How art became an alternative to therapy in Lebanon

Art has provided a much needed release, away from Lebanon's deteriorating crises [Dana Hourary]
6 min read
26 August, 2021
In the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion, incidents of PTSD in Lebanon increased, with many in the capital now seeking their futures elsewhere. For those who remain, art has helped process trauma as a joyous alternative to regular therapy.

His small studio in Ashrafieh was destroyed and many of his paintings were lost during the August 4 blast but when asked about Beirut, Syrian artist, Sami Al Kour, replied, "I still love it, despite it all."

For the 30-year-old artist, leaving Syria in 2018 to start over in Beirut was a dream come true. The city to him represented everything that he lacked back in his country. 

"When I first arrived, Beirut was lively and full of joyful people. Everything in it was inspiring, especially the sea but after the blast, it became like Syria. People were no longer happy, everyone was leaving and there were lots and lots of damages," he tells The New Arab

Painting was a way to deal with the harsh reality that he had to endure and by producing pieces that stemmed out of the direct trauma

The artist suffered from PTSD in the months following the explosion. He even witnessed the death of his neighbour, Yaakoub Gemayel, who lived in the same building, which caused further damage to his mental wellbeing. 

"I didn't even witness this much horror back home in Syria," Al Kour added. 

Just like many others in Lebanon, Al Kour did not have access to therapy in Lebanon as prices soared, since the dollar to lira rate reached a staggering 20,000 Lira to $1

Sami Al Kour working on his new paintings in his new studio in Ashrafieh, Beirut. [Photo by Dana Hourany]
Sami Al Kour working on his new paintings in his new studio in Ashrafieh, Beirut [Photo by Dana Hourany]

The August 4 explosion left its definite mark on the people's mental wellbeing, as a team of researchers in the department of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut found in a study, that those living in close proximity to the port had the most visible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) two months after the blast. Their numbers are yet to be published, but experts say they were higher than those living on the outskirts of Beirut and further away from the port.

According to Joseph El-Khoury, assistant professor of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut and part of the research team, PTSD is not the only result after a traumatic event, as they found that 70 percent to 80 percent of the participants suffered from a form of depression.

Al Kour was one of the people that battled with depression and found their way out of it through art. 

Through art, Sami Al Kour has found a new means of expression to digest pain and memory [Photo by Dana Hourary]
Through art, Sami Al Kour has found a new means of expression to digest pain and memory [Photo by Dana Hourary]

Painting for him was a way to deal with the harsh reality that he had to endure and by producing pieces that stemmed out of the direct trauma, he felt like he could finally overcome the pain he had sitting in his psyche. 

"It was like something stuck in me and I had to get rid of it before it got rid of me," he added. 

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Sarkis Sislian, a 29-year-old artist who lived in extremely close approximation to the explosion, also resorted to art as a way to cope with the horrors he and his family went through. 

"Right now, I don't think art alone is enough because the trauma is much more severe, but it's better to have something that helps me slowly rather than nothing at all," he told The New Arab. 

For Sislian and Al Kour alike, the painting process is a substitute to therapy, even if temporarily, where they can encounter their psychological complexes, get them out of their systems, and heal as much as they can.

This way, the two artists felt like they could return to their normal functions in their daily lives. 

Al Kour participated in group exhibitions that dealt with the theme of the blast, his latest titled "visions of today", where several artists shared their vision on how they saw Lebanon moving forward. 

Clinical psychologist, Pascale Nakhle, explained that art therapy could be seen as a sustainable alternative to regular therapy sessions only if viewed as a source of empowerment

Sislian, is currently working on a group exhibition where the artists will explore personal themes related to their lives. But for him, what mattered the most, was the feeling of being a part of a larger societal expression of shared pain. 

"Once I realised that the feeling that I was having before producing art, or while producing it, isn't unique to me, but rather shared as a generational anguish of sort, helped me feel less alone."

Clinical psychologist, Pascale Nakhle, explained that art therapy could be seen as a sustainable alternative to regular therapy sessions only if viewed as a source of empowerment. It helped express hidden wounds but it did not necessarily heal all diseases.

This form of therapy also mainly targeted depression and anxiety

"Many people experience personal transformation and relief from intense emotions or crises. However, the extent to which art therapy is considered as a sustainable alternative depends on the mental health condition of the patient," she told The New Arab.

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However, when art activities were performed in groups, their therapeutic value increased

"This is mainly because individuals are given a space to articulate their emotions without being overwhelmed and while being supported by others with similar experiences," Nakhle explained.

For Yasmina Fayed, a 41-year-old actress and singer at Metro Al Madina, an independent theatre company in Beirut, the stage was another escape that both, the audiences and the performers, could utilise as a breather from life in Lebanon. 

"I consider any performance of mine as a form of therapy. We live in abnormal conditions that the brain can't comprehend fully and the whole process of singing, dancing, getting ready, working with the staff, or interacting with the audience helped me deal with many fears I had developed as the situation in Lebanon worsened," she told The New Arab. 

Yasmina Fayed during a "Hishik Bishik" performance in Metro Al Madina. Photo by Dana Hourany
Yasmina Fayed during a 'Hishik Bishik' performance in Metro Al Madina [Photo by Dana Hourany]

Fayed explained that there was also a responsibility on the performers to choose subjects that the society they lived in could relate to. That way a connection was created between those on stage and those watching. The individual could at the same time, escape and relate. 

The feeling of isolation was then reduced, and a sense of community was born.

While Metro was still an affordable leisure for most people (tickets were less than $4), some still saw it as a luxury, which limited the number of audiences per week. 

For Fayed, however, this type of entertainment was important for the people as it reminded them to have fun, laugh, and find the strength to keep going. 

"These two hours that I spend on stage are enough to keep me going and help me regain my balance for the week, but when you see the people interacting with you with happy faces and loud laughter, you know for sure there is a strong desire to keep going, despite the harsh circumstances," she explained. 

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut.