This year has been devastating, but nowhere more so than for Beirut. Somewhat miraculously, the Lebanese capital had clung to its status as a progressive enclave – with the most vibrant club culture and irrepressible, self-organized art scenes in the region – despite episodic bouts of violence and chronic political instability. Then, a chemical explosion brought the city to its knees and laid bare years of neglect by the country’s political leaders.
This August – amid a growing pandemic and the worst economic crisis in Lebanese history – one of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions decimated the city, killing 204 people, injuring 6,500, and destroying large sections of Beirut’s LGBTQI+ safe area, as well as its fashion and artistic hubs.
The physical and psychological toll of the blast is hard to articulate, especially without romanticizing the pain felt by Beirutis or obscuring the talent and diversity contained within the city. That’s why Highsnobiety spoke directly to the city’s young artists, designers, and performers about their hopes and frustrations, and the reality of life four months on from the blast.
Scroll down to find out how the city’s queer community, it’s streetwear designers, photographers, and comic artists are grappling with the difficult task ahead.
Andrea Najarian is a drag performer, fashion student, stylist and member of Beirut’s LGBTQI+ community
Andrea Najarian was sipping wine on his balcony, just 500 meters from the port when a supersonic blast wave ripped through his city, causing an estimated $15 billion dollars in damage and eventually leaving 300,000 people homeless.
“I needed about 130 stitches, my artery was ripped and I had no anesthesia, everything was a mess” he told Highsnobiety. After “surviving the apocalypse” as he describes it, Najarian spent the next two months recovering.
Thankfully, where the government failed spectacularly, the queer community organized to provide life-saving support to the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants. “The LGBTQ community really took me in” he explains, “and gave me this constant, emotional and moral support that I needed during my physical recovery.”
The explosion destroyed many of Beirut’s queer hubs, including Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzehsafe. “For that safe haven to be taken away was quite a traumatic experience. It's like I'm in a new city and I'm still getting used to it” he explains.
The destruction of these areas has meant that many vulnerable members of Beirut’s queer community have been forced to return to unsafe family environments. This wasn’t the case for Najarian, though. “My mom is amazing and my family's amazing” he explains.
In fact, his matriarchal family structure provided the blueprint for his drag persona; “My grandmother was the president of her church committee. She always had big hair, makeup, a lot of nails, tailored suits, fur coats, gloves, the hat, everything. And she was a seamstress. And my mother was also blonde and very done all the time. And so were my aunts. They were the classic Beirut church women.”
As a fashion student, he got the opportunity to delve even deeper into Beirut’s rich visual history, and the designers and movements that emerged during the golden eras of the '20s, '50s, '70s, and '90s. “I like to get inspired by powerful women who were not afraid to be very independent and outspoken, especially in this country.”
Over Najarian’s lifetime, Lebanon has been gripped by progressive crises. Lebanese people (and women, in particular) have been hailed for their unwavering strength and resilience. In the wake of events as traumatizing as the port explosion, the expectation to perform strength can be crushing.
“Everyone wants you to portray a certain image of a community or a face of resiliency” Najarian recalled of the aftermath. Recovering in his new apartment, “I just sat there alone, I felt so weak.” The feeling wasn’t related to the blast alone though, “I think living here we've seen our fair share of traumatic stuff as Lebanese citizens, as queer individuals in the country.”
Like many Beirutis, he has found comfort in advocating and organizing in his community. “The key to it is really finding ways to put that energy or fire or anger or anxiety or stress into hard work, concrete, physical and mental hard work, and self-care.”
“There's still a small part of me that is very hopeful for this country” he concedes, “there's really no point in thinking of tomorrow because it keeps you from enjoying the present moment. I don’t take any moment we have for granted because really you don't know when it could be all blown up.”
Najarian and other members of the queer community have channeled their frustration into activism, raising money to relocate, cover medical expenses, and repair property for vulnerable people through the Queer Relief Fund. You can donate to their GoFundMe here.
Yasmina Hilal is an experimental Lebanese filmmaker, mixed media artist, and fashion photographer.
“The Lebanese are so quick to their feet,” Hilal tells Highsnobiety – and she was no exception. In the wake of the Port Explosion, Hilal looked for ways to use her skills and platform to bring international awareness to the situation on the ground.
A fashion photographer and mixed media artist, she had returned to Beirut after a project for Art Dubai had fallen through due to the coronavirus. But in the weeks and months after the blast, Hilal found herself documenting the disaster for outlets including NPR and L'Orient-Le Jour.
“I wanted to utilize my skill the way I could,” she explains, “I was documenting different cultures, different people, different ages.” Her incredible photographs have given the outside world a devastating insight into how the explosion has affected every corner of life in Beirut, “not only the poor people, or the rich people, it's old, young, left and right.”
Her photographs brought visibility to the situation facing Syrian workers and families torn apart by the explosion, and she was even able to secure funds, medicine, and supplies for some of the people she had photographed.
But like many people living in Beirut, she is still processing the trauma of recent events. “I decided to stop because I've shot over 40 stories” she explains, “It's taken a toll on my mental health. When you're meeting people, you're also giving a part of yourself, and I was reliving my experience through each story.”
“I'm still struggling with bad anxiety and bad dreams. I have a lot of dreams of the explosion. I was on the ground, on the field for two months, now it’s time to understand this trauma, and understand what happened. Because my mind was quite numb at that point.”
Exhaustion is a theme that runs through these stories. The political and economic situation in Beirut makes the prospect of “self-care” difficult to imagine. And yet she is not ready to leave just yet.
“It's like a toxic relationship” she jokes, “every street here has something about it. Every corner you go to is different. The culture, and the traditions, and the people.” Hilal’s home is destroyed, and access to equipment and film is an ongoing challenge, but the city still has a powerful draw.
