Rising above Hamra Street, in the downtown commercial centre of Beirut, is the city’s biggest mural portraying national hero Sabah covering a five floor property. The Lebanese singer was active for six decades, a woman who broke many taboos (she married seven times) and became a symbol of an era for her light natured music, which took people’s minds off war, politics and religion. But in the end of 2014 the then 87-year-old legend passed away, while Yazan Halwani is still working on the portrait. It made it all the more important to finish it, he explains.
Hamra used to be a cultural hub, the street artist explains as he points to a local café. There, in that place, he says, there used to be a small café where great poets used to meet. Before the war the area’s cultural scene of theatres and cinemas was frequently visited by the region’s intellectuals. However, during the civil war all changed, the street became a centre for political parties and 15 years of war left its mark. When the war ended in 1990, leaving around 150,000 dead, the area instead turned into a commercial centre home to American fast-food chains and mainstream European fashion brands.
Tired of the political propaganda occupying the city’s public space, Halwani wanted to present something positive. By speaking to the local community, including them in the process, he is trying to make sure that when he is finished with a wall it will include the voice of the people. The now 22-year-old artist’s work has gone from graffiti to calligraphy, offering a visual language, inspired by Arabic and Islamic art and calligraphy.
He describes how once a police officer started to paint with him. It was very symbolic, he says with a smile, the policeman with his uniform and weapon painting a wall pink. The Lebanese cultural scene has changed since the war, there are few cultural spaces like national theatres or public museums, argues Halwani. “We don’t have any cultural infrastructure so I am trying to create my own,” he explains. “I decided to try to make the walls into a diary of the city, try to reflect what used to happen in the street and bring it into a new perspective.”
According to Halwani, Lebanese people lack a unified identity. “If you look at what Lebanese identity is right now, it is defined by either religion or politics,” he explains. In Halwani’s opinion status-quo is in the political parties’ interest. But instead, he argues, it should be in everybody’s interest to define Lebanese identity through cultural role models like Fairuz and Sabah. It will make people think of the common good of everyone and break free from religious and sectarian rhetoric aimed at controlling people, he says. “I try to offer an alternative identity that is more broad, more nationalistic.”
In addition to a fragmented national identity is the absence of a unified public memory, Lebanese history is also disputed. Official documents or public schools’ history books outline the country’s independence in 1943 but then they are largely blank. Nobody can agree what constitutes Lebanese history, with the exception of certain events such as the appointment of the first president. There is no official account of the events of the conflict and many young Lebanese people do not learn about their civil war. “You are in a country that sort of ignores its own history,” Halwani says. “It’s a big deal but Lebanese people tend to ignore that.”
By portraying, and thereby bringing attention to, national figures such as singer Fairuz, the assassinated journalist and historian Samir Kassir and poet Kahlil Gibran, the street artist is hoping to reject religious and political divisions and sectarian identity that run deep in today’s Lebanese society. The portraits, like the Sabah mural, made out of letters of the Arabic alphabet, make passersby stop and discuss, explains Halwani.
“But you don’t have to be a cultural figure to become a part of the memory of a city,” Halwani argues. Sometimes it is about telling a story, like one of Halwani’s murals that portrays Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who used to live on the street outside the American University of Beirut. Abdullah’s sudden death one cold winter’s evening made headlines in Beirut and spurred a debate about the country’s homeless population. To make sure his face was never forgotten, Halwani left a portrait of the man on a wall close to the university where he used to live.
Most people are positive towards Halwani’s artwork, changing the face of Beirut and creating an open air museum. But there have been incidents when some of his murals have been tainted by religious scribbles or paint. But to the street artist it is fair game, the wall and the mural belong to the people, it is a part of their community.