In his series Ahlein, photographer Ghaleb Cabbabe documents the one thing that makes Lebanon so remarkable: its people.
Born in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Cabbabe realises that his country is often seen or portrayed in the media as chaotic or even dangerous. To dispel these fears (some of which are oft exaggerated or unfounded), he captures scenes featuring everyday life in the nation’s capital.
Some of the images he’s taken show how foreigners living in Lebanon are just like you and me. They live normal lives and do regular activities – such as playing in the streets, having a meal together, or singing karaoke.
More importantly, Cabbabe also focuses on the hospitality of his countrymen. The title of the series even refers to what they say to greet a guest: Ahlein, which means ‘welcome’.
We recently spoke to Cabbabe to learn more about the series.
What motivated you to shoot this remarkable series?
“I’m glad it reached you and got your attention. I’m usually interested in peeling and scratching layers, to discover and portray what could be happening behind the scenes, beyond what we first see, think, or perceive. Especially when it is related to social behavior, codes, and interaction.
“Lebanon has a strong reputation of a warm and welcoming country towards foreigners. It is somehow true, especially towards tourists, but there is also a certain lack of meaningful interest for immigrants.
“This curiosity is in a way limited and sometimes superficial. It often oscillates around a drink or a good local meal, and then everyone returns to his own bubble and comfort zone. So, I wanted to explore that deeper, more personal and genuine side.
“And I was actually surprised to see how easy it was to discover and access “unseen” new places. It just required that little will to do it, by asking a question, making a phone call or opening a door. When the series was exhibited in Beirut, some visitors first thought that it was shot abroad.”
Were there any logistical challenges to the shoots?
“In terms of pure logistics, this project was relatively easy, especially that I usually shoot with very limited equipment, under natural light.
“The challenge was mainly to be accepted and then ‘forgotten’ in those new, personal and intimate environments like people’s own apartments, bedrooms, or religious places. I didn’t rush things, and even visited some places a couple of times without taking my camera.
“Photographers, in particular in Lebanon, are most of the times considered guilty until proven innocent. But it’s a nice feeling to reach that tipping point where people naturally lower their guard. Including me.”
How has Lebanon changed over the past decade?
“To make it short and simple, I think that Lebanon is sadly far from where we expected and hoped it would be ten years ago. Ironically, this situation has been a fruitful source of inspiration as you could see for example in my series around the garbage crisis. “
And how have your own travels impacted your perception of Lebanon today?
“This impact is kind of vicious. When you leave the country and take a step back (or two), you realize and value what you can find in Lebanon, and what makes it truly unique. But at the same time, you experience what’s really missing there, and that list is getting longer year after year.
“When you come back to Beirut and have your first walk on the Corniche you feel blessed… until you stumble on a garbage bag or fall in a manhole. I have the feeling that many Lebanese from my generation are cursed. They have to live with this burden and persistent question of departure or return, and very few of them ever get the final answer.”