BEIRUT: Ayad Nasser has grand ambitions. “I want to be like Jesus, like the Prophet, like a good human,” he told The Daily Star. Nasser is a philanthropist and mastermind behind last year’s Ouzville project, which saw parts of the Ouzai district in Beirut’s southern suburbs painted bright colors.
With the help of the Mouna Bustros Foundation, he recently oversaw the painting of a street in Karm al-Zeitoun in Beirut in similar style. It is the first step in what he hopes will be many more painting projects in “neglected areas” around the capital and the country.
Many in the local community have reacted positively to the project.
“When you stand in the middle of the street and find lovely colors, you just feel happy,” said Joseph Mazraani, a local shopkeeper. “I’m loving life again, I’m loving the neighborhood again. There is hope now.”
Not everyone is so impressed. Lodi Rizek, a local, likes the fact that her neighborhood is now noticeably cleaner but has her criticisms of Nasser’s project. “I told them it’s nice to paint it and keep it clean, but this color is too strong,” she said.
Nasser says that the project will change people’s lives for the better: “They ask us, ‘Why are you helping us?’ I said because I am human and I cannot accept that you live like this and no one is [paying attention]. By doing this they will feel safe, they will feel pride, they will feel hope.”
Nasser also thinks it will impact the local community as a whole. “You have tourists, you have people coming and they are buying from the shops, so this is how we help the community,” he said.
Mazraani told The Daily Star that he saw two French tourists visiting the area in the past two days to see the project.
The desire Nasser felt to effect positive change was driven by a lack of action elsewhere.
“The government didn’t do anything, the political parties didn’t do anything, the religious people didn’t do anything and the people are not doing anything, and I said as a citizen I want to start the change,” he said.
He is critical of those in Lebanon who have the power to change the country for the better, but have not done so. “All those people are making money out of the Lebanese citizen and they are giving nothing for the community,” he said. “I decided it’s time for us to come and start giving back to our country through fixing neglected areas.”
The Ouzai project garnered criticism from some areas, with some saying that the money spent would have been better invested in local infrastructure. Neither Nasser, nor some of those living on the street, see that as his role, however.
While the neighborhood, and the country at large, suffers from crippling power cuts, Mazraani notes that “the politicians are the one responsible for electricity.”
Nasser has no desire to take responsibility for such issues. “I don’t want to take the place of the government,” he said.
“We are here to beautify and we want nothing in return,” Nasser said. “In 70 years we turned this paradise into hell,” he said.
According to Nasser, part of the issue is a lack of enthusiasm among Lebanese for their shared identity. “I tried to bring pride in the Lebanese image and ... citizenship. We lost it because from the day we are born we are divided,” he said.
Nasser’s approach is not welcomed by everyone.
Mona Harb, professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star: “The issue of a shared Lebanese identity is much more complex than painting a wall.”
She believes such projects should be handled by people with a background in such areas, as it “requires a more urban understanding of the neighborhoods he’s working on. ... He can also rely on the expertise of people who work in participatory planning,” she said.
She does not doubt Nasser’s good intentions and praises the aspect of his work devoted to keeping the areas clean. “If people think that painting the walls is meaningful and a priority to them, I don’t have a problem in saying this is good,” she said, adding: “I welcome the idea of helping, [but] there are ways of doing it.”