Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lighting Downtown Beirut in song

Lighting Beirut Architecture
While Downtown last week, I noticed posters all over announcing Lighting Beirut Architecture. My curiosity drove me to probe further.

From a page on Facebook, I discovered it was project being launched by Solidere. The plan was to light up a large urban area using permanent image projection to reveal the architecture by night.

The first phase of the project, on June 18, lit up 28 key buildings and sites in Downtown Beirut -- in Foch, Allenby, Weygand and Fakhry Bey Streets, Bab Idriss and Beirut Souks.

As I made my way Downtown with my cousin Lillian just before 8 p.m., I didn’t know what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find throngs of people gathering at Trablous Street, in front of the old building of Beirut’s French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour, where the ceremony was due to kickoff.

As dusk fell, we realized it was going to be an absorbing evening. L’Orient’s building was covered in several vertical long sheets with a stage in front. People were milling about Beirut Souks in expectation, sitting in the various restaurants and coffee shops and finally converging toward the stage.

People gathering on Trablous Street
Mounir Douaidy on stage
After a brief introduction to the event by Solidere General Manager Mounir Douaidy, we waited eagerly for the evening’s centerpiece: a performance by Tripoli’s Acapella Fayha Choir. I sensed the crowd’s excitement when this was announced and felt ignorant not to have heard of the choir or known what Acapella -- signing without instruments -- is.

The captivating Fayha Choir
has become Lebanon’s leading, and internationally renowned, Acapella choir. Maestro Barkev Taslakian, the artistic director and conductor, now leads a nearly 50-member group from Tripoli and its suburbs. The choir’s program includes Lebanese, Oriental, as well as French, English, Latin, Armenian and other songs.

Enthralled by Maestro Barkev Taslakian's energy...
... and the beauty of the voices
I remembered talk about the choir when they appeared on the TV show “Arabs Got Talent” early this year. And as soon as they started singing, I was captivated. The choir’s voices, in the setting of Beirut Souks, as the sky was turning darker and the lights becoming more dominant, had all those present mesmerized and in awe of the singers’ talents.

Reine Merhebi cheered by...
...her mother and brother
It was also special because I bumped into a woman while trying to capture the event on my camera. After apologizing, we got talking. She beamed and pointed to one of the singers, Reine Merhebi, who is her daughter. Reine’s mother and siblings had come from Tripoli to watch her perform with the choir. She told me how her daughter loved singing and had joined the Fayha Choir two years ago. Her younger brother and sister are following suit and have started rehearsing with the group.
L'Orient building unveiled in the background
While the choir was singing, the first lighting of the L’Orient building was unveiled and the sheets dropped one by one to reveal more choir members in the preserved building’s windows.

Fayha sang for more than half an hour. Being so enthralled by the energy of Maestro Taslakian and the beauty of the voices, we would have loved the performance to go on for much longer.

We were then invited to walk around and see the lighting of the other buildings while flying lanterns were released and filled the sky. Pamphlets were available with a map of where the lit buildings were.

The only building I could capture with my camera
Unfortunately, my little digital camera is not smart enough to take such pictures of buildings at night – so these were all taken from the event’s Facebook page.

With our maps in hand, we walked around. Among the buildings now lit in Downtown Beirut are: Fenicia Bank, Al Dabbagha Mosque, Idriss Building (Foch Street); Hakimi, Khawam, Tamari and Sehnaoui buildings (Allenby Street); Municipality of Beirut, Amir Assaf Mosque, Al Omari Mosque, Sursock Building (Weygand Street); the Bab Idriss sculptures, Tamari and L’Orient buildings and various Beirut Souks blocks on Fakhry Bey Street and in the Souks themselves.

From Lighting Beirut Architecture Facebook page
This new lighting technology captures and reveals buildings’ architectural value. The technique retraces the existing façade features of the structures with light, resulting in a portrayal that accurately matches the frontage, with high definition design patterns. Unlike conventional lighting, as Solidere’s Mounir Douaidy explained, fixtures are placed on rooftops facing the building that is to be lit, safeguarding the front’s masonry.

