hallak, a Beirut-based architect and director of the Neighborhood Initiative, which helped curate Design Week’s Hamra program.

The day kicked off with the Souk Aal Souk Farmers’ Market on Jeanne D’Arc Street, organized by the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit at AUB’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences. The market showcased local vendors, encouraging participants to support Lebanese producers.

Reflecting the theme of nostalgia, some of the vendors’ businesses were based on reviving dying practices in Lebanon.

The Green Glass Recycling Initiative, which seeks to preserve the jobs of the “last glass blowers” in Lebanon, collects glass bottles and recycles them into glass-blown products. Tripoli-based Khan Beauty Box, which is inspired by traditional skin care alchemists in Lebanon, aims to bring back natural and customizable skin care to modern women.

Later in the day, an installation called “Public Tawleh” was unveiled on Jeanne D’Arc. The installation is a concrete tawleh - or backgammon - board set up permanently on a bench outside of food vendor Le Sage. The installation invites friends and strangers to play a game of backgammon to highlight how a once-widespread tradition is dying. Passersby can go into Le Sage and request dice and board pieces for an impromptu game.

Lebanese architect Ramzi Alieh, who designed the installation, said his piece is meant to “provide the social infrastructure that is missing in Beirut. Unfortunately it’s a city that works for coexistence, not cohabitation, and classes in Beirut live in parallel and don’t intersect.”

Not all participating installations were visual reminders of what the area once was.

The “Le Souffleur” sound installation, created by Beirut-based collective district d, returns the sounds of the sea now blocked by high buildings to the stairs of Ain al-Mreisseh.

The project was inspired by the story of Ibrahim Najem, a fisherman who brought stories of the sea to Ras Beirut by collecting trinkets he found from his dives, including knives and pistols, and showcasing them in his house.

The installation played the sounds of underwater recordings of the Mediterranean Sea through a replica of Najem’s gramophone, combined with live-streamed sounds from the fishermen’s port of Ain al-Mreisseh.

“Hamra is the place where the cinemas were, where the first malls were - it’s the most commercial place that took over Downtown” as the city’s center, Hallak said.

“Even when it lost its popularity to the [Downtown] Souks during the postwar reconstruction, it’s regaining it today.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2019, on page 2.




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