INTERVIEW: Lebanese Raafat Majzoub edits reality though architecture, art, writing

Nourhan Tewfik , Thursday 27 Aug 2015

Raafat Majzoub talks to Ahram Online about his artistic projects which challenge the privatisation of Beirut's architecture

Hello, Can You See Me?
Here, the vegetable truck parks across the Piccadilly Theatre on Hamra Street. The building was constructed by Lebanese architect William Sednaoui in 1965. (Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh)

“Buildings are the tombstones of architecture,” said the famous curator and architecture critic Aaron Betsky. Those words would profoundly inspire Raafat Majzoub, a Lebanese architect, artist and author, and underpin his varied repertoire.

Graduating from the American University in Beirut in 2009 with a degree in architecture, Majzoub began his career constructing residential buildings.  But it was not long before he realised the ineptitude of traditional architecture. His aspiration was to explore people’s interaction with space and how such interaction affects their ability to build better architecture, rather than accommodating the needs of stuffing people in shelter. To do so, Majzoub embarked on a journey of inquiries during which he employed an array of artistic practices to renegotiate the built environment.

Majzoub’s artistic philosophy can be categorised as seeking to edit reality- an aspiration which he has tugged at through a series of urban interventions, art installations, videos and narratives. In 2012, Majzoub co-founded The Outpost, a quarterly print magazine with the slogan “a magazine of possibilities”. The publication unearths the narratives of the Arab world, and also contributes to them. Also the magazine’s creative director until 2014, Majzoub continues to be a major contributor to this form of narrative journalism.

Majzoub's repertoire also includes The Wishing Fountain (2014), in which he sought to renegotiate Lebanese people’s use of space through a public installation established on the Beirut's vibrant Hamra Street. Taking the form of a woman street beggar, the sculpture's fountain comprised coins. Above the sculpture, a sign read, “Make a wish and toss a coin into the wishing fountain’s lap. This money is public. If you wish to take it it's yours.” By allowing people to share money, the installation challenged a privatised Beirut.

The Wishing Fountain
In The Wishing Fountain (2014), Majzoub sought to renegotiate Lebanese people’s use of space through a public installation established on the vibrant Hamra Street. (Photo: courtesy of Raafat Majzoub)

Interested in allowing a penetrability of non-fiction into fiction, Majzoub would use some of the footage captured by a surveillance camera set in front of the installation to document interaction, to write his novel The Perfumed Garden. While writing the novel, Majzoub sought to employ real and factual stories, characters and settings. 

The Perfumed Garden also encompasses data from three of Majzoub’s past projects: Casting for a novel (2014), research field trips in Beirut, Tripoli, Cairo, Alexandria, Amman and the Jordan River, during which he documented characters and settings, and used the footage to inspire his novel’s characters; Errors (2014), video-series shot in Beirut, Cairo, Amman, and transcribed in the narrative-production of his novel; and The Author is Insane (2014), an interactive installation set in Beirut and Amman where Majzoub involved the audience into the writing of the novel.  

The novel will also include Majzoub’s latest artistic intervention Alo Shayefni? (Hello, Can You See Me?); a public installation/performance, supported by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy and that sought to renegotiate the functionality of the city’s abandoned buildings.

Ahram Online recently spoke to Majzoub about this recent project over Skype.

Ahram Online (AO): Tell us more about your most recent project Hello, Can You See Me?

Raafat Majzoub (RM): Hello, Can You See Me? was a one-day performance targeting 12 of Beirut's abandoned buildings. The main idea of this project was to show that these buildings are talking, even if we cannot hear them- that each has its own narrative. Some of the abandoned buildings included the Charles Helou bus station, the bullet-scarred Holiday Inn, the Saint George bay, Le Colisee theatre, amongst others. 

The project initially started out as one LED screen on one abandoned building, showing its monologue. In the first stages of looking for buildings to work with, all the buildings that I approached proved impossible to touch. These boundaries are very clear in Beirut- you are not allowed to touch these ‘private’ buildings, so I shifted it to the streets — still public — this way, the monologues actually happen in an unrestricted public zone. By doing so, I was trying to reclaim parts of these buildings through a public tool, from a public perspective.

This public tool was a truck selling vegetables on the streets of Beirut. Once the truck arrived by one such abandoned building, the building interrupted streaming of vegetable prices on the truck’s LED screen, and a monologue — in which the buildings told their story —ensued. The monologue was followed by an interactive segment of the performance in the form of a Q&A where audience members would post their questions on one of the online platforms, and the building’s answer would come out on the screen.  

