“You can tell from the stuff you find here that people used to study science,” Jana Mezher said while carefully flipping through dusty science books in an abandoned house in the Rmeil area.
Mezher has been exploring abandoned houses for two years. Leaving nothing but footsteps behind, she carefully examines each artifact before putting it back in its place for the next explorer to find.
“I love the feeling of adrenaline, discovering stuff. I take a lot of time looking at stuff, touching stuff, smelling stuff. It’s a voyage de sense,” said Mezher, who one day hopes to research Beirut’s heritage as part of a doctorate.
For Mezher, these abandoned houses are more than just dwellings. They are “multidimensional” spaces, made up of historical elements - the stories of former inhabitants, the time of construction and the artifacts found on the premises.
Her appreciation for these places stems from the values instilled by her parents since she was young, but also a curiosity about how life was before the 1975-90 Civil War, which displaced many Lebanese. “I didn’t live [during] the war and I explore [due to] my constant nostalgic feeling. I know there’s memory in my DNA,” she said.
Rummaging through these forgotten places is not just specific to Lebanon, but an international trend. Called “urbex” - short for urban exploring - the movement is a European export that has picked up in Lebanon in the past three years. It is a subculture of people who explore derelict buildings, which are often of questionable structural integrity.
While “urbexers” often put themselves at risk by trespassing into crumbling buildings, their explorations allow them to find out more about their country’s past and share it with others on their social media pages.
Kuwait-born Yasmine Shuhaiber, an established urbexer, went on her first exploration in 2010. Since then, she has been taking photos of houses and mansions dating back to the late 1800s and shares them with her big following on Instagram.
“My focus in urbex is to highlight the beauty,” Shuhaiber told The Daily Star. “I want people to feel a longing for these pictures, a yearning that makes them question why they are abandoned.”
She expressed belief that she was more of an educator than an activist and saw her Instagram page as a tool that helped her raise awareness about the beauty of these places.
Georges Banna, also a veteran urbexer, concurred. “I’m enjoying what I do, it doesn’t have to be more than it is,” Banna said.
Both of them are part of the Lebanese Urbex Community, a collaboration of urbexers who frequently organize trips to abandoned sites. The community runs an Instagram page where they feature aesthetic photos of abandoned dwellings. Fadi Badran, one of its co-founders, aims to use the community as an online space dedicated to photography.
“We’re showing other people’s work on Instagram and we are raising awareness about these locations,” Badran said. Led by Badran, the community wants to eventually establish an NGO that would fundraise for the preservation of some of Beirut’s decaying buildings.
In the project pipeline, the community has an exhibition, a book and other events that aim to garner support for heritage preservation.
The locations of the pictures are often not disclosed in their Instagram posts, in an attempt to protect these places from others who might not award them the same respect.
Mezher used to be part of the Lebanese Urbex Community, but she realized after a year that they had a different approach in terms of urbexing. “I focus more on exploring the place. The picture for me is just a memory of the place, because I feel that when I start researching about who used to live there, the history and what I felt in the moment, I focus more on the importance of preserving these places than on the picture,” Mezher said.
Through her research, and by integrating technological tools such as augmented reality, Mezher hopes to develop projects that inquire into ways in which Lebanese people can reclaim the history of these decaying historical structures.
Gregory Buchakjian, her former teacher and a heritage historian, researcher and visual artist, shares similar views. “For me urbex doesn’t keep the memory, they only do pictures and don’t go beyond the spectacular; it doesn’t renew itself,” Buchakjian told The Daily Star.
He saluted the initiative of the Lebanese Urbex Community to create an NGO that would help with restoration, but was not convinced of what he called its “simplistic approach,” preferring a more in-depth research into buildings’ pasts can keep their memory alive.
In his attempt to preserve their memory, he surveyed over 750 houses to create an archival database of the documents left behind by their inhabitants. He gathered enough information and artifacts that in 2012, he set off to do a doctorate on the subject at Paris’ Sorbonne University. “My project aimed to show how abandoned dwellings can help [someone] investigate the transformations of the city and somehow reclaim it,” he said.
Yet he doesn’t see himself as an activist fighting to keep Beirtut’s old structures standing, believing in the city’s organic evolution. “If the city has to change, let it change,” Buchakjian said. “The city is not a museum, everything changes.”
Maya Chams Ibrahimchah believes in a different approach. A prominent heritage activist in Beirut, she runs an NGO called Beit el Akd. She believes in triggering change through institutions and as a result, together with a small team, has been advising the Culture Ministry to take concrete steps toward designing laws that would prevent the demolition of these sites.
She expressed confidence that taking a hands-on approach was the most effective way to push this agenda. But although she said she was making progress institutionally, she said people’s mentality toward these dwellings was the hardest to change.
One of Ibrahimchah’s personal initiatives directly helped save the Heneine Palace when she decided to partially restore it to organize a party in it. She said she believed that giving use to these spaces through exhibitions and events would garner more attention from people and investors.
“Now everyone is interested in doing something there and eventually, maybe someone will buy it. This is a way to help rehabilitation,” she told The Daily Star.
She was also circumspect about urbexing and how useful it was to raising awareness about these places. She said urbexers were quite individualistic in their approach to abandoned places as the pictures only showcased their photographic skills but would not lead to preservation. One of her main discontents was also urbexers’ unwillingness to share the locations of their finds with other researchers or activists like her.
“There’s no need for secrecy. This is something that eventually will help people working on the ground. [Almost] all avoid working with activists,” she said.
While all these people share a common passion for saving Beirut’s heritage, their approaches differ.
More in-depth initiatives that focus on research might not reach everyone, while photography and social media might not be thorough enough to trigger change.
For Mezher, everyone has a role, be it artistic, institutional or academic. “I think that every group or individual is responsible for doing stuff,” she said. “Everyone has an impact if they want.”
She said the split in initiatives that aimed to save the heritage were mirrored by the divisiveness within the country. Until everyone came together to collaborate by sharing knowledge and expertise, she said, there wouldn’t be much progress made.
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