“There are so many amazing creatives here, one of the biggest music hubs in the world was here. The galleries, photographers, the art scene was really growing, especially with the LGBTQ community.” That part of the city hasn’t been completely destroyed, but like many of Beirut’s most promising creatives, she is tired of fighting for its survival.
“We've been through a war, we've been through assassinations, bombs, and everything. But at the same time, we want to be able to live in a community. I personally want to raise my family here. I want to die in my country, but at the same time, I don't know if that's ever going to happen.”
Joe Arida is a multi-disciplinary designer, art director, stylist, and founder of LA TERRE EST FOLLE
When we spoke with Beirut-based designer Joe Arida, he had just returned to the city. His partner had sustained severe injuries during the explosion and needed to travel to France for surgery if he hoped to walk again. After returning to Lebanon they traveled to the mountains to heal. “I spent 40 days sleeping on the floor, on a cot next to his bed” he explains, “it was a very, very rough time.”
Returned to Beirut, Arida is now faced with the task of reconstructing his clothing imprint, La Terre Est Folle. “We just came back and started rebuilding, fixing, getting things back on track,” he told Highsnobiety, but the damage goes further back than the Port Explosion.
Six years ago, Arida made the decision to stay in Beirut and grow his streetwear brand. “I really invested all my money, all my time, all my energy here, everything I had” and it had begun to take off. His designs caught the attention of famed Lebanese designers, Rabih Kayrouz and Tala Hajjar who advised him to focus on ready-to-wear.
“At the time there were no streetwear labels in Beirut, nothing to represent the cool aspect of Beirut” he recalled. Early on, Arida identified a need for garments that represented his city “the way that you would have New York printed on a T-shirt. Why not Beirut?”
He asked “Why can a kimono be such an international closet fixture, or a poncho? Why not us?” and reimagined the traditional Lebanese Abaya accordingly. “That's where my obsession, the ‘why not us?’ question became something very, very essential to everything.”
“Why are we seen as bombs and wars and this and that? Why aren't we seen as the amazing underground parties that we have here?” he asked – and proceeded to produce streetwear that celebrated the city and its singular creative energy.
La Terre Est Folle had struck a chord with Beirutis and was gaining fans overseas as well. But by this time, the economy had made it impossible for Arida to turn a profit. “The economy was doing so bad prior to the explosion. I've never seen such a fast and intense free fall. Our currency was devalued by 80 percent. You won't be able to imagine the reality of that situation.”
“We were no longer able to produce because production costs went up by eight times and retail prices became ridiculous. So T-shirts went from, let's say $60, to $250, which is absolutely ridiculous.”
“It was really heartbreaking, because it felt I was going backward and that the country was against all my efforts, I was being pulled back by my country and its politics and its politicians and its mess.”
For Arida, the explosion was the latest expression of a corrupt system that has stolen from the Lebanese people for decades. “It has given its people nothing. It has done nothing but steal, take from, and starve its people” he said.
In an effort to combat rampant inflation, instability, and limited access to resources on the ground in Beirut, La Terre Est Folle has adopted a new drop model: “Every couple of weeks I would release a small capsule of products that are produced abroad, and that are shipped from abroad directly to our clients without creating stock or inventory, or adding pollution to an already over-polluted world.”
Arida received vital support from United for Lebanese Creatives, an initiative that provided financial relief to 39 participating designers and artists. You can donate to more grassroots relief efforts under the Super Fund for Beirut here.
Karen Keyrouz is a comic artist, illustrator, and founding member for Zeez Collective
Shortly after the explosion, Keyrouz accepted a Cité Internationale des Arts residency in Paris. “I've never spent more than one week outside of Beirut,” she explained. Ultimately, the physical distance has proved vital, both artistically and psychologically. “I'm realizing a lot of things; we always say in Beirut that we're in a constant state of survival, but you never understand what that means until you leave the country and you understand that you didn't deal with anything really.”
“This year was exceptional. This year was monstrous” she tells Highsnobiety adding, “This distance that I took from my work, from my life. I'm questioning new things related to Beirut and my work.”
Keyrouz is a comic artist and illustrator and a member of Beirut’s thriving community of comic artists and graphic novelists. From the outset of the civil war up until today, Lebanese artists have used comics to document and comment on the social and political situation.
She is in Paris, however, to concentrate on visual performance and to explore how improvisation can be incorporated into narrative, and even comic forms. “I also do drawing concerts, where I work with a musician to create visual sound performance.” But the recent move to Paris has also given her time to contemplate her practice.
“In Beirut, you put energy and time in things that should not take time from you,” like drinking hot water or getting from place to place. “Maybe the most important thing is having time to question.”
With this newfound time, Keyrouz has made discoveries about her own art practice. “I’ve always described my work as visually violent somehow. Recently, a journalist asked, 'Why do you think this violence is present in your work?' And I had a weird reaction while reading the question."
“At that moment I refused to call it violence. I told him, 'It's pain. It's fear. It's pure sadness, but it's not violence.' It's a lot of emotions that are not... Violence is a way not to deal with emotions. When you deny an emotion, it becomes violent. That’s what I’m realizing.”
As Keyrouz explains it, her generation “grew up in a violent society. But we grew up in a society based on denial and on running away from a lot of things, so violence is part of it.” That is patently clear when looking at how the government responded to the crisis and has continued to avoid accountability in the ensuing months.
Meanwhile, Beirut’s creative community has met the crisis with truthful works of art and rigorous reportage, and community organization that prioritizes the most vulnerable. As Hilal put it, “We don't want to hear the phrase, ‘Rise from the ashes.’” They want the time, space, and safety to live and create in their home.
Support Keyrouz' work here.