Envisioned as a sustainable solution, the projectors reduce energy consumption. No light obviously goes to waste, and the city’s dark sky is preserved. Eventually, Lighting Beirut Architecture aims to turn the city center into a lively platform for creative expression and cultural experimentation with light.

The building's front looks like lace
The project is organized, planned and financed by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. Light Cibles, a French-based design studio specialized in lighting design and creation of optimal solutions for historic buildings and urban contexts, proposed the lighting concept and gobo design.

Their team undertook site surveys jointly with DIAP, another French firm dedicated to image projection and multimedia. DIAP executed the building survey and introduced a new optical concept of high definition gobo projector needed for the project.

Lebanese lighting solution providers Mamari Frères (MFR) were commissioned to find the most suitable technical solution. They partnered with Italian manufacturers Lampo and conceived and developed a projector assembled by hand to bear all weather conditions.
Designers Vanessa and Yasmeen
While crossing from one street to the other in the Souks and Downtown, we passed a reception to open a new boutique, Pastel. We went in, had a look, a drink, and a cupcake and met two of the designers, Vanessa and Yasmeen, from Morocco. Yasmeen also has a boutique called Vintage Story in Kantari and Vanessa’s label is called Pinto.

There’s much more to come… That morning, I walked round an area I hadn’t been to for years and there are also titbits and more choirs and singing from the Music Festival, held on June 21 to greet the advent of summer.

You can see more pictures of the evening here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Back on the streets of Beirut

No place on the sidewalk, no problem... just put the chairs on Hamra Street
What I mainly miss in Dubai is walking the streets and running errands on foot.  The weather doesn’t help, neither do the distances.

So I had hardly unpacked my suitcase on arrival in Beirut last Friday (June 17) that I was back ambling around Hamra to greet and check on my friends (you can walk around with me in these pictures). It turned out to be a very busy day that went on till 2 a.m. the next day!

Immediately on leaving home, I met the boys who go around collecting everything and anything that is made of plastic. They scour the distinctive green garbage skips, load the “loot” in the back of their little van and apparently take it up to Choueifat, home of Lebanon’s largest industrial areas.

Choueifat is on the eastern side of Beirut airport and hosts some 150 factories. It is also known as the seat of the International School of Choueifat, which now has branches all over the Gulf and Middle East.

Recycling at its best! These guys collect everything made of plastic...
The boys didn’t know the name of the factory, but said it mostly exported the recycled plastic to Turkey.

I then passed by the very unique “ambulatory plant shop”on Makdessi Street run by Kamal Jiryess. He is well known in the area. And it is always exciting to stop and have a cup of coffee with him on the street corner where he also has a small varieties shop. It’s unique because Kamal displays his plants on an antiquated and battered car. He drives towards Tripoli, in north Lebanon, every Monday to get new plants from the nurseries dotting the northbound highway.

Kamal's “ambulatory plant shop”
His crumbling Toyota has often been photographed and written about, so he now takes the attention in his stride. There was no time for coffee but I promised to go back over the weekend.

Abu Amine's time-honored cart
Of course I bumped into Abu Amine, who has one of the time-honored carts. They are becoming rare in Beirut due to licensing restrictions on street vendors. Since I stopped to take pictures, Abu Amine thinks I have “wasta,” or contacts, and might be able to help him get a permit. He is not convinced that I don’t and each time we meet he tells me he is waiting for me to get it. I have always wanted to have one of these carts and spend the day moving around and meeting people, so we compromised that “if” I ever did, we would co-own it!

Abu Amine these past few weeks is selling boiled corn-on-the-cob, lupines and “fool” (fava beans) as well as huge lemons from South Lebanon, now in season.

Chef Noor with the kittens
I met Chef Noor next, the very talented pâtissier at Gustav, my favorite pâtisserie and a haven for dessert aficionados (See Gustav’s sweet offers, 4 December 2010).

This little kitten is looking for a home
Noor was playing with some kittens on sale at the video and DVD shop close to Gustav. The Persians kittens are looking for new homes and going at $300 each. You can’t miss the parrot two doors down. It played to the camera and was happy being photographed.

