Ouzville reclaims Beirut landmark long associated with war

Sunday 23/07/2017
Staying creative. Local children participating in the project of beautifying Ouzville, south-west of Beirut. (Ayad Nasser)

Beirut - Ouzai is an overcrowd­ed slum with a tough reputation. Ouzville is a clean and colourful neighbourhood dis­playing beautiful murals by local and international street artists. In less than a year, Ouzai-turned- Ouzville has become a public at­traction and a must-visit thanks to the initiative of Ayad Nasser, an entrepreneur with a self-declared mission of “beautifying the coun­try and reuniting its people.”
South-west of Beirut adjacent to the airport, the Ouzai area offers the first glimpse of the city for trav­ellers arriving in Lebanon. From a spacious stretch of sandy beach on the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Ouzai turned into a shan­tytown of illegally built dwellings harbouring squatters and people displaced by war from southern Lebanon.
The Ouzville initiative is not merely about beautifying the fa­çade of Ouzai.
“It’s about unifying the citizens and breaking stereotypes. It is ini­tiating every citizen to take care of his own future and stop counting on others,” Nasser said.
Nasser chose Ouzai, one of the most neglected and marginalised areas of Lebanon, as the location of a project he hopes will be copied in other parts of the country. “For 40 years, no government, politicians, political parties or even the local people and the 4 million Lebanese looked at it,” he said. “I said I had to fix it. It is also the façade of Leb­anon, the first thing you see every time you land at Beirut airport.”
Inhabited by Shias with strong allegiances to Hezbollah, the area was perceived as lawless and as­sociated with crime. “I wanted to encourage Lebanese to start changing what they do not like in their country without waiting upon anyone to do it, to cultivate a sense of good citizenship among each other, to break stereotypes and change perceptions. In brief to lead by example,” Nasser said.
The entrepreneur’s initial idea, triggered by Lebanon’s trash crisis of 2015, was to get international artists to create art from rubbish, a plan that collapsed when the trash in question was eventually cleared.
Undeterred, he formed a new plan: “I thought why not paint on the walls of areas that are ne­glected areas that we consider as garbage and no one wants to go there.”
He sought the support of the local authorities who are mostly members and partisans of Hezbol­lah. “I told them all of you pray and fast and worship God but you can­not go to paradise unless you fix the paradise that God gave us. We have to clean our country, respect each other and open up,” Nasser said.
The 46-year-old began his mis­sion in December. He enlisted the help of residents and volunteers to clean the shores and the neigh­bourhood’s derelict and narrow alleys. At the same time Lebanese and international graffiti artists, assisted by local youngsters, craft­ed creative murals on the walls and spread a positive spirit across the streets.
Artists have come from as far as the United States, Brazil and Rus­sia, with renowned Lebanese graf­fiti group Ashekman also contrib­uting to the effort.
Some Lebanese artists had never set foot in Ouzai before the Ouz­ville project due to preconceptions and stereotypes. Mary-Joe Ayoub, who worked with local children to create a big, colourful work of art, confessed that it was her first time in Ouzai even though she lived only 15 minutes away.
She said she had not expected to be able to communicate with the people in Ouzai but found “they were very similar” and had the same aspirations for Lebanon and “all sought happiness at the end of the day.”
Young and old from the area are taking part too, with many wel­coming the change. “We’re grate­ful for the efforts you’ve exerted here in our region… go ahead and continue your astonishing crea­tions,” commented Fatima on Ouz­ville’s Facebook page.
Repainting and decorating the seaside area cost $120,000, which Nasser paid out of his own pocket. “After one month, we will start crowdfunding to complete the beautification of the inner part,” he said. “The people in Ouzai are very committed. There is Ali, who is eight years old, who told me, ‘Ammo (uncle,) Ayad don’t leave us. I am going to put aside one dol­lar every day to contribute in buy­ing paint’… I thought he is hope; the kids are going to fix the coun­try.”
Ashekman artists, in the mean­time, will be painting the word “Salam” (Arabic for “peace”) in gigantic Arabic calligraphy on rooftops of Ouzville that will be viewed from space, with the aim of showing the world that Lebanon is a country of diversity, tolerance and peace.
“You don’t see garbage in Ou­zai anymore. Now when you look from the plane you see Ouzville. Pilots mention it saying, ‘This is Ouzville, the united colours of Lebanon’,” Nasser said.