Only Art Will Save Us
by Omar Alhashani with Dayna Ash
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 1. DISORIENT
Haven for Artists is based on cooperation—not competition.
In July 2017, Khabar Keslan’s Omar Alhashani spoke to Dayna Ash—director of Beirut-based Haven for Artists—about running an arts NGO, the considerations of protest in Lebanon, and discussing Sartre without being pretentious.
Omar Alhashani: Hello, Dayna. Thanks for taking time out of your personal life to talk.
Dayna Ash: [Laughs] There is no personal time with Haven, darling. We’ve been pushing the envelope further these weeks because we finally got registration as an NGO after six years of waiting. So, we’ve hit the ground running.
O: Congratulations! Hold on—why six years?
D: It’s Lebanon. Everything takes time, and everything is incredibly tedious.
O: Has becoming an NGO made it easier, now that you have that status?
D: It’s just about being recognized as being outside of politics. We’re not governmental, so we’re no longer dictated by the whole, “you need to know this guy, to know this guy, to do whatever.” We’re working on being able to provide a space for artists, thinkers, or anybody who’s got something they want to work on. Anyone can come and live in the residence—as long as they’re working on art. So far, being an NGO now means we can get funding and our staff can get paid. All the amount of work we’ve been doing has been for the genuine love of arts, and now we can finally help all of these artists—with more than just a networking platform, but actual finances and resources.
O: You can give them all the resources they need to realize their projects now?
D: Pretty much. When an artist asks me—let’s say a painter—for three canvases and some paints, I was only able to give them a single canvas and half of the paint. Now, we can give them what they asked for. So we’re taking out the struggle for struggling artists as best we can... Sweet, sweet redemption!
O: So how did you get into this work in the first place? What made you interested in providing a space for artists in Lebanon?
D: Well, I was originally a poet—one of the very few performing poets in Beirut—and I also had a band. But there was always competition between artists for people’s attention. It just so happened that most of our peers were hosting similar events and parties—so we were technically separating the attention, dividing it right down the middle. The only ones really benefitting from this division were the bars, locations, and venues because, when it comes down to it, artists want as much exposure as possible. The moment you compete, however, you are losing exposure.
But there’s no way we can say, “Oh, well this is an artist and this isn’t one”—hell no. There’s no way you can actually compete when it comes to the arts. I mean, to me, it’s completely ridiculous to pit two different artists against each other, because nobody is the same. Still, they need your group of friends, and you need theirs; and it just didn’t seem right to make artists compete so consistently.
So we decided that we were going to start hosting and bringing all of our friends together—who are artists—to perform on the same stage. That’s how it started: just a bunch of people who wanted to perform together, and not fight for people’s attention.
O: What is a typical day at Haven? Lots of events?
D: There’s never a ‘typical day’ here at Haven. As you must know by now, there’s always a learning curve when you establish something. For the past 6 years, we’ve accumulated, in a sense, credibility. We’ve shown people how sincere we are in our commitment to accessibility in the arts. We’ve never thrown a party over $10, where we’re talking about 7 bands, an exhibition, spoken word, and a gallery. You can really experience all of this without having to go, “Oh I can’t afford to go to Station Beirut today because I went to another bar yesterday.”
Prior to opening the Haven house, it was just events popping up throughout the country in different galleries, different venues, all of that. Then, exactly a year ago—or a year and a month ago—we decided that it was time to have a house. A tangible place. Let me put it this way: we go to all these venues, build these great beautiful elaborate exhibitions, installations, stages, designs, and all of that. Then we leave them to be tossed away, because we had nowhere to take them. It’s very discouraging for artists to watch their installations get broken down and thrown out.
You get to a point where you’re like, “inno, we need something that gives us a ‘home’ feeling—a place where we can work, a place where we can discuss Sartre without feeling pretentious,” you know? If you just wanted to talk about art, there really was not one place you could go. You had to divvy up all of your time and attention and resources to be able to get involved in all kinds of art.
Whereas, in Haven, a typical day is, you walk in in the morning, the shift residents are all artists—people who take shifts everyday, they cover six hours of the Haven shifts, they open the house. It’s all self-service, we have everything available, people just walk in, they can cook, they can make whatever they want, we have three lounges. And we have three live-in artists. So the moment you walk into Haven, you’re automatically surrounded by at least ten people working on a project. That’s the regular day. The other day we had GreenPeace hosting a workshop with designers, with some of their designers, some of ours. We had around 200 people coming in and out throughout the day.
So it depends on what the activities are. The premise is to create a safe space for people to discuss, to collaborate, to meet, to network, to feel at home—but still feel that pressure of, “I need to work”—to not go to a cafe and have a waitress go around them for hours because they have to order another coffee, or else feel very uncomfortable.
