BEIRUT: In a spacious office in Hamra that brings to mind an artist’s loft in his Californian home town, David Munir Nabti is hoping to inject Lebanon with more than just the decor of the golden state.
“We can learn from an environment like Silicon Valley, and foster a social eco-system – but in places that need it the most,” he says. “This will basically be a newsroom space for citizen journalists and media innovators.”
Nabti, who grew up in Palo Alto, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, spent much of his youth traveling to Lebanon with his family, where he spent two years as a teenager. At UC Berkeley, he studied journalism, and had stints at several tech companies, including Google and CISCO, as well as a job at Californian public broadcaster KQED in 2003, where he was tasked with linking online and broadcast news. He finally decided to move to Lebanon full-time in 2005, where he worked in media and consulting jobs.
In 2009, he, along with partner Dima Saber, founded Hibr (Arabic for ink), a monthly youth-oriented independent newspaper, where he was able to combine his background of journalism and education with his commitment to social activism. Last year, Nabti and his colleagues trained and worked with 500 youths from throughout Lebanon, teaching them basic writing and reporting skills.
Saber says, “Our approach has been to help people figure out what they want to cover, and critically observe their surroundings.”
AltCity, Nabti says, is a natural evolution of Hibr, a place where local citizen journalists and foreign reporters have a place to do their work, hold workshops, share resources and enjoy a cup of coffee and snacks at the cafe. In this community space, he also envisions zero waste, and has already started working with green consulting companies.
He describes his project as “for profit, but not profit maximizing,” meaning that he’d like to make a profit but not at the expense of excluding anyone. Those who can’t afford to pay for the business services could, for example, host a workshop, while a business hosting a conference would be charged a standard market rate.
The space, which has not yet opened for business, has already held events. Last month, they hosted a panel on investigative journalism and digital media in collaboration with the American University of Beirut.
It is the first of its kind in Lebanon, although similar startups exist in the West and the Gulf.
While Nabti says he chose the location as the city’s educational and cultural hub, he says he’d like to do similar projects in areas outside of Beirut, including Tripoli and Nabatieh, and even abroad – places that are in need of development projects more than Beirut’s Hamra district.
He hopes that his move to Lebanon will inspire other expatriates to do the same, so that the country will see a vibrant startup community, as it develops in the post-Civil War era. But more than that, he hopes expats will return to Lebanon to foster such growth, rather than coming as a result of it.
“We want to actively support and energize people,” he says.
At least for now, he says, “I don’t have any plans to leave. My priority is to stabilize [AltCity] and make it self-sustaining.”