My favorite grocer on Sadat Street
I passed by my favorite grocer on Sadat Street. He is a bit more expensive than others, but you pay for what you get. It is a pleasure to walk around the store and admire all the seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Next was a visit to my hairdresser for the luxury of an affordable brushing and some catching up with the girls at the salon.

I then sped off to meet a friend from Dubai! Alexander McNabb had like me just arrived on a 24-hour trip to Beirut to attend and speak at GeekFest. He wanted to go up to Shemlan and invited me to join him for lunch there.

The view from the mountain village of Shemlan
I was eager to revisit the mountain village, my refuge resort during the 1975-1990 civil war whenever shelling and security conditions permitted. In Mount Lebanon, just 25 kilometers out of Beirut, the trip brought back very fond memories.

The main purpose of going to Shemlan used to be Al Sakhra. It’s a restaurant overlooking the green mountain hills and stone houses with red brick roofs and Beirut airport runways.  As soon as you start going up the winding mountain roads, you lose the sun to clouds and fog and it gets considerably cooler. From Al Sakhra’s large terrace, where Alexander and I sat for lunch, the view is amazing (see the photos here).

Al Sakhra restaurant in Shemlan evoked very fond memories
Nothing has changed at Al Sakhra since I was last there some 30 years ago. The owner, who must have passed on the business to his sons, is still sitting at the entrance and greeting patrons. The tables, tablecloths and chairs are still the same and I think I even recognized a couple of waiters. The rest area is like a little sitting room, and I went to wash my hands just to make sure they hadn’t changed the beautiful stone sinks and brass taps.

Most notably, the food is still as delicious and we enjoyed a mezze washed down with a cold Lebanese Almaza beer, good conversation and a great view. You can read Alexander’s take on the trip on his blog, Fake Plastic Souks

MECAS, now the Help and Hope Institution
Shemlan is also famous for having been home to the British spy school, the Middle East Center for Arabic Studies, one of the best places for foreigners to learn Arabic. The school now houses the Help and Hope Institution for mentally handicapped children run by the Dar Al-Aytam Al-Islamiyah.

We headed back to Beirut around 3 p.m., just in time for a shower before making our way to GeekFest

But first I took Alexander around Hamra, showing him some landmarks such as Café Younes and the Commodore Hotel. We then took a “service,” or shared taxi, to visit the famous Monot Street.

Alexander and I were looking for a taxi to take us to the Beirut Art Center, where GeekFest was held, when a car stopped ahead, just across from Al Amine Mosque in Downtown Beirut.  It was our friends Naaema Zarif, Darine Sabbagh and Walid Khalife. We hopped into the car with them and went for a quick bite at Beirut Souks.

We finally made it to GeekFest, the fourth organized in Beirut and the second one I attend outside of Dubai.

GeekFest founder Alexander McNabb opens the talks
Alexander kick-started GeekFest in Dubai in 2009. It is held at two-month intervals and the concept has now spread all over the Gulf and the Middle East. It is the biggest, most interesting and fun gathering of virtual friends. It is where the virtual social media world joins the real world.

The theme of GeeFest Beirut was games and gaming -- here Mortal Kombat
The theme at the fourth Beirut GeekFest was games and gaming. Over 300 people attended the event that was “un-organized” by the very talented Gigalb team. I don’t understand much about games, but they were a hit and you can have a look at some photos of the event.

The venue was perfect and covered two very large spaces – indoors for all the games, outdoors for the talks. There was a buffet and loads of beer. GeekFest is always a good occasion to put a face on names we know through social media platforms and we all sat around till nearly 11 p.m.

When leaving, we fancied a last drink and headed to one of the many new bars in Hamra where we sat and talked till 2 a.m.

As you can imagine, I slept like a log that night. Saturday was just as exciting and you’ll read all about it. I walked around another area of town and also attended an event in Downtown Beirut…

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Carved figures come to life in Beirut

Four Xavier Corbero sculptures
Whenever I’m in Beirut, I go visit the sculptures peppering the entrance to the Souks. It’s always interesting to hear people’s comments as most think they are a waste of money and “just stones.” They either love them or hate them, a bit like Marmite.