O: It seems that Haven functions as a network for artists. How does that work? Do you actively network?
D: Of course, we actively network; this is one of the basic elements. There are three of us board members that are active at the moment. There’s myself, Thea Khoury, and Yasmine Rifaii. Yasmine and I handle the creative aspects of Haven: she is the creative director and I am the director. We can’t—and don’t—miss a single opening. Our job is to always be around, to see what’s happening, and to meet all the people making it happen.
Every residency in Europe has been officially in contact with us, and we’ve been in contact with them. We’re trying to establish our biggest program yet: the International Artists Exchange, where we take twelve artists from anywhere in Europe or the United States to come to Beirut, and fly twelve artists from the Middle East out to them.
I’m flying out in September to have meetings with all these international residencies. Thea is going to London and the US, and Yasmine is moving to Berlin to set up a base there. We have a base in New York—well, I mean a few people in New York who I’d like to call a base, but in the end, they’re just New Yorkers, so I can’t depend on them 1000%.
O: I didn’t know you were dealing with art galleries and residencies internationally. I thought it was completely regional based.
D: We are completely regional based. We are for Arab artists, and this is why we want to create the International Artists Exchange. If I hear one more Arab artist say, “If I were in Europe, I would have made it”... Just take it out of their way, and let’s see if they can make it!
I’ve lived in California for sixteen years, in Berlin for around a year, and in Beirut for nearly ten years, and all of us lived outside of Lebanon for a very, very long time. We all came back for this, because, frankly, we believe that it is needed here. Not only is there no infrastructure—there’s no support. This feeling of absence lingers and it makes the idea of staying intolerable. What we want to do is slowly start fixing these issues. Hopefully, within the next year—I don’t want to jump the gun—but we’ll have launched our social change department, which is working on campaign awareness all over the Middle East.
We want to get to this point, but our first goal right now is the International Artists Exchange. I want people from Europe to come and realize that we are not all about war. [Long pause] I want this misconception of Western ideology that’s been thrust upon Arabs to be changed when they go there and see. It’s really just a cultural exchange, and there’s no greater way to do it than through art, because art is the only thing that is not inherently confrontational. Rather, it provokes: it provokes an idea, it provokes you to think, but it doesn’t force you to. It doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t beat you, it doesn’t yell at you if you don’t understand. It lets you take in what you can, and hopefully, through that, you go past just what you know, and into what you can understand.
O: Do you think there is a need to change the way people see the region? How should we go about it?
D: The only way you can get them to see is if they come, or if we go to them with actual content. Because whether we like it or not, it’s all based on archiving. It’s not what you’re learning now—it’s what you’ve already learned. And we need to get them to unlearn this kind of understanding of Arabs, or this insanity that we don’t speak English, or that we all wear the abeyeh, or that if our women in Beirut wear skimpy shirts somebody rapes or beats them—you know?
To me, it has to happen because they have nothing to fight for in Europe. With all the struggle that artists go through, all the material and emotional turmoil, it’s all internal. It’s not a reaction to the external facets stopping them. Whereas artists in Lebanon are so overwhelmed by the external that the only thing they can work on is the internal. This is where balance can happen.
O: Would you say that that’s the main regional difference within the arts between—just to essentialize a little here—the Middle East and North Africa and the ‘Western world’?
D: I mean, when your biggest problem in Europe is how you’re going to pay rent? In Europe, or the States... or anywhere really [Laughs], you don’t have to worry about someone running you over because they ran a stoplight. You don’t have to worry about cars being parked literally on sidewalks, you can just walk—no anxiety. We wake up with drilling next door, to the natoor screaming, honking, no stoplights, stepping on dogshit.
There’s absolutely nothing that takes away anxiety in the Middle East. Everything is anxious and everyone is angry, and for no other reason than that they have no idea what’s coming next. And nothing is made easy by the government. For fuck’s sake, we have six hours of no electricity a day. We run out of water most of the time. The concept of basic living is not given, so of course our anxiety, our state of rebellion, is always a lot higher: because you gotta make do with what you can, right?
O: Sounds like you have a lot of frustrations with the way things are run in the region.
D: They’re running the country into the ground!
O: You’re not the only one that thinks that. I think all of us from Beirut have the line “Kis ikhta, we’ve been dealing with this for 40 years now” recurring through our heads. And I’m in my 20s. But I have to ask, why does one of the first lines on your website clearly state that, “Haven is an apolitical organization”?
D: Mainly it’s because of where I live, so that we’re not misconstrued. And frankly, we don’t get into politics. The things that are aggravating us, we do through art, not through politics: not through changing policy, not being abrasive, not going down to protest. Only art will save us. Everything else is going to keep perpetuating the situation and keep getting people aggressive.
