Sometimes a region’s diversity can also be its greatest burden, as the past twenty years have proven in the Balkans, Caucuses, and Middle East. Beirut is a living example of how people of different religions and ethnicities can built a city starkly beautiful, yet cause immense destruction. At one time Beirut was often known as the Paris of the Mediterranean, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, and expats lived and worked with each other. Then the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, and Beirut endured 15 years of heartbreak and violence.
Since the Civil War’s end, many Lebanese have returned and became actively involve in Beirut’s reconstruction. The city of about 2 million people slowly regained its title as the cultural and intellectual capital of the Middle East, but the 2006 Lebanon War and other violent clashes have made for a fitful recovery. Nevertheless, real estate has boomed, but at a cost: much of Beirut’s past has been lost. A French designer, however, has played a role in salvaging Beirut’s past while creating economic opportunities for the city’s most marginalized citizens.
Benedicte de Blavous Moubarak moved with her husband, Raja, and her children to Beirut in 2003. They decided to stay and build a house, with the hope that they could have a role in helping Lebanon get back on its feet. Benedicte realized right away that Beirut’s historic homes, many of which were damaged by armed conflict, were completely destroyed by real estate developers, sometimes even illegally. Bland and even ugly concrete structures rose up to replace these homes that often were 200 years old.
One day, while wandering through a scrap yard, Benedicte was inspired to take a role in preserving some of Beirut’s heritage. She found old pieces of wrought iron that used to grace the balcony of an Ottoman home. Such pieces were in junkyards all over Beirut, and Benedicte figured that most of it would just be recycled and molded into something like a car’s bumper. Then an idea came to her: she could start a social enterprise while saving pieces of Beirut’s past.
Benedicte then founded 2B Design, with the idea that she could bring together people who may practice different religions, but were marginalized, often because of disabilities, and could not find gainful work. In 2004 and 2005 she started hiring jobless women, who were often poor and had little education. Their jobs involve cleaning the salvaged metal and wood, and others create lampshades that crown Benedicte’s pieces. Meanwhile, she worked with an NGO that already had a workshop where its workers built wheelchairs, where heavy work such as cutting and soldering occurs before the more delicate work begins. In the end the magic is B2 Design’s Beyt Collection: beyt is Arabic for “home,” with the goal to create stunning home pieces while allowing the company’s employees to work so that they can afford one.
Currently Benedicte and 2B Design have a workshop in Achrafieh, a mostly Christian neighborhood in the eastern section of the city. Pieces like lamps, candleholders consoles are fashioned from what were once were junked wrought iron balconies and fences. Her wood line are composed out of juniper pieces that were triple arched windows in 19th century mansions.
According to an interview with her husband, Raja, all of the pieces preserve the materials with little alteration to keep their history intact; B2 Design’s employees use rivets, bolts, and collars instead of welding. The results are a pieces that are each unique, and more important, provide a new lease on life for workers who otherwise could not find employment.
Most of B2 Design’s work leaves Lebanon, and can be found at retailers in Europe or even Australia and Japan. Since Lebanese generally prefer new home furnishings, most of the pieces end up in Europe. For now, historic preservation is not high on Beirut’s politicians’ lists, but Benedicte’s vision is giving some people a second chance, and allowing some of Beirut’s past to not be lost forever.
Leon Kaye just spent a month in the Balkans, and is working with several organizations to import goods from this region to North America. He’s the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.