BEIRUT: For some years now, the streets of the Lebanese capital have witnessed drastic changes, and Beirutis have been seeing their city’s urban fabric transformed. Dozens of beggars rush to the cars at every intersection, and street corners have turned into homes for those escaping the war in Syria, a sight that was unfamiliar in Beirut a few years ago.
The Syrian exodus has taken its toll on Beirut streets, as hundreds of Syrians have chosen begging as their source of living.
This daily scene inspired Lebanese architect, author and artist Raafat Majzoub, who himself is a Beirut resident.
“People completely ignore street beggars, knowing that they need cash, while they seem more generous in completely nonurgent scenarios such as wishing fountains,” he told The Daily Star.
“I decided to make a wishing fountain as an ode to these invisible beggars and a functional monument procuring money for them.”
“The Wishing Fountain,” or “Mal Aam” (Public Money), is the name of Majzoub’s first public art installation, which allows people of the city to share money with each other while raising awareness about the escalating street beggar phenomenon and the increasing self-centeredness in urban Lebanon today.
“It is intended to create a visible and accessible point within the increasingly self-centered society that exists in Beirut, for people to share money for public use,” Majzoub said.
The sculpture borrows its form from female street beggars sitting on sidewalks, wishing good fortune for passersby in return for minimal amounts of money.
The process of creation involved a careful study of street beggars, their postures and proportions, matching them with available material logistics.
With a body made of wood painted in a white color coat, the sculpture sits, knees jagged, in front of the Saroulla Building in Hamra, or if you’re not acquainted with that area, it sits back against the staircase of prominent Hamra Street landmark Akil Bros. Metro al-Madina Theater sits underneath. Coins accumulate in the fountain’s basin, which is fed by a water supply.
The thought-provoking installation is also meant to be an interactive display.
“Make a wish and toss a coin into the wishing fountain’s lap. This money is public. If you wish to take some, it’s yours,” reads the flyer taped next to the statue’s head.
Beggars, people looking for parking meter coins, night owls looking for change to buy a manoushe and others can pick up the amount they need whenever they need it.
“It aims to start an active local conversation about and between people, and their city,” Majzoub said.
The new street tenant puzzled passersby, and people approached it with confusion.
A family out on a Sunday afternoon were curious about the fixture. Father and kids were looking at the sculpture from a distance, not knowing what to think of it. Then, the father finally came closer.
“Oh now I see, I read the explanation. We can take the money, it says?” Ahmad Itani said.
“But a wish come true is a better investment in these dark days upon us,” he went on, reaching out for coins from his pocket and passing them out to his kids explaining to them what they should do.
The public reaction so far has exceeded the artist’s expectations.
“An eclectic mix of people is taking the fountain very seriously,” Majzoub said. “Instead of concentrating on the money, they are taking their time to hope and dream.
The artist recalled a group of Filipinas who stood in line, taking a couple of minutes each to make wishes and toss coins.
Across the road on