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Entrepreneur Turns Beirut Slum Into Vast Canvas


Trash is removed from Ouzville. The graffiti project is an adaption of an original plan to make art from rubbish left over during Lebanon's 2015 trash crisis. (J. Owens for VOA)

It has a tough reputation, but for one entrepreneur Beirut’s Ouzai neighborhood is the perfect canvas upon which to paint dreams of a better Lebanon.

Having left the area as a child and made his money working across the globe, Ayad Nasser has returned to Lebanon to create a place he has named "Ouzville".

And whether it is internationally renowned graffiti artists painting the walls, or local youngsters inspired to pick up paintbrushes and contribute their own efforts, Nasser’s ambitions go well beyond adding a splash of color.

Returning home

“I think the universe had a way of bringing me back to this,” reflects Nasser, who is in front of just one of the countless murals that have sprung up in this area over the past half year.

Ayad Nasser (left), talks to a local resident. Born in Ouzai in 1970, he has returned to the neighbourhood with artists and volunteers. (J. Owens for VOA)
Ayad Nasser (left), talks to a local resident. Born in Ouzai in 1970, he has returned to the neighbourhood with artists and volunteers. (J. Owens for VOA)

The 46-year-old only has dim memories of his early life in Ouzai, a place that, aged 5, he left with his family amid the onset of the Lebanese civil war.

Since then, both Ouzai and Nasser have changed a lot.

Having made his way from Lebanon to Monaco as a teenager in search of his mother, who he says walked out on his family when he was young, Nasser has gone on to build his name and his money in the world of property investment.

Ouzai, on the other hand, has transformed from a spacious coastal spot, Nasser recalls "beaches and greenery", into a slum.

Located in southwest Beirut just a few kilometers south of the pristine glass and metal apartments that make up some of the most pricey real estate in Lebanon, densely packed buildings with poor infrastructure house residents all too often plagued by poverty.

Ayad Nasser has also paid for the neighbourhood to be cleaned up. (J. Owens for VOA)
Ayad Nasser has also paid for the neighbourhood to be cleaned up. (J. Owens for VOA)

Long concerned about his home country, it took Lebanon’s trash crisis of 2015 to drive Nasser into action in the form of a plan to get international artists to create art from rubbish, a plan somewhat scuppered when the trash in question was eventually cleared away to be hidden elsewhere.

Undeterred, he formed a new plan focussed on getting the artists to instead turn their attention from the trash to the walls of Ouzai.

And in picking somewhere seen as a home to the poor, with strong political and religious ties - a place often ignored, dismissed or feared by some other Beirutis - he felt he was typifying many of the issues facing Lebanon today.

“It’s not about only beautifying the city. It’s about unifying the citizens, it’s about breaking stereotypes,” said Nasser, who added that he wanted people to put aside their differences and take control of their own futures.

Changing perceptions

Among those to have their preconceptions challenged was Mary-Joe Ayoub, who worked with local children to create a big, colorful artwork that sought to reclaim Beirut landmarks long associated with Lebanon’s civil war.

Ayoub said she disregarded warnings the area was dangerous, but confessed that although she lived “15 minutes away” she “didn’t expect we could really communicate with people here.”

“But actually we’re very similar as we have the same aspirations for Lebanon and we all seek happiness at the end of the day.”

Residents walk past brightly painted walls in the Ouzai neighborhood. (J. Owens for VOA)
Residents walk past brightly painted walls in the Ouzai neighborhood. (J. Owens for VOA)

Like others living in the neighborhood, Kassem Farhat admits he was curious about an influx of spray paint-wielding artists into a tight-knit community he describes as “like a family”.

In the past months, artists have come from as far afield as America and Russia, with renowned Lebanese graffiti artists Ashekman also contributing their efforts.

Meanwhile, every Saturday groups of volunteers and tourists gather at Ouzville, whether it is to paint, sightsee or eat food cooked by local residents.

“But when we saw what was going on we really like the idea and started getting involved,” said Farhat.

“People even brought their kids and a nice atmosphere developed.”

Kassem is aware of his neighborhood’s reputation, and adds that he is glad people were “getting more of an idea” of the place that he gladly calls home.

“I wish that everybody in Lebanon could do the same because the idea is really nice,” he added.

Beyond Ouzville

That just so happens to be Nasser’s wish too.

Alongside commission people to paint the walls, Nasser has helped clear up the area by paying for a cleaner, just one of the expenses that contributed to an overall cost of so far of $100,000, a figure that he has paid out from his own pocket.

A man prepares another wall for painting in the art-lined neighbourhood that has been named Ouzville. (J. Owens for VOA)
A man prepares another wall for painting in the art-lined neighbourhood that has been named Ouzville. (J. Owens for VOA)

But though he cannot afford to keep on supporting Ouzville alone, he is currently in talks with other municipalities to find ways of launching and funding similar projects elsewhere across Lebanon.

For Nasser, what may seem like a whimsical idea is anything but.

Scathing of what he sees as everyday attitudes among the Lebanese people themselves, he is adamant that things need to change before it is too late.

Instead of looking to their political or religious leaders for help, he insists, people must look to one another.

“People maybe they think I'm billionaire or naive and throwing my money,” he said.

“No ... this is going to be leading by example. if you are not going to do what I'm doing you’re going to lose the country.”

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