The street performance was also followed by a documentation of the whole project — in the form of a publication that includes all monologues of the buildings.

Hello, Can You See Me?
Here, the vegetable truck parks close to Masrah Beirut (Beirut Theatre). (Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh)

AO: In what way does the project renegotiate the functionality of Beirut’s abandoned buildings as remnants of war?

RM: One of the main topics that I wanted to tackle with this project is that what we consider as icons of the war/icons of the city are actually owned by individuals. These abandoned buildings are still there not because of any conceptual issue (reminders of the war) but because of real estate issues. They’re there because whoever owns them — lets say a Kuwaiti princess or a Qatari billionaire — has not struck the best real estate deal yet…if the owner wants a building demolished, it will be demolished.

So what we’re left with is this problematic situation where people think of these buildings as something they’re not. And so whenever they want to tackle them, they can’t do it, because they don’t know what the problem is. How we see these buildings is too sentimental, and the sentimentality is stuck somewhere where it does not fit anymore. 

AO: How did you choose the featured buildings, and how did this process of personalising those buildings through monologues come about

RM: I chose the buildings that are very iconic and tried to approach each building within its context- trying to reflect what a building in such setting will have to say. And when you read the texts, you’ll find that I portrayed each building as a character instead of discussing its factual information. As a fiction writer, I believe that it is easier for people to subscribe to characters than to subscribe to ideas. If you want to discuss truth, you assign the problematic of truth to a character. You do not talk about it in general. So each building had to have a human character to bring people closer to them.

Hello, Can You See Me?
The vegetable truck parks in front of Le Colisee Theatre; the building's monologue appears on the LED screen. (Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh)

This is reflected in the kind of ideas the building monologues are communicating. None of the buildings involved in ‘Hello, Can You See Me?’ were talking about the war. They all got over this attached ‘identity’ in the project. Each converses about its own personal issues. The buildings have already realised that the war is over, but the people have yet to catch up.

Moreover, some of the buildings talk to each other- especially those who were historically known as rivals, or those with physical proximity. For example, in their monologues, it is clear that Borj Al Murr and Holiday Inn are not on good terms. Al Murr wants Holiday Inn to be demolished, but the latter could not care less. It just moves on with its life. Another example is Cinema Hamra and Cinema Piccadilly- these two cinemas are in love and they question why is it a taboo that two cinemas are in love. Why must a cinema fall in love with a café for example? So in a way, the monologues also become a reflection of the questions going on in the city- what love means, what types of love are allowed, etc. And Hamra is the best place to have this conversation with its crazy mix of people. It was as if Beirut was some sort of stage, with each building reciting its own monologue.

AO: Tell us more about the actual performance day, and reactions to it:

RM: I announced upcoming locations on social media. The idea was to inform people that say in 10 minutes the truck will park next to a specified building, so that if they’re close to any of the buildings, they can just wait next to it until we pass by.

It was not the type of performance that called for an immediate audience. The audience is the people that are on the street or the people that are online. On the street there was a lot of confusion, which is normal. People were looking at a vegetable truck with an LED screen that something close to poetry was strolling on, which is not very usual. The most interesting reactions came when we parked next to Piccadilly Theater in Hamra and a lot of people started standing behind the truck and looking at it as if they were watching a film or a football match. They would recite the lines that were going on the LED screen out loud to each other.

Hello, Can You See Me?
The truck parks close to Dahesh Palace in Beirut. (Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh)

Online there were some crazy things happening because people were starting to joke around with the buildings- and trying to informalise as much as possible this conversation, which was perfectly the point.

AO: As an architect, how would you view the ongoing gentrification of Beirut, and this privatisation of public space? How do we make sense of the destruction of Raouche-one of the city's public spaces to make space for ugly towers?

RM: In order for Arab architecture to develop, we should try to figure out how to move forward from here. And this needs a very analytical view on our built environment that already exists. We must ask questions regarding the value of these buildings, who is allowed to ask these questions, or buy this land. The issue is not the type of establishment that will come up, it is the importance of having this conversation regarding what type of architecture can enhance the already public space, not contain it. We rather wait until these buildings/structures are about to die and then invest in trying to save them. There needs to be an abundance of conversations about Beirut, and not just Beirut but also Beirut-Cairo-Amman-etc. because I always think of Arab cities as one bracket since we share many similar issues. 

Hello, Can You See Me?
The vegetable truck also stops by Charles Helou bus station. (Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh)

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