I love these huge figures. They make you stop, think, discuss… And the idea of public works of art -- accessible, in the open for all to see and appreciate (or disparage) – is brilliant.

Corbero figures strolling about
They are 15 exceptional sculptures by Catalan painter, sculptor and architect Xavier Corbero that change character depending on the light and angle you look at them. Some seem to be just strolling about, others talking or embracing. But you can see them yourselves in these snapshots.

Dotted around Downtown Beirut in a sort of open museum, Corbero’s sculptures are made of basalt extracted from a particular quarry in the suburbs of Barcelona. Inspired by nature, it took him three years to complete them.

Downtown Beirut was planned and redeveloped by Solidere, founded in 1994 by the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, at the end of the Lebanon civil war. Solidere is the acronym in French for Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut.

 Window shopping maybe?
Information about the sculptures is sparse and about their creator mostly in Spanish, so it was interesting research.

I don’t know much about art, but I have always been drawn to public displays and grandiose patterns like those by Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to Corbero’s figures.

Corbero figures are carved in basalt
Corbero is Spain’s finest living sculptor. He was influenced in his early years by Spanish sculptor and painter Pablo Gargallo and Moore, the British sculptor and voice of British modernism.

From my first meeting with Corbero’s carved figures, I was hit by the massive bulk of the basalt, one of the most common fine-grained volcanic rock types in the world. The ocean floor is almost entirely made up of basalt, and maybe that’s what gives the stone a slippery feeling.

Perhaps it’s the way the figures are positioned, in relation to the space and to one another that is as important as their bulk and mass… Who knows in art? 

The sculptor settled in Spain’s remote Esplugues region in the late 1950s and since then has built a dream environment and refuge where artists live and work. Painters and sculptors are offered a free room and studio to explore their creativity at the Fundacion Xavier Corbero.

Salvador Dali was Corbero’s first patron although he didn’t know it -- a tale I found repeated often while looking up the artist about their relationship. Corbero says: “I didn't know he was my patron until many years later. Somebody had called on the phone and said ‘Hello, this is Dali.’ I thought it was a friend pulling my leg, so I said, ‘Yes, and I am the bishop,’ and hung up."

Xavier Corbero
Many years later, during an exhibition in New York, Dali visited the gallery every day. Corbero asked him why, and the great painter replied: "Because I find your work very interesting. The only problem is that you aren’t very polite given that I bought everything at your exhibition.”

Corbero’s roots are in Spain’s Catalan region, specifically Barcelona, a city famous for its public displays of art. Ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, he organized for artists to create public art projects in the city and many of his own massive works line major boulevards. He also created the 1998 Olympic medals and convinced the Olympic committee to use real gold in them for the first time in the history of the Games.

The old and the new in Downtown Beirut
After saluting my 15 friends, I continued my tour of Downtown Beirut, admiring the blend of old and new in the Souks’ restored streets and alleys as well as in the churches and mosques, often sitting side-by-side.

And I headed towards the new and upcoming district at the Port of Beirut, off the waterfront, which is developing into a new shopping area. There too, the mix of old houses and buildings contrasts with the designer boutiques.

So far there are three that launched in December – Maison Rabih Kayrouz, which I didn’t dare enter but whose windows were decked out with beautiful green, red, yellow and blue dresses and evening gowns; the Karen Chekerdjian Store for creative houseware; and a new branch of the famous and iconic IF Boutique.

Saydet al-Nourieh Church and Al-Amin Mosque
But there is that much you can walk and it was time to retrace my steps, past the Al-Amin Mosque and the picturesque Saydet al-Nourieh Church (Our Lady of Light), and take a shared cab, or servees, back home to Hamra.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

“Quack, quack” at Dubai Media City

My new workmates
My company moved offices at the beginning of the month. What could have been -- and usually is -- a stressful chore, was plain sailing and enjoyable.

Mind you, it was a move just across the street, from one building to another, at Dubai Media City. But the relocation gave me some pleasant surprises and new colleagues.

