The ‘Made in Lebanon’ brand must be activated to support the creative economy, says Nada Debs

Beirut-based architects and designers share stories from the day of the Beirut blast

Photo: Tarek Moukaddem

Can you describe your experience on August 4? I had left my studio on Gemmayze street around 4pm. If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 lockdown, I would have probably still been in the studio or at my Yoga studio, which are both completely damaged. I happened to be visiting my mother who stays 20 minutes away from Gemmazye street. My mother usually lives in Kobe, Japan but she has been in Beirut taking care of my grandmother who is 102 years old. What we felt was a very strong earthquake (we’re used to earthquakes in Japan) and then suddenly an explosion and then another huge explosion that completely shook the building and we were quite far from the blast. We saw huge pink smoke from afar that was quite unusual and we couldn’t get the correct news for the next 30 minutes. Meanwhile, when we found out about the location of the blast, my accountant decided to rush over to our studio. He could hardly get there even with a motorcycle. People were screaming, bleeding and streets were covered with glass and rubble; he had to park far away and walk. He sent me photos of the devastation of the studio and the boutique. I was completely shocked. In a few seconds, it was all destroyed just like that, in addition to the the street and the whole area.

How are you currently feeling after the incident? It’s now been almost three weeks. I have good days and bad days. There is this constant feeling of whatever I do is not enough and I try to calm myself down to tell myself that there’s a role for everybody today and that my role will be clearer as time passes. My feeling, as a leader in my field, is to stay positive and to stay strong because I believe that these feelings are contagious and that eventually things will move forward if we continue staying positive. Of course, there are many moments of weakness, but I have the gift of seeing the positive side of things and hope that things will improve over time. This time it will be a long time. I believe I reflect the spirit of the Lebanese people, which is quite contagious; we don’t allow ourselves to stay low for too long.

Did anyone from your team experience any injuries? And how badly is your store and boutique damaged? My team thankfully all went home early because we have a COVID-19 lockdown. But the damages to our boutique and studio were quite severe. My team was amazing in organising the clean-up and assessing damaged furniture and objects. We are now in the process of fixing our windows and repainting and refinishing our studio. As for the boutique, which is on the ground level, it is totally destroyed but instead of fixing it, I’d like to just add some glass doors and keep it in its damaged condition, creating a small memorial of this devastation. There are some pieces of damaged furniture which I may restore in a special way and display there. Thankfully our workshop is far away so our production is ongoing and we insist on continuing on-time deliveries to our clients.

“My feeling, as a leader in my field, is to stay positive and to stay strong because I believe that these feelings are contagious and that eventually things will move forward if we continue staying positive.”

How do you think the design and architecture community in Lebanon and outside can come together to rebuild the city? There are many architects and contractors who are now volunteering to fix homes and heritage buildings and a lot of NGOs are supporting them. There are also NGOs from the design and fashion community which are presently raising funds to support product designers, as well as fashion designers and other creatives. A lot of money is pouring into the country. We just need to make sure they go to the right places.

What do you think some of the challenges are in rebuilding and how can others help? We have the financial crisis here where everything has tripled in price, so it’s been very good to have money pouring in from outside for initiatives such as re-fixing windows and doors. This has become priority for us, as well as preserving the old heritage houses which did not withstand the explosion as much as the more modern buildings. So monetary donations for trusted NGOs for rebuilding is still a good thing and the easiest way to help for now.

Are you planning on working with any initiatives? Presently I help out some of the NGOs through financial aid but eventually, I have some ideas in mind in terms of sustainable job creation for the youth, which is something that I am interested in.

What message would you like to send out to the world? The more we get help in supporting the trustable NGOs that are rebuilding, the faster the city will get back on track. Also, as someone who really believes in the creative industry in Lebanon, whether it is fashion, design, jewellery, graphics, architecture or music, I would appreciate that special attention be given to all products that are ‘Made in Lebanon’ in support of all those who have worked so hard to build this amazing community.

How does the future look to you at the moment? At this moment, it is very hard to look too far into the future, so I believe that if each one of us were to support our own communities, building one step at a time, one day at a time, in no time we would have gotten back on our feet again, and this time in a more thoughtful way.