Defiant art: Tripoli’s melancholic walls speak back

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Hayat Chaaban's mural on the Saeh LIbrary's wall, which reads “I defied death and was resurrected from the ashes,” commemorating the library's ongoing activity after it was torched by unknown assailants. Photo: Hayat Chaaban's Facebook page.

Published Tuesday, November 11, 2014

“The city needs art. On a visual level, Tripoli has become a city filled with scenes of commerce and ugly concrete buildings. It was necessary to shatter this hideousness, it’s our duty to change this environment.” In 2010, Ali al-Rafei resorted to the walls of Tripoli after a long self-struggle. His first drawing was on a neglected wall that no one sees. He then wanted to communicate with people via Tripoli’s neglected walls.

“To communicate effectively with the society in Tripoli, it was necessary to merge Arabic calligraphy with drawing because I wanted to engage in a dialogue with the people of this city,” Ali said. The walls in the streets of al-Mulla, al-Mina and al-Maarad are full of drawings. He wanted for these drawings to change something in the stifling gray smothering the city. The young man moves between Tripoli and Beirut and the drawings vary between the two cities. “In Tripoli, there is no political dimension, I focus on the faces, unlike Beirut where the drawings can include many political messages.” In Tripoli, Ali leaves politics out, whereas he sometimes incorporates it in Beirut because the latter has a large number of artists whereas in Tripoli the artists are generally known.

Practicing this kind of art is not easy in Tripoli. Actually, “you butt heads with a lot of people” from your parents to society at large because they are not used to the idea of street art. Ali went on: “This doesn’t mean there are no supporters; on the contrary, you can draw on all the walls. The city is not as dangerous as you imagine.” The artist talks about the real Tripoli with passion. “The idea of extremism exists only in the media. When you are in the city, you don’t feel this environment.” The problem, according to Ali, is in the void, a deadly and vexing void envelops Tripoli.

Ali Rafei's mural of a young Indonesian girl on of Tripoli's decaying buildings. Photo: Ali Rafei's Facebook page.Ali Rafei's mural of a young Indonesian girl on of Tripoli's decaying buildings. Photo: Ali Rafei's Facebook page.

There is a cafe culture, it pervades the city to fill the great void and the dead time. Only art can add something to this urban void. Ali draws for two reasons. First, to aestheticize the city and breathe life into it and second, to spur others to think, draw and express themselves. “When I drew an old man in al-Mina the entire area changed and many people liked it. But when I drew the face of an Indonesian girl, someone asked me why, what’s wrong with Arab girls?”

Artists have a special relationship with walls. There are walls that are “sexy” because of their shape, location and identity. They are distinctive walls, such as the granite factory wall where Ali drew the Indonesian girl. He talks about a dream that he hopes will come true soon: “I want to draw in Bab al-Tabbaneh, I have a lot of ideas.”

Walls that reject the status quo

It might be surprising that the person who drew on a wall in the Abu Samra area and on another wall near the Saeh library is a woman. Since she was a child, Hayat Chaaban loved to draw, especially calligraphy. Today, the 18-year-old young woman has seven drawings to her name. Her drawings consist of phrases that express her vision for the city. She inscribed on the walls of the Saeh Library, “I defied death and was resurrected from the ashes” after the library was burned by unknown assailments. Another phrase, “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion,” adorns an Abu Samra wall.

Hayat’s early dabbling in this artform has a funny story behind it. She learned it as a way to cheat in school so the teacher would not understand what she is writing. She then developed her talent and turned “cheating” into an art. The walls of Tripoli are for venting. According to Hayat, a wall is not always silent, it is “a means to reject the status quo that the city is suffering from.” She faces a lot of criticism because “drawing is futile and the country is undeserving.” But she also gets a lot of positive feedback. “It makes me happy to see someone standing in front of a wall trying to understand what is written.”

Resisting violence with music

In August 2013, two bombs went off near al-Salam and al-Taqwa mosques. A lot of talk about terrorism and how to fight it ensued. At the time, a group of friends came together with one thing in mind: hip hop. They left the organizations they belonged to and decided that only art can drown the sound of bombs. Their first work, Our Pain is One, talked about the bombings.

Three rap performers, seven breakdancers and a graffiti artist made up the group One Voice Team. Two months ago, they launched their first album with 11 songs on it. Music videos for three songs – Tripoli for Peace, Gaza and Our Pain is One – were also shot. Ihab Taha, Burhan Arja and Sara Rahouli sing with an endearing Tripolitan accent.

Burhan (Bob) writes the lyrics which “tackle the issues plaguing Tripoli in different ways.” The group did not forget Gaza, writing for it with anguished words, “the cause will always be Palestine.” Members of the group insist that they do not belong to any political party. Politics has become a dirty word in Tripoli. Their goal is simple. “We want to prove to the world that Tripoli is not just war, there is art beating inside the heart of this city. There are young people resisting violence with song, dance and drawing.”

When Mohammed Baarini created a breakdance group, he wanted to bringing together friends that share his passion but have no place to voice their objections. Friends from Dahr al-Moghr, Bab al-Tabbaneh, Bab al-Raml and Bahsas expressed their opposition to guns through dancing.


This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo - these works lend themselves beautifully to creating space & light where you can't see the wood for the trees of highrise.
3d chalk ground art is my favorite -
The Middle East has a current of blood flow in the art world that brings life to the defeated soul of mankind.

ONLY 2 PICTURES .../ (?)

p.s. your website still has problems doing the right thing.

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