I’ve been working in Dubai Media City (DMC) for nearly six years. We rented our office off-plan while still in London in 2004. After London’s gray skies, Dubai sounded like the ideal place to be. 

Moving from Thuraya Tower to...
... the CNN building
When we finally moved into the new Thuraya Building in 2005, DMC was still a big sandpit with a few buildings completed. You could park your car right in front of the Thuraya Building entrance, on the sand. There were no parking meters, no roundabouts, no asphalted streets, few restaurants and cafés… DMC was a big construction site.

Dubai’s media hub is part of the vision of HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum -- UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. DMC groups all media-related businesses, including media and marketing services, printing and publishing, music, film, new media, leisure and entertainment, broadcasting and information agencies…

DMC's butterfly
Under the slogan “Freedom to Create,” the orange (lips), red (eye) and blue (ear) logo, and welcoming butterfly at its entrance, DMC is part of Dubai Holding. It is a tax-free zone where the regulatory environment is governed by TECOM (Dubai Technology, Electronic Commerce and Media Free Zone Authority -- established in 2000).

From the first day, I loved working there and I have made quite a few friends at DMC over the years.

It was great that we were just moving from Thuraya Tower across the street to the DMC Business Center in the CNN building, one of the first three office blocks built in DMC. The Business Center offers fully furnished and serviced business units, ideal for media professionals, start-ups and freelancers.

Cutting across the lake
So, on my first day at the Business Center, I parked as usual and cut across the lawn to discover the most amazing park area with a lake dotted with spewing fountains that you cross by bridge, a pagoda, rock waterfalls, a camel, water lilies and, above all, new amigos: ducks!

The ducks waddling about
They are all over the lawns and lake, doing little work but instead wading, catching fish and just waddling about.

This white duck floats peacefully among the water lilies
Although ducks are made to swim and fly, the DMC ones are happy lazing on the grass banks and shading under the palm and flame trees. They were pleased to pose for pictures and are most entertaining to watch floating gracefully on the water, their webbed feet churning beneath them.

I was told by one of the security guards walking around that there are water turtles, but I haven’t spotted them yet.
DMC's hand-painted silver camel
DMC's silver camel is one of 80 that were part of Camel Caravan, the Gulf's first public art project in 2004 that merged commerce and art with charity. The iconic hand-painted fiberglass camels that are dotted all over the city were auctioned to raise money for children's charities and the development of art and culture in Dubai.

I also wonder what happens to the ducks and how they cope during all the festivals and events that take place on the DMC lawns.

These start with the Dubai Marathon in January, when the finish line is positioned just in front of Thuraya Tower and the hospitality stalls are scattered around the lake. The Dubai International Jazz Festival is staged in February and Taste of Dubai in March. This is a festival with participating restaurants, chefs, performers, exhibitors and sponsors where visitors can sample dishes from 22 of the city’s finest eateries.

In between, there are many more events and it seems stages are constantly going up and being torn down, which makes parking in DMC even more difficult and maybe why I haven't had the occasion to walk around that area.

"Good Morning DMC" June edition on personal finance
One event I do look forward to is the “Good Morning DMC” breakfast on the first Thursday of each month on the ground floor of the CNN building. And I didn’t have to walk far for the June 2 fourth edition. These mornings, organized for the partners by the DMC Business Center, are a good occasion to meet colleagues, network and have an excellent breakfast. The June theme, "Expert Discussion on Personal Finance," was a great success (photos here). 

Unfortunately, with temperatures in the 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) and rising, it is now much too hot to spend time with my new duck friends. But come the cooler months at the end of the year, I could take my laptop out and work under the palm trees and get to know them better.

Meet my new workmates here.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dubai in flames

Dubai, a city in flames
Since I came back to Dubai after a one-month stint in Beirut, the city has been in flames!
No, don’t panic… There’s no need to call the fire brigade. The city is on fire through a spectacular tree that is blooming all over the place.

I immediately wanted to take pictures of these beautiful and fiery trees and write about their magnificence, but I didn’t know their botanical name.

I have been a journalist and in publishing all my life, and have now embarked on copywriting, but deep down I think I always wanted to be a gardener. Although I love plants and flowers, I know little about them and their species. 

