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Yazan Halwani / Eva-Maria Spiller

Transforming the Face of Beirut

At 22 years of age, Yazan Halwani is celebrated as one of the most important upcoming graffiti artists of the Middle East. We had the chance to talk to him about Arabic calligraphy, the cultural tales of Beirut and migration.

When you roam the streets of Beirut, there is no chance you will not run into him at some corner. Throughout the city, his enormous murals chronicle Lebanon’s cultural history. But not the one you'd find in a textbook though. With his calligraffiti, street artist Yazan Halwani immortalizes the city’s well-known personalities, such as popular singer Sabah in Hamra Street or homeless Ali Abdallah near Bliss Street. He tears down the posters of politicians that plaster the city, replacing them with the faces of Beirut’s urban legends. But Lebanon’s capitol is not his only canvas – in recent years, Yazan has been invited to bring his art to other parts of the world. Germany, Singapore, France, Tunisia and Dubai included.

“I wanted to create a kind of culturally aware mural that makes sense,” Yazan explains when we meet up on Skype for this interview. Starting out at the age of 14, he took his primary influence from French Hip Hop and Western-style graffiti. But when his uncle introduced him to Arabic calligraphy in 2011, he discovered a style that was more representative of his culture. Yazan has dubbed his unique mash-up of Western graffiti and Arabic calligraphy “calligraffiti”. But he does not paint just for the sake of painting: “I feel I am a person who has something to say.” His murals are the immortalization of Lebanon’s cultural face in the public space – a space that belongs to everyone. But at the same time, his murals are political indictments – be it the issue of homelessness, the often dire situations refugees find themselves in or the commemoration of Lebanese characters that challenge societal norms.

“Even the police did not care about me painting stuff without authorization.”
(Yazan Halwani)

His determination has gained him the admiration of many of Beirut's citizens, but all too often it has resulted in police harassment or seemingly arbitrary stalling of the permits necessary to commence a public mural. “I was a kid who was born in Beirut. Even the police did not care about me painting stuff without authorization,” Yazan jokes. But things have changed since then. Officials have repeatedly demanded that his murals be removed and unknown parties have repeatedly destroyed some: “The contrast between the difficulty behind each mural in Beirut and the open invitations to paint elsewhere in the world made me sometimes doubt my eternal love for this city. But lately I realised I should not question the people of Beirut who will always bring her lost beauty back,” Yazan states.

“If something interests me, I speak about it. But instead of using words, I paint it on a wall,” he replies when I ask him about how he decides whom to portray.

“…he would make you want to buy a flower.”
(Yazan Halwani)

Among these persons of interest is a small boy. His name is Fares Al-Khodor, a neat and charming Syrian kid, twelve years of age, vested with a witty smile and in his arm, a white vase filled with red roses. A flower salesmen, as Yazan credits his striking ability of charming Beirut’s citizens into buying his flowers – a legend of Hamra Street. But Fares is also one the Syrian War has taken its toll on. Last summer, when Fares went back to his home town in Syria for a visit, he was killed in an air strike. “He was a very charming young person. It was really about his people skills,” Yazan recalls. “He would strike up a conversation with you and he would make you want to buy a flower.”

Last September, the organisers of the Huna/K Art Festival in Dortmund invited Yazan to paint a mural in the northern part of the city. “Huna” meaning “here” and “hunak” meaning “there”, the festival tries to build bridges between European and Arabic culture and art and raise the visibility of Arabic art in Europe. During the multi-day festival, Yazan created a mural that covered the façade of a multi-storey building to commemorate Fares, where from now on he strikes the passers-by with his charming smile and his roses. A mural to immortalize his existence and at the same time a symbol to raise awareness of the ongoing Syrian War and the massive exodus of refugees it is causing.

…Lebanon experiences the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

Similar to Germany, Lebanon has experienced an immense influx of refugees since the Syrian War broke out in 2011. With a population of just 4 million, however, and the arrival of one million refugees to the country, Lebanon experiences the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. In contrast, Germany hosts about one refugee per 80 citizens. “Especially with the lack of services, I think it is quite tough,” Yazan lines out the situation in Beirut when I ask him to give me a glimpse into the city’s daily life. “Integration is easy on a social level, but it is not at all easy to integrate in terms of making a living”.

Over the course of the past decades, Lebanon has repeatedly experienced heavy unrests. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, about 100,000 Palestinians left the area and fled to Lebanon, triggering a shift in demographics in the country. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), claiming rights to a Palestinian state, got involved in heavy fighting with Israeli troops that felt threatened by the PLO’s formation in Lebanon. From 1975 to 1990, the country was in the throes of the Lebanese Civil War, a multi-party, sectarian conflict that resulted in approximately 250,000 fatalities. “After '90, there was a heavy period of reconstruction and a lot of infrastructure was rebuilt,” Yazan explains. The economy started to pick up pace again and millions of tourists came to visit Lebanon. In 2006, when the war with Israel broke out, the country again toppled into turmoil. “Most of the institutions that were supposed to provide services were failing,” Yazan remembers.

“…if people are running away, they have a pretty darn good reason to run away (…).”
(Yazan Halwani)

During this period as the war-torn country tries to get back on its feet, the Syrian War broke out. Displacing millions of Syrians, a decent amount seeks refuge in Lebanon. “I think there is a mismanagement of the Syrian crisis as a whole by the government. There has been no proper tracking of where the refugees are going, no proper tracking of how you could get help or donations to the refugees,” Yazan says. “The country cannot provide basic services for them.” Regardless of how tough the situation is though, Yazan feels most Lebanese are willing to support the Syrian refugees. “I think that if people are running away, they have a pretty darn good reason to run away and there should be some help.” During the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon’s citizens took refuge in Syria or used Syria as a route for exiting the country. Perhaps even more significantly, Syrian citizens were not particularly foreign in Lebanon and especially in Beirut even before the war broke out, Halwani explains. “A lot of workers, mainly blue collar workers, are actually Syrians living in Lebanon, even before the turmoil.”

The situation could be managed, Yazan opines, if more countries would join in and agree to welcome refugees: “Every country should pitch in equally, depending on their capabilities.” As is the case in other countries, he increasingly observes right-wing political voices in Lebanon arguing for limiting the influx of refugees into the country – a worrisome trend. “It is not like the five- or ten-year-old kid actually has a stake in the war, right? It is not his fault that the war was started, he was not involved and was simply born in that country,” he argues. “I think if you want to extrapolate from the human rights’ charter, there is this first clause that says all humans are born with equal rights, the right to safety and just to live a normal life. I think this is a true right.”

“I think it brings a very rich art scene into ours.”
(Yazan Halwani)

As for Beirut, Yazan is hopeful that the new government will soon set up a comprehensive plan to address the situation. For now, on a cultural level, Syrian artists have really added to Lebanon’s art scene, he says: “Syria has a lot of great artists who have a lot of history. I think it brings a very rich art scene into ours. Since the beginning of the crisis, you can see exhibitions or even new galleries that have opened. There are a lot of Syrian artists with very, very rich styles. I think it brings a lot of diversity to the art scene.”

Text by Eva Spiller/ Photos and video by Yazan Halwani

Copyright: Yazan Halwani, Source Facebook

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