BEIRUT: Seen from the highway out of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, the Ouzai neighbourhood is a jumble of haphazard construction, but venture inside and its low-slung buildings transform into street art canvases.
Artists taking part in the ‘Ouzville’ project have painted walls in brilliant blues, reds, yellows and greens, adorning others with enormous murals, doodles, and cartoon characters.
The project is a breath of fresh air for Ouzai, a rundown and largely informal neighbourhood on the Mediterranean coast south of Beirut.
It was once a sleepy seaside village, with long stretches of beach that attracted sunbathers from miles away.
But during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, civilians displaced from elsewhere built slapdash housing in the area, often without permits, to accommodate their needs. For decades, the neighbourhood’s chaos of jumbled buildings and the web of electrical wires hanging overhead have been among the first things visible from planes landing at Beirut airport.
Ayad Nasser, the property developer behind the Ouzville project, was born in Ouzai in 1970 but moved overseas during the civil war.
He said each landing at the nearby airport was a painful reminder of the neighbourhood’s decline. “Every time, I was sad landing here. I said, ‘I’m going to take care of Ouzai,’” he told AFP.
Nasser launched his project 18 months ago, inviting Lebanese and international street artists to beautify parts of Beirut – Ouzai in particular.
“I felt that the most abandoned area in Lebanon is Ouzai,” Nasser said in English. “It’s been 40 years that nobody is taking care of it: not the government, not the local parties, not even the local peoples.”
He worked with Ouzai residents to identify streets and buildings to be brightened up with bursts of colour. Around 140 buildings have now been painted, with a handful done by the residents themselves.
From the street below her first-storey home, Jumana Yunis can be seen preparing green beans for lunch, framed by a large window in the bright yellow outer wall of her building. Below the window is a large mural of a girl’s face, rendered in serene shades of turquoise and royal blue.
At 38, Yunis has spent her whole life in Ouzai and is raising her four children in the home where she was born. For her, the Ouzville project has “brought joy” to a neighbourhood she loves.
“You’re happy when you go outside and see the colours, even if sometimes it’s strange. You feel that this is a new neighbourhood,” she told AFP. “Lots of new people came to the neighbourhood, and we got to meet strangers. It’s really lovely, the neighbourhood has flourished with the colours.”
Nasser said part of the project’s goal is to “break the stereotype” of Ouzai, which many in Lebanon see as a slum to be avoided. Much of the $140,000 he has spent on the project has gone on hosting people elsewhere in Lebanon and abroad at a local fish restaurant to encourage them to engage with Ouzai’s residents.
Rania al-Halabi, an amateur artist participating in the project, admits that Ouzai is “an area that we usually only enter with a car, in the best of circumstances.” But she said the project inspired her from the minute she heard about it.
“Colour can make everything in life beautiful, and this is something that will certainly change everyone’s lives,” she said, as she daubed green paint around a stark face several metres high.
While residents welcome Nasser’s initiative, they note it underlines the relative absence of local services – although municipal workers were digging up a street when reporters visited recently.
“It should be the municipality that does this kind of work, not just here in our area,” said Zakaria Kobrosly, a 57-year-old fisherman, whose home is metres from the shore.
And the project’s future will depend on residents’ willingness to continue the work. Nasser plans to bow out after he launches a crowd-funding campaign later this month to raise $35,000 towards continuing the project.
Laila Slim, 51, preparing parsley for a salad next to the salmon-coloured outer wall of her home, gestured to an area where the paint was peeling. “The project is very lovely, but with the humidity, it is damaged already. I hope they will come back again,” she said.
Kobrosly said the project had improved the neighbourhood’s social fabric. “People used to socialise in their houses, now you find them out in the street below together,” he said. “It has calmed people’s nerves… they’ve started to get to know each other.”
The best view of Ouzai, he said, is from his fishing boat out in the Mediterranean. “You can see it all together, with all the colours. It’s like Disneyland or something!”