My gardenias, by the way, are still in “hospital” at the back of the garden (Gardenias, roses and TLC, February 8, 2011).

Back in Beirut one week later, I went to a book exhibition at the Lebanese American University (LAU) to honor its alumni authors.

It was my break! Environmentalists and authors Dr. Ahmad Houri and Nisrine Machaka-Houri were among the more than 35 participating writers. I was sure they could help me.

The couple is constantly hiking around Lebanon researching and photographing plants and flowers. They published their first book covering 240 species, “Photographic Guide to Wildflowers of Lebanon,” in 2001 after failing to find a guide on the market. The second volume, covering 400 wild plants in Lebanon, was published in 2008.

The magnificent Delonix regia ... of the top five most beautiful flowering trees in the world
When I explained about the Dubai flame tree, Nisrine said to take a picture and email it to her. This is what I did after returning to my Dubai home three days later. Nisrine replied immediately. I had titled my email “flame tree,” and I wasn’t far-off.

The botanical name of the tree is Delonix regia, with other known English names such as Royal Poinciana, Flamboyant Tree, Flame Tree, Peacock Flower and Gulmohar.

I learned it is a spectacular spring bloomer -- although spring in Dubai is more of a forerunner of the long, scorching months ahead. It is also consistently voted one of the top five most beautiful flowering trees in the world and maybe the most colorful flowering tree as well. It blooms in dense clusters that burst into scarlet orange blossoms in May, June, and sometimes July.

Related to the tamarind and mimosa tree, my flaming tree is a native of Madagascar. It is a tropical legume with fernlike leaves and brown seedpods two inches long.

It reportedly has many qualities and uses. The flowers are reputed to produce bee forage. The large pods as well as the wood are used for fuel. The seeds contain gum used in textile and food industries. The bark has medicinal properties.

I was extremely thankful to Nisrine Machaka-Houri for sending me all this information and kept stopping to take pictures for Mich Café every time I saw one. Except that these magnificent trees are everywhere and I kept getting sidetracked by another favorite of mine, the palm tree. 

A palm tree heavy with fruit
The date stems wrapped in green mesh
Palms are now heavy with ripening fruit, in the countdown to the Holy Month of Ramadan – starting around August 1 this year. 

The date stems of palm trees around villas are usually wrapped in green mesh to protect them and gather the falling fruit.

One of the gateways to Dubai's Al Safa Park
Then I thought where better to see the magnificent Flamboyant Tree blooms than in Dubai’s enchanting Al Safa Park?

After paying my AED 3 entrance fee, I walked around this Dubai treasure where the “flames” guided me, from one to the other. I know there are many more clusters and rows on the sides of Sheikh Zayed Road, but it was too hot to walk all the way across the 158-acre park.

Al Safa Park is vast, clean, well-kept and an oasis of nature in the middle of the bustling city. There were so many different sounds and sights to take in that you don’t know which direction to take.  I walked and walked, in search of my flames.

The park's central lake
Al Safa Park contains three lakes, but I only reached the first central one with a fountain in the middle and little boats for hire. There are over 200 bird species in the park and the Royal Poinciana is one among 16,924 different trees and bushes.

My little digital camera was never quick enough to capture the stunning birds I saw. I tried to follow one, a parrot I think. It had blue, orange, yellow and red plumage it was proudly showing off and teasing me with. The crows, on the other hand, didn’t budge!

Burj Khalifa seen from Al Safa Park
The skyscrapers in the background
Walking around the lake with Burj Khalifa and other skyscrapers in the background is mindboggling.
With so many native plants, flowers and birds around the Emirates, I wish Ahmad and Nisrine Houri are invited to take part in one of our book fairs in Dubai, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi. Imagine if they could be commissioned to research and publish a “photographic field guide to wild flowers of the United Arab Emirates!”

Palm and Flame Trees often side-by-side
Until then, thank you Nisrine for properly introducing me to Delonix regia and for your help in making this post possible.

You can see more Flame Trees and walk around Al Safa Park with me in pictures.
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