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Finding hope in the rubble: Creative director, graphic designer, DJ, and survivor of the Beirut bomb Tala Mortada on how connecting with local culture can revitalise Lebanon

After hanging up the call to Mortada, perhaps the most prominent thing that struck me was the Western world seem time and time again to be caught in a bubble of unconscious privilege, easily forgetting tragedy unless directly affected by it. Closing my laptop, I felt exceedingly aware of that privilege. “People are really, really, really not good, not well”, Mortada tells me. I experienced a wave of emotions - guilt for not fully recognising or understanding the magnitude of chaos currently consuming Lebanon, bewilderment from learning of the incomprehensible reality of a bomb's destruction. However, Mortada’s message is inspiring and her story shows the solid and powerful love she holds for her culture.

Tala Mortada is the creative director of the company Factory People, a graphic designer, and a part-time DJ who grew up in Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Owing to her creative entrepreneurship, Mortada is able to spread the Lebanese people’s message of urgency through social media, informing her large audience of the country's desperate need for liberation from the corrupt elite. “It is not only the government who is ruling us, it's also the reigning elite. Those are the people who are running the country.” With eighteen religions and no government to follow or believe in, Lebanon is a paradigm of disjuncture. People’s values and beliefs are disparate and disconnected, fuelling an environment for heightened emotions and constant friction. “People’s spirits are crushed and they instinctively start turning on each other when there is the absence of any possible positive ruling. Suddenly, people are on auto-pilot when it comes to governance. They are governing themselves.”

For years, Lebanon has been in economic and political turmoil, suffering from the impact of a

financial crash and devoid of democracy. Barely staying afloat and walking on a tightrope of survival, a third of the country’s population is living below the poverty line. On the 4th of August 2020, Lebanon was submerged into chaos and despair when a bomb shattered Beirut, decimating its citizen’s morale and spirit. “When the explosion happened, we lost our two clubs and our offices got shattered, my house got shattered, so… it was a really big blow.” Mortada gives the details of the mundane struggles she witnesses and how people are descending into desperation to survive. “For example, there is a black market where people basically turn money around so it makes more money.”

Whilst sadness and pain radiate from Mortada’s voice when talking of the great depression

Lebanon currently faces, an undeniable projection of love and devotion is evident when she discusses Lebanese culture. “There is beautiful, beautiful traditional music from our country.” Mortada expands on the flourishing reconnection between the people and their cultural roots. “After the civil war some Lebanese people created a bubble and a lot of them forgot about their culture and their local music and started beginning to want to imitate the West. Arabic music isn’t taught in most schools and Arabic instruments are forgotten, but in the past few years people started embracing their culture a little bit more. There was some kind of reconnection with what we lost. With the revolution happening, people realised we need some kind of identity, we needed to come to terms with who we are.”

Growing up in a creative environment (her father being a vinyl collector), Mortada explains how she was always able to freely express herself and explore her inhibitions. Now, as a successful business owner, Mortada has become a pioneer for creating an underground space in Lebanon. “The new underground in Lebanon is playing and hosting more local artists, a little bit more on the world music side.” Her clubs, namely The Grand Factory and AHM, had different rooms for different sounds, introducing a space for people to explore and experiment with genres. Mortada emphasises her mission of hosting space for local artists and musicians. “For me, this is what the underground scene is really about.”

As a DJ, Mortada prioritises giving all communities a safe space for freedom of expression, especially the LGBTQIA+ community who still face widespread prejudice and discrimination in her country. “We hosted drag shows and made sure that employees in the club were from the community. We consistently emphasise messages of openness, acceptance, and diversity.” She reminisces of the past days of utopic club culture. “We gathered around music because there is not much to do here, there are no public spaces and there's really no government funding for art and culture and music. We created a platform to fill that void with programmes and campaigns catered to local artists and musicians while hosting artists from all over the world.”

A striking theme throughout the course of the interview is the notable prominence of

community, a family-like bond between the creative youth of the city who delve into the

scene as an escape. A moment that captures this essence can be seen on Mortada’s set for‘Creative State Live x The Factory. “People feel like they are losing everything that's bothering them and you feel like they are letting go, letting loose and really living in the moment, and it’s always the same beautiful energy. There is no social construct, it’s very new,” says Mortada. However, the heartbreaking reality of the current situation pierced the atmosphere. Asked whether she was able to do more of the socially distanced events, she replied, “I did one in our club before it got blown away…”

The inescapable truth of the explosion plagues the lives and memories of the people of

Lebanon. The past tense consistently eclipses the conversation when referring to clubs and creative spaces, solidifying the horror that these places aren’t just closed for the meanwhile - they are destroyed. There is no future possibility of reopening and these safe places that were carefully crafted for communities now cease to exist. Even from the forty minutes I spent speaking to Mortada, I was able to grasp an insight into the constant fear. At one point her voice faded out into silence and after a couple of seconds, she said distractedly, “There was a scary sound on the street… Sorry. What was the question?”

The memory of the bomb haunts the people of Lebanon and the unexpected and astonishing reality of destruction is inescapable. When discussing a recent meeting with a friend, Mortada says, “All we could talk about was what we saw that day, and what we saw was something not easy to forget. We are not okay.” Creativity is stifled, and inspiration is clouded by tragedy. She continues,“When you are somewhere where you need to hustle to survive and where you are constantly unmotivated by your community, you end up not producing a lot.”

Mortada stresses, “We were living in a bubble, where it felt like Berlin. I had no idea we

were living on a ticking time bomb.” The unfathomable but tangible reality of life in Lebanon

seems like a distorted nightmare. A place once described as the ‘Paris of the Middle

East’ now represents facets of fragmented dreams, a kaleidoscope of emotions, and a powerful reminder of the potent, unpredictable nature of war. “This kind of tragedy in Beirut is normalized by the world, but for us no. This doesn’t and shouldn’t happen. This wasn’t the norm.”

When asking about the future, a sense of hopefulness glimmers, dim, but pure. “We really

truly adore where we come from, through all its complexities… I find myself just dreaming

of my space. We have a lot of hope for this place. We could have left a long time ago but

we didn’t, despite everything. We really truly, truly want things to evolve, but it is very, very,

very hard to live through it at the moment.”

Songs on repeat:

Tarab Dub - Hello Psychaleppo

Ghaem Jozi - Abart Al-Shat (Cover for Kathem Al-Saher) (غائم جزئي – عبرت الشط (أغنية لكاظم الساهر)

Words by Charlotte Hingley

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