Beirut Narratives: tapestries hung around the city ensure no one forgets blast victims

Architect sisters Celine and Tatiana Stephan are transforming the words and drawings of survivors into commemorative art installations

Listen to the latest podcast on the Beirut blast here

On August 4, 2020, Beirut was devastated by a massive explosion at the port, killing at least 190 people, injuring thousands and leaving large stretches of the capital in ruins.

It was caused by nearly 3,000 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate. The scars left behind are still visible a year later and the victims without justice as the investigation remains inconclusive, stalled by political contrivances.

Twenty days after the blast, sisters Celine and Tatiana Stephan, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mecanismes, began collecting more than 100 testimonials of people from different walks of life in Beirut who were affected by the blast. They vowed to keep the event from being forgotten by placing the stories in plain sight around the city with their project titled Beirut Narratives.

Since May, on every fourth day of the month, they've used the testimonials to create urban installations in the city's damaged areas, as a form of commemoration and quiet protest. Large tapestries of jute bags sewn together – representing the torn fabric of Beirut – displaying quotes, pictures and drawings about what people experienced that day and the trauma of the aftermath, are hung from buildings.

“We were so overwhelmed after the blast and we started reading social media posts from our friends and family and we thought that those sentences, words and stories should never be forgotten,” Celine tells The National. “We asked everyone to share with us their testimonials and went to hospitals and on the ground to talk to people. We also asked parents to send us their kids’ drawings, as that’s how kids express themselves.

“Writing helped a lot of the people who sent us their testimonials, to expel all their pain and everything they experienced, so it has a psychological side to it and is part of their dealing process. We wanted to immortalise those words they used and decided on an urban installation within the city of Beirut as a first phase and then started building our fragments.”

The sisters collected stories in French, English and Arabic. These were grouped into three categories: people’s emotions; descriptions of what was happening; and their reflections in the aftermath. Ahead of each new installation, a mailbox is open to anyone wishing to add their story or suggest a place to hang another "fragment".

Thirteen installations have gone up since May in Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Karantina – the neighbourhoods closest to the blast site. One of the most recent tapestries marking the first anniversary of the explosion is dedicated to the 10 firefighters from the Beirut Fire Brigade, who were the first responders to the initial fire and lost their lives.

The large fragment hangs on the fire station facade, with content contributed by the firefighters' families and colleagues at the station, where the sisters left a box to collect thoughts and messages.

“The fire brigade has a motto that goes ‘Pride, Sacrifice and Loyalty’, and they told us that after the explosion they felt that they had no pride and no loyalty anymore, only sacrifice,” Tatiana says. “They no longer believed in their motto and it all became negative.”

A few other fragments have been hung around Karantina and the port area. Some are dedicated to the healthcare workers who had to deal with all the injuries. Many off-duty doctors and nurses had to rush to the nearest hospital to treat the thousands of wounded, some having to operate in damaged hospitals, the injured overflowing into the parking lots.

Though the blast's first anniversary will garner a lot of attention, the sisters say this should not outshine the project’s other installations.

“This whole installation has been growing for a few months now and every fourth of every month is important,” Celine says. “Those people who lost their loved one don’t remember them only one year after, so we wanted to start before the anniversary and remind people that this happened, that we’re not OK and this is not OK. We don’t just move on and forget about it.”

The tapestries are stitched together using blue surgical thread, connected by recycled T-shirt fabric. The quotes such as “No right to dream” and “We will need years to heal” are then spray-painted on to the jute in black, white and red.

“The main thing was for the words to be legible from the street and highways when they’re hung up on buildings,” Tatiana says. “This project spoke to all kinds of people from different walks of life, so it was a conscious choice to use a material that’s accessible and used in a public space. It’s a project people can engage with.”

As time goes on, the piece will also get weathered and worn; it's not intended to be beautiful, but will age with the city. The project intends to bring the community together in the areas where they place their installations, and involve local residents, acting as a starting point for dialogue.

“When we were installing in Karantina, a baker, a lawyer, the guy who works at a garage, all came to see and started reading out the words,” Celine recalls. “They asked us to hang it on their buildings because they didn’t want anyone to forget what happened. It’s a live piece, people can submit as we go along.

“The first installation was extremely overwhelming; we picked the building of my friend Christelle who I lost, and got the testimonial from her dad, along with others,” she says. “It really stuck with me because he said he ‘felt sorry for all the young people leaving the country because of Christelle’s death’.”

The sisters have not got an end point for the project, as they intend to keep creating fragments for as long as they see it is necessary. They then want the installations to be stitched together into one huge tapestry that can travel to other cities in Lebanon, and regionally to venues such as Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue or the Sharjah Art Foundation.

“Maybe when justice is served and we know what will happen [we’ll stop], but for now it’s an ongoing project and we’re continuing because it is important for these words to never be forgotten," says Celine. "People are still struggling and haven’t moved back into their houses.

“It’s not normal that, one year after such a big thing, people still don’t know what happened and why. It’s a call for action, activism in the cultural form.”

Updated: August 4th 2021, 12:14 PM
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