Creating a magazine against the backdrop of the most severe of economic crises is something the team at Safar Journal are doing in Beirut. We are most grateful to Sharon Grosso, its managing editor, for taking the time in such trying circumstances to explain their mission and the situation on the ground.
Can you tell us about the origins and intentions behind Safar Journal and it being an extension of the studio?
Often design studios start after the creation of their respective magazine, but for Safar, the studio came into existence before the magazine. Beirut-based design team Maya Moumne and Hatem Imam founded Safar (the magazine) in order to give agency to graphic design as a field that plays an integral, important role in cultural production, specifically regional cultural production. The name, Safar—meaning ‘travel’ in Arabic—refers to the notions of communication, especially across disciplinary, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, that the completely bilingual Arabic-English magazine intends to engage and promote. The magazine also aims to shift the conversation on design, design history, and visual culture away from its fixation on the global north.
Lebanon has been in the throes of a financial crisis for over a year now. What is the stark day-to-day impact of this on you and your work?
The financial crisis in Lebanon has created so many other crises that it seems almost impossible to quantify or to explain.
Where to begin… There’s a shortage of dollars in Lebanon because those in power have stolen them, smuggled them outside of the country, and misused them in a giant Ponzi scheme. This has caused the collapse of the Lebanese Lira against the U.S. dollar; the lira has lost around 90% of its value so far. People have lost their life savings. Their salaries are now worth just a tiny fraction of what they used to be worth, while the cost of goods has skyrocketed, making it difficult for many families to buy basic food and necessities. Many people cut meat, chicken, and fish, for example, out of their diets completely months ago.
There’s an extreme shortage of gasoline (because there are no dollars left to import it), meaning that people queue for hours at a time to fill up their cars, not only wasting whatever gasoline is already in cars but also causing dangerous (and deadly) traffic jams. People have resorted to buying gasoline on the black market and storing it in unsafe containers inside homes and buildings. The shortage and resulting increase in gasoline prices will further contribute to inflation: in order to get food to the supermarkets, for example, a truck needs to transport the goods there.
There’s also a diesel shortage which means that people are unable to run electricity generators upon which they rely (the state only supplies about 2-4 hours of electricity to people per day currently). Even if you are able to pay the cost for a generator (which for many Lebanese families would be more money than an entire month’s salary), there is not enough diesel to make up for the lack of state electricity, so many are without power for hours a day. Elevators, refrigerators, and air conditioners stop working for hours at a time in the middle of the summer.
And perhaps one of the most dangerous and pressing of these crises is the medical crisis. There is a medical shortage that has now made it impossible to find even the most basic of medications and health supplies, from antibiotics and blood pressure medication to anti-depressants, baby milk to epilepsy medication. Most of these medications are actually here, right in Lebanon, in storage, but those responsible for importing them are refusing to sell to pharmacies and instead waiting for the government to lift subsidies on medication so that they can turn a larger profit. People search dozens of pharmacies and return empty-handed, unable to access the most basic health care. Hospitals have announced that they are nearing the end of their supply of anesthetics and have stopped some life-saving procedures including dialysis.
In terms of our day-to-day work, the gasoline crisis makes it difficult, expensive, and time consuming for us to get into the physical office; the increasing electricity cuts make it impossible for us to work normal working hours; the lack of basic medicine has us spending hours in search of medication for ourselves and loved ones; the loss of purchasing power as a result of hyperinflation makes it increasingly challenging for everyone to access food and other necessities. On top of these more “logistical” concerns, the extreme circumstances are most certainly causing an extreme mental health crisis (in a country now without anti-depressants). This has made it incredibly difficult for our team to work and focus.
Has the difference between the wealth disparities within the region made you source meaningful projects elsewhere? Can you share some examples?
Previously we did a lot more work in Lebanon, specifically in the cultural sector. With the financial crisis here, in order to keep the studio afloat, we have had to look for more projects outside of Lebanon. We’ve worked on a number of meaningful projects in the past year alone. We’ve worked closely with the team from AlMashtal Space, a community cultural space in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that launched this Spring. We’re also working on an exhibition with Media Majlis (Qatar) and a forthcoming book about Palestinian print culture.
Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world: there are an estimated 1.5m Syrian refugees in the country of just 6m. Ireland, with a somewhat similar population, admits mere thousands. How do you comprehend, or accept, these staggering figures and the blessing/curse of geography?
Certainly geography plays a role, but this issue really comes down to policy. The European Union admits mere thousands of refugees, and it turns away millions of other people, perhaps fearing that accepting them would burden their economies or somehow disrupt their own culture. Historically, it should also be mentioned that Europe has played an extremely violent, colonial role in the region and that legacy continues to kill and displace people (only for them to then be rejected at borders) to this day.
We try not to look at these issues through numbers because these numbers are made up of real people in difficult, dangerous, and often inhumane circumstances just trying to build safe and comfortable lives for themselves. Monika Halkort’s piece in our latest issue does a great job of discussing how migrants, particularly migrants lost at sea en route to Europe, are often stripped of their identities.
You reference designer Lynne Zakhour who works at a “gay design studio based in Beirut.” Can you tell about whether LGBTQ+ rights are at there at the moment? Is it a traditional urban/rural divide in terms of lifestyles, supports and opportunities
Probably according to many (European and North American) sources and measurements, LGBTQ+ “rights” don’t really exist in Lebanon. Technically speaking, there isn’t civil or same-sex marriage here. That being said, these rights and assessments are largely legal/governmental constructs created in one part of the world and often projected onto another and used to make it look restrictive and underdeveloped by comparison.
These assessments definitely do not preclude LGBTQ+ individuals and communities from growing, living, and thriving in Lebanon. Still, of course there are also challenges and people are not always accepted into the communities around them in Lebanon, as is unfortunately too often the case for LGBTQ+ individuals everywhere in the world at this time, not just regionally. Just a few days ago we were very saddened to hear about the homophobic attack in Spain that killed Samuel Luiz.
In terms of an urban/rural divide, yes, LGBTQ+ resources, supports, and communities are probably more easily found and abundant in Beirut, but that’s true for many things. Given that Lebanon is such a small country, many people who live outside of Beirut go into the city pretty frequently for work, medical appointments, shopping, etc.
Can you tell us about other studio projects you are currently working on?
We’re working on a book about Palestinian printed material; a community cultural space in Saudi Arabia; a new magazine on the works, interests, and strife of women called AlHayya; the 8th Triennial of Photography Hamburg We also just finished working with Cold Cuts magazine (also from Beirut) on their second issue. And more!
Can you recommend Lebanese creatives who are worthy of greater attention? Which resources should we be alert to for further insights?
Renaissance Renaissance by Cynthia Merhej (fashion and illustration)
Ghaith and Jad (architecture)
The Council of Visual Affairs (design and animation)
Davida Nicolas (interior design)
Public Works (critical design thinking and urban planning)
Jana Saleh (sound design)
Lynne Zakhour (illustration)
Raphaelle Macron (illustration)
Myriam Boulos (photography)
Samandal Collective (comics and graphic novels)
Discover and support Safar Journal at journalsafar.com
Issue No. 6 is out now, $22 + postage