NEW YORK/BEIRUT: It all started on a day not so long ago, when Bana Abouricheh, Salim al-Kadi and Moustapha Jundi were having brunch together in New York. Abouricheh, 27, is a video maker who has been living in New York for a few months. Kadi, 26, is an architect who has been in the city for two years and Jundi, 30, also an architect, has been around for four. When the war broke out in Lebanon three weeks earlier, they all found themselves in shock and abruptly cut off from reliable communication with family and friends back home.
"I've become addicted to the news. I cry and he throws things at the television," says Abouricheh, pointing to herself and then Kadi.
Media coverage of the war was especially messy in its first week, explains Kadi. It actually looked worse long-distance and on television, such is the hysteria and warmongering being manufactured by the American news networks.
"Anyway, our parents, when we call them, they won't tell us how bad it is because they don't want us to worry," Kadi says.
Feeling stuck, frustrated and useless, the three friends decided to do something about it and the "I Love Beirut" sticker campaign was born.
Dropping $180 at a print shop in Chinatown, Abouricheh, Kadi and Jundi made 2,000 stickers, each tagged with the address for a new blog: thelebanonchronicle.blogspot.com. They passed the stickers out to their friends, asked them to photograph where they stuck them and then post the pictures on the blog.
Walk around key neighborhoods in New York and London now and one finds these stickers slapped onto lampposts, street signs, construction walls, even a cash machine.
"I Love Beirut" functions like any hipster urban intervention and subversion campaign, injecting the space of advertising with a new, urgent and notably non-commercial message. It's all the more poignant, however, with the knowledge that it comes from three Lebanese in New York who feel as if they are losing their city from afar.
"We didn't want to lecture," says Kadi.
"To lecture looses your audience right away," adds Jundi.
"We wanted to make a connection to the 'I Love New York' stickers. We wanted to take the feeling of New York after 9/11. We wanted to do something New Yorkers would relate to," says Abouricheh.
"You may ask, why not 'I Love Lebanon'?" suggest Kadi. "We went back and forth on this. Ultimately we decided the idea of the campaign is that Beirut is a city just like any other, just like New York." By extension, the point is that Beirut is a living city, a city to be proud of, and no one has the right to destroy it. Imagine if some state or non-state actor tried to destroy New York. Oh, wait...
To announce their campaign, Abouricheh, Kadi and Jundi sent out a mass email to their respective contacts. The next morning they each found their inboxes stuffed to capacity with responses. They realized they could seize on an opportunity to do more.
In the tradition of stencil and sticker artist Shepard Fairey and the Obey Giant campaign, the three friends are willing to send the template for the "I Love Beirut" sticker to anyone who asks for it. But for their open-source policy, they want something in return. They want to know why.
"By making people work for it," says Abouricheh, "by making them write about why they love Beirut, we are building something together."
"Even if it's a fantasy," adds Kadi, "or seven different fantasies. With the blog, the first thing we wanted to do was write a chronicle of a country that doesn't exist anymore, or what we wish it would be like, if, say Hizbullah became a secular party."
"We're keeping Lebanon, this Lebanon, alive through imagination, through feeling, through expression," says Abouricheh. "That in a way is a resistance. That means there are people out there who can keep Lebanon alive and materialize this country, even if only on a virtual level."
"And it's unlike the virtual Palestine," says Jundi. "Lebanon is actually there. It's not actually a fantasy."
"This is where we can be self-critical as Lebanese," says Kadi. "This is where we can set a platform."
These are all laudable goals but at base the point of the "I Love Beirut" stickers is to call more intimate attention to the war in Lebanon, which is poorly understood in America, even in a politically progressive city like New York.
"In the Western world, or what I call Planet America, the arguments just go round and round," says Abouricheh.
"The Middle East is too complex. It can't be simplified," adds Kadi. "It's already complex without taking all the agendas into consideration."
"Americans don't want to engage. At the same time they are trying to engage with and understand this war," says Jundi.
But it's as if you can sense the American public's exhaustion and frayed patience for doing so. Imagine knowing nothing of Lebanese politics and trying to make sense of contradictory statements by Siniora, Berri and Lahoud alone, putting aside Nasrallah, Olmert, and the infinite number of "expert" commentators.
And then there is the exercise of actually circulating those stickers. Putting them in public places is, in technical terms, illegal and considered vandalism.
"We did it at night," says Abouricheh.
"It was like a military operation," says Kadi.
"And it felt so good," says Abouricheh.
"I like to put them on recruitment posters for the US Marines," says Kadi. "That's tasty." Jundi frowns at all this.
"I got caught," he says sheepishly. "I have a court review. I got too excited and I got caught by the police."
For more information on the "I Love Beirut" sticker campaign, please check out thelebanonchronicle.blogspot.com