When the protests for the trash pick-up happened, I was right there. We were all right there when we got gunned down with water guns and stink bombs and tear gas and all of that; we all went through this. But then we woke up the next day and went to work. [Laughs] I mean, there’s just not much more you can do!
When it comes to Haven, the reason we don’t want politics is because we realized that it was just going to create more and more tension. Because we, as people, as the minority—because that’s what we are in Beirut, [Laughs] we’re the minority. People who can say, “No, I don’t need a politician to pay me so that I can live and feed my five children,” those are the minority.
O: So about this minority: who are you reaching out to? And do you feel like you’ve been successful so far?
D: Sometimes I feel like we are reaching, sometimes I feel like we’re stagnant, but that’s just because the times change so often so you constantly have to change with it, so you never really are 1000% sure of how many people you’re affecting. But we are there for everyone, nonstop. I’ve had people show up at our door—who weren’t artists—and needed a place to live. They were in need and they were kicked out, for whatever reason—we don’t have to go into that—bas inno they’re always welcome. The word “Haven” is there for a reason: It is a haven, it is a refuge, a safe place for people to come and talk. A drag queen can put their makeup on in Haven. And it happens, because it’s real.
O: I never experienced spaces like that growing up in Beirut. It really comforts me knowing you guys are physically there right now. In Mar Mkheiyal right? What’s it like being on such a popular street?
D: Luckily we’re on a street parallel to Mar, off to the side. Haven is the quietest place in this entire district. I adore it. We have a patio, and you can just sit outside all day reading or writing or working, and it’s very free. But the moment you are done working, you can pack up your shit and go to a bar right across the street. We love being so accessible, but at the same time we don’t have signs on the road. So there is no sign that says “Haven” outside of our door, you have to look for it, go behind these big bushes and bushels of trees, and... [sighs]
O: Would you mind if I tell people about it?
D: Of course not! We never restrict anyone. I walked in yesterday, actually, and I was in Tripoli working with ‘March Lebanon’. Since we’re architects and carpenters too, we went up there and checked out their space—really wonderful thing they’re doing in Tripoli, as well—but when I came back down, I walked into the house and saw this complete mess! The chairs were moved around, all sorts of things were upside down, and this strong light was shining against a wall. And there’s just this French man who put a... laza2 war2a 3al 7eyt [stuck a sheet of paper on the wall] and used the projector to project onto the wall! There’s no “Oh you can’t do that” or “Please put your feet down” or “Oh you have to pay.” There is a resident to help you with anything. Anybody coming in will never be stopped, and will be welcomed warmly.
O: You’ve touched upon it intermittently during our conversation, but what can you tell us about this new arts residency program?
D: The Haven residency has been ongoing for a year; we just didn’t know it was there. We were just offering people a place to live at first, so it was like, “Hey guys I’m working on this project, it’s costing me a lot of money, and I cant afford rent: can I stay here?” And then suddenly, Yasmine and I were sitting in Haven with Paul—one of the residents that had flown in, hayete—and he looked at us, turned to Yasmine, and says, “This is the greatest residency I’ve ever been in.” Yasmine turns around to him and says, “You’re not in a residency; you’re at home.”
So we had a moment there and realized that we can have both of these elements, where we give artists a residency but we’re also giving them home. We’re not giving them white walls where they sit in a corner then they have to go to the atelier, work, come home, and sleep, we’re giving them an art house that they can constantly produce in.
O: Okay, last question. A random young artist who’s on the margins and doesn’t have access to resources somehow comes across this interview: how would you tell them to get involved?
D: Send us an email, and you’re already involved. It’s really that easy. We do not want to put restrictions. When you apply, we do everything in our power to get you grants. If you’re an artist and, let’s say, you want to write a proposal for one of your projects, Haven has a team member that sits there with you and teaches you how to write it. When we go hopefully in September with myself and Tea, we want to create these kinds of bridges between different residencies, so that it becomes simpler and less intimidating for us to apply as Arabs or emerging artists—I don’t wanna say Arabs anymore; emerging artists are always hesitant. Regardless, they can just come to Haven and be like, “Okay, who are your bridges, and how can I get there?” And if their work isn’t “good enough,” then it’s my job, and the creative team’s job, to help them get there — not just throw them out.
Omar Alhashani is the founder of Khabar Keslan, edited multiple issues of the Arab Studies Journal, and has worked on Bassam Haddad’s Knowledge Production Project. Born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Beirut, and graduated from Reed College, Omar now lives between Washington DC, where he works as an assistant editor at a policy think-tank, and New York City.
Dayna Ash is a poet and founder of Haven for Artists who began underneath stale staircases in small Gemayzeh bars. The initiative began so she could listen to her favorite local bands and poets. Six years later, Haven has become a home to many fellow artists and creators.