Thalia Bassim, a visual artist from Lebanon, is looking for signs of hope in a country in economic freefall whose people are struggling with both past and present. In her emails to The Common Table from Beirut, she is asking herself questions like “How can we accommodate and adapt to what’s around us, rather than stick to a system that is only focused on bringing us down and stopping us from growing,” by visiting and talking to others who are also trying to find a different way forward.
There is always something happening in Beirut, even when things are very much falling apart (in every possible way) someone’s climbing the hill again. But what’s special about that hill is that it’s never for one person. One lifts all, and so it goes.
I was first introduced to Bahaa by a friend whilst we were visiting an area called Chouf in December 2020. He was taking care of his own plot of land nearby, which he inherited from his grandfather. What I found interesting about Bahaa, after spending a whole day with him, was that he was mainly just interested in feeding himself and his family while experimenting and learning about permaculture. But his dreams went beyond his plot of land. At that first meeting, for example, he told me he wanted to join his best friend in Virginia to work on a hemp farm. I found his perspective interesting because he saw no future in farming in Lebanon, even though this is what people have lived from here for over 5,000 years.
December 2020 was a strange time in Lebanon. Almost four months had passed since the explosion and many people were coming back to visit their families. We call the winter holidays “expat season” and it’s quite an overwhelming one – especially considering the circumstances.
Meeting Bahaa was very enlightening. It was a reminder of the feelings of hope and enthusiasm. He lives with his family in a village on a hillside, an hour’s drive South East of Beirut, and was tending to the family garden next to the house when we arrived. He took us in with so much warmth that I immediately felt at home. As he was serving us coffee, we started asking each other questions. I was mesmerised by how passionate he was in describing his interests in farming and how he has been learning about sustainability and permaculture.
He decided to give us a tour of his little piece of land, showing us his crops such as lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons and pomegranates – regional standards – as well as new discoveries and endeavours.
By the end of our first visit, I felt revitalised. I hadn’t encountered energy like Bahaa’s in a while. A lot of us in Lebanon were, and still are, in the process of trying to heal – if circumstances allowed – but Bahaa… Bahaa reminded me that life can be conquered and enjoyed in a way I had forgotten. We can always go back to nature, but it has to be with respect. It is our duty to learn what we can about the nature around us and tend to it.
Early this year, I decided to write about Bahaa and his inspiring energy, so I went to visit him again in late February 2021. Once again, he welcomed me with open arms and a very positive energy. What he didn’t tell me beforehand was that he had an accident two weeks prior to our meeting. But he still wanted to meet so he could tell me more about his work on the land during his recovery.
Much to my surprise, Bahaa had started growing a whole new kind of crop in the three months since we’d last met. He had now immersed himself in the world of medicinal mushrooms. He wanted to help the community, he said, in terms of healing and natural healing – especially after the explosion in Beirut last year. He was focused on growing the “mycelium” for his funghi that he had learned to cultivate through hours of reading, YouTube video tutorials, and talking to other growers.
The way Bahaa showed me around his most recent endeavours, felt like we were going around a dolls’ house. We started with the garden, and bit by bit he began explaining to me the process he had been experimenting with to grow the mushrooms with almost no resources. With the economic situation at hand, Bahaa had to be creative. Many people here cannot afford basic farming necessities, especially seeds – as most are imported and very expensive. Needing to make the best of his resources forced him to think outside of the box, and outside of his comfort zone; dealing with limits you wouldn’t necessarily think about if you lived elsewhere.
But Bahaa was actually motivated by his limited resources, to keep going and do something that could help him and the Lebanese community. Impressively, he told me he had already found people that were interested in buying his produce. This would then help him to expand his production and upgrade his tools and home lab.
As Bahaa showed me around, the way he explained things was very educational and detailed, yet he kept saying “there’s so much to tell you but I need too much time!”
He had built his “lab” within his family home: around his parents’ living room, through his sister’s bedroom, within the fridge, towards the empty bathroom, then the basement, into a room within the basement… and it went on! The deeper we went into the house, the deeper we got into the world he has immersed himself in. His knowledge about the subject had grown so detailed that I could barely keep up with the terms he was referencing.
Bahaa’s new world didn’t stop him from connecting to his old one, however. He was still growing all the local seasonal crops in his garden to feed himself and his family. He made sure to point out highlights to me, like a giant radish and his beautiful cabbages that were taking their forms over time.
In the garden, I noticed the persimmon tree that was bearing fruit when I last saw it in December but now stood bare. And a bare pomegranate tree at the back with a few remaining dried and shrivelled fruits clinging to its branches. But my attention then shifted to a mouth-wateringly beautiful lemon tree right next to it, laden with fruit, that I couldn’t stop staring at. There was something about looking at these trees that felt so poetic and almost magical. It is easy to view the fruits of the region as a symbolic reflection of what is happening around us in Lebanon. But Bahaa’s motivation and explorations have proved and shown that there is always a way around the system. There is always hope, as long as we do what we do with care, patience, and understanding.
Thalia Bassim is a practising visual artist who was born and raised in Lebanon and was based, until recently, in New York City, where she graduated from The New School. She has been back in Beirut since early 2020. Since the massive explosion that left over 204 dead, 7,500 injured, an estimated 300,000 people homeless and destroyed a large part of the city, she spends her time researching and archiving “what was left behind”.