There’s a derelict building in Lebanon that’s history is steeped in conflict and revolution. The Egg, an unfinished cinema located in the heart of Beirut. was originally designed by Architect Joseph Philippe Karam as a commercial and residential city centre, a project that was quickly abandoned after the outbreak of the Lebanese War in 1975. Since then, the barren movie-dome has found renewed purpose as a sanctuary of sorts during the 2019-2020 Lebanese uprisings, a safe space where the artists, students and protestors who seek to build a better Lebanon converge to learn, plan, create, and educate each other. One of the artists active during that time was Farah Fayyad. A graphic designer by trade, Farah is a big believer in art and design as tools to shed awareness. Along with her friend Siwar Kraytem, they staged a series of public screen-printing interventions in Downtown Beirut, just down the street from where The Egg is located. They would print, and teach how to print, revolutionary slogans on t-shirts, in her words, “turning a basic item into a symbol of energy and resistance.” The act itself is an artistic protest against the unstable living conditions in Lebanon and the regime that upholds them. Though Farah’s print art suggests the engaging political philosophy of “the material” as a call to action, she insists that to make real social change, a major educational overhaul is needed. Below, she pens a lyrical love letter to her city, the mentors that shaped her artistry, The Egg, and the act of art as revolution.
There’s nothing like a master-apprentice relationship.
There’s nobody that can teach Arabic calligraphy like Mokhtar.
There’s nobody that can screen-print quite like Salim.
Mokhtar is in every letter and word I draw. I was his last student. In his seventies, he could no longer hold the pen steady, but the structures of his words were flawless. He had been taught by his father who was taught by his own father. A lineage of masters. Mokhtar saw letters as actual characters. They had personalities and we could talk about their behavior. My practice is entirely founded on how I learned to love these characters like he did. Mokhtar passed in January 2021. Quietly, I imagine, and definitely gracefully. I like to thank him every chance I get.
Salim is my screen-printing mentor and friend and has been in the screen-printing business since he was a child. He now runs the best studio in Lebanon, which he refers to as his kingdom. There’s cigarette ash all over the place. People come in and see him covered in ink and assume he’s the lowest in the chain of command. Why would a king look like that? He could be in a suit smoking a cigar inside an office where only he has air conditioning. But that’s not who he is. And that’s not what screen printing is. Your hands and your feet have to be in it. Nothing can be done from a distance.
You know that evil frog under the fig tree in Pan’s Labyrinth? In our case, it’s a bunch of corrupt politicians that refuse to budge. The uprising was supposed to be those three stones. But the evil frog didn’t explode. We did.
A tipping point where it wasn’t funny anymore to talk about how messed up our country is. We were done laughing, so on October 17, 2019, we took to the streets. During that time, Arabic characters took over the city. They were everywhere, inside our lungs and mouths, on our bodies, clothes, written, drawn, painted, sprayed. Those days I thought a lot about the roles of these characters. Their shift between the small, quiet practice sheets of Mokhtar, and how they got big, loud, angry, and reactive.
On October 23, I went to a roadblock demonstration anxious and uncomfortable. So when my friend Siwar came up to me and proposed that we set up a screen-printing station to print t-shirts, I left with her immediately. We ran down to Salim’s, and on the way managed to gather five artworks by friends of ours. Lettered Arabic slogans and some illustrations. Salim helped us prepare the screens, mobile printing table, and the inks and sent us off.
Massive crowds gathered around us. People of all ages and backgrounds wanted to see how screen-printing works. They would take off their clothes for us to print on and ask questions while the ink dried. We were printing for free and right at the heart of the gatherings, so our little set-up became this public space within which we can organize and discuss and produce.
In the background of all this action is this strange decaying oval structure. When I was a child my father told me it was an old cinema, long abandoned. Much like the fate of many heritage buildings in Beirut, no doubt some real estate agency has plans to tear it down to build a tall empty tower.
The Egg was one of the first spaces that were reclaimed during the uprisings. By students, professors, film enthusiasts, ravers, lawyers holding town halls, and anyone who had been longing for a semblance of a public space that was actually public.
It was climbed, danced on, and decorated with statements of resistance. For many it became a symbol of what it means to take action. To insist that we belong in this city and our bodies could occupy spaces that are not just meant for consumption.
The future of The Egg remains uncertain. Like the many living and barely living beings in Beirut, it has to take it day by day. Maybe the activists will win and it will forever stay a heritage site. Maybe some famous architect might revive it. Maybe it’ll become the ghost that has nobody to haunt in the tall empty building atop its grave.
If you were a letter you would be a ‘ر’. Your tongue has to roll a bit and your mouth stays open. Ra. Soft. Curved. Seemingly welcoming from afar. But whenever anything comes too close to you there’s this empty space that cannot be resolved. Living with you is complicated and terrifying.
So I left. And every day I work on breaking the illusion I built of you. I had a beautiful photo of you framed and hung high up on a wall. I could never allow a single speck of dust to settle anywhere near your edges, let alone across your face. I protected you at all costs. Especially from my own feelings towards you. These days I’m comfortable using the word ugly. Deceptive. Toxic.
No access to your space and even less access to your time. This a letter to you as in the you that I lost and the us that you destroyed. I have a fear of irrelevance. If you’re not my audience then there’s nothing I want to say.
You’ve made me strangely selfish and I hate the idea that you can survive without me. An intimacy I never had with anybody else. And unpredictability. The feeling that each time could easily be the last.
The rage from 2019 has melted into a type of sadness I’m still learning to read. My father’s generation had the same aspirations we did. And it seems slaps in the face are very much generational.
We don’t have civil servants. We have war lords, business men, and celebrities. And survival of the fittest. Art cannot solve this, but it can give us spaces to ask questions. It can gather us and it can amplify our voices.
Whenever friends visit me in Lebanon, I always find myself giving them the same kind of introduction: This is the land of contradictions.
It is crumbling into poverty and corruption, but it is also beyond wealthy in culture, food, and nature.
You’ll experience a kind of freedom you don’t have anywhere, but also you need to be very careful because there is no real justice you can rely on if you fuck up.
You can ski and swim on the same day.
You can also spiral into depression, see an incredible play, get Cholera, and have the best Negroni of your life on the same day.