Monday, September 12, 2011

Hamra medley dazzles

I missed the first one, and was not about to miss it again! I was glad to be in Beirut just in time for this year’s Maraya 2011 Hamra Streets Festival. It started with preparations Tuesday, August 30, and went on for two days on Wednesday and Thursday coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr break celebrating the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan.

As I wrote many times before, Hamra is home. It is one of the main streets in Beirut and much the heart of the city. It’s where I have always lived when in Lebanon.

Hamra Street is about one-kilometer long. It runs, in one-way traffic, from the Banque Du Liban (or Central Bank) all the way down to Sadat Street. It is home to many private banks, major newspapers and ministries, cafés, restaurants, churches, mosques and street sellers. They all contribute to the dynamism of the area. Two of Lebanon’s major universities are to the left and right of Hamra Street – the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Hamra is closed to traffic during the festival
The bustling street is closed to traffic for three days during the festival when stalls are set up in the middle-of-the-road. Shops, cafés and restaurants bring their wares out on the pavements. Tables and chairs are laid out in the middle.

I couldn’t wait for the festival to start. It was held this summer under the theme of apples. I went out to witness what was happening from the first day. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air with eager sellers already in place and others waiting for the sheltered stalls to be built. There were apples all over and at most stands, to encourage and blend local agriculture with the other trades on display.

Setting up on August 30
The only hitch glitch came Tuesday night. While organizers were still getting everything ready, a sudden half-an-hour downpour sent them scurrying for cover. We thought that it would delay the preparations, but at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (August 31) the festival opened to clear, blue skies.

The Hamra Streets Festival celebrates Lebanese talent whether in handicrafts, farming, gardening, cooking, music, painting... The Maraya 2011 organizers wanted to mix urban and rural talent and they sure did. I was pleased to reconnect at the festival with most of the Souk el Tayeb farmers I wrote about last November. I also got to know many new and talented people. 

"Wled el Balad" relaxing at Cafe Younes before their performance
Congregating towards the stage
This year, there was only one stage for the live performances at the beginning of Hamra Street. That’s where everyone eventually congregated to hear their favorite acts and to discover new ones. Standouts included, among others:

-        The Red Herrings, a young five-member jazz band out of Kent in the UK
-        Wled el Balad, who I met earlier that morning at my favorite Café Younes
-        Hip-hop rapper twins Ashekman, who also had a stand selling T-shirts and their CD
-        Banana Cognac who play funk and blues, and
-        Epic, who I heard on the last night (September 1).

Last year’s Hamra Street Festival pulled some 200,000 people. I am sure the figure was exceeded this summer. For three days, street activities and stalls were open to the public from 10 a.m. to midnight.

Maraya 2011 organizers were Najwa Baroody, Fadi Ghazzaoui, Serge Mushati, Marilene Makhloof, Assil Ayache (music production), Zico (technical), Dina Habbal, Randa Chelala and Zeinab Chahine. They tried this year to focus on green areas and a green theme, winning over such sponsors as Beirut Municipality and AUB.

The Malak al Taouk bus
Friends of Maraya 2011 include AUB’s School of Agricultural and Food Sciences & Center for Civic Engagement & Community Service; Sabah Ramadan; Karim Bekdache; Harley-Davidson Owners (HOG) and the ISF Horses.

The Harley-Davidson Owners prepare for the parade
I've never seen so many Harleys in one place!
HOG opened the festival Tuesday afternoon in tandem with the Police Horses. I missed the parade because it was supposed to kick off at 5 p.m. But by 6 p.m. the Harleys were still taking their positions -- so I walked away thinking the opening was postponed. But I never saw so many Harley-Davidsons in one place and their vroom-vroom had the whole street gasping in expectation. Everyone wanted to watch men and women bikers, park their awesome machines side-by-side. There must have been well over 100.

The number of creators of crafts, ceramics, jewelry, handbags, hats, paintings, etc, all with a Lebanese twist was admirable. Everyone was in good spirits, hospitable, generous and eager to enjoy the festivities.

Wherever I stopped, stall owners were eager to share information about their creations and offer a little token. Considering the huge number of people strolling around the street, I was struck by everyone’s composure. There were several stands offering spirits, but no one was visibly “high” or upsetting the fun.

Bags by Dima Rachid
“Concepts by Dima,” the custom handbag outfit by 22-year-old Dima Rachid, is one example of local creativity. Dima was welcoming at her stand, explaining that she helps clients create their own collages for their handbags that can be dry-cleaned. 

I loved the Zinab Chahine stall for original accessories -- especially her brooches made of bottle caps with pictures of Umm Kulthoum and Arabic words and expressions.

There were Fitflop sandals that give you a workout while walking and the two women at the stand were pleasant and helpful. Unfortunately, the guy staffing the stall of Havaianas, the only thing I wanted to buy, must have been tired when I passed by and not cordial – so he lost my custom.

Karen Mahseredjian's original designs
One of my favorite stands was Designs by Kay selling colorful and original handbags by Karen Mahseredjian. The laptop bag with a car license plate was a hot seller. So were the phosphorescent pinks and yellows, also with license plates or stamped envelopes. Karen does key holders, handbag holders and other odds and ends. Her creations can be found at Cream in Saifi, The Union in Gemmayzeh and Raspberry Diva in Jounieh.

Creations by ASPF's Bamboo Project
I was impressed by the Association de Secours aux Prisonniers et leurs Familles (ASPF), an organization that aids prisoners and their families. The association helps defend prisoners who have been unjustly condemned; gives legal, financial, medical and food support to those in need. They also lend a hand with the rehabilitation of prisoners into society on their release. ASPF sponsors the Bamboo Project -- creations of hats and bags in raffia and straw by the Baabda Prison for Women. All proceeds from sales go to the inmates.

Maytham Kassir at the Shabab Assafir booth
The night before the festival opening I was invited by Maytham Kassir on Twitter to pass by the Shabab Assafir booth. He and his journalist colleagues were giving out and promoting the junior weekly tabloid of the Beirut newspaper.

Abu Brahim in traditional attire
Georgina does delicious falafel
I recognized Abu Brahim, in his Druze traditional attire, from my post about Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s farmers market. Georgina was there too and offered me a freshly made falafel.

I got apples at Irshad, who protect the environment by working with farmers across Lebanon to produce Lebanese fruits by means of the best internationally used practices through Integrated Crop Management (ICM).

Kenza's different seating area
Kenza had seating with cushions on mats with burning incense to enjoy their natural diet cakes and breads. Their products are suitable for diabetes, pregnancy and healthy dieting as well as for children aged one year and above.

Dr. Jamil Kassem manning his book stall
Celebrating the festival well into the night
It is unfair not to mention every single stall, artisan, farmer, cook, painter, musician and the hundreds of people who displayed and helped organize the Hamra Streets Festival. I would have loved to give credit to each one for their creativity and courage to launch into these ventures.

Maybe these pictures will give you an idea of what a great show Hamra put on. I love Hamra!

Related posts:   Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb, 16 November 2010

                        Walking in Hamra, 12 November 2010

                        Back on the streets of Beirut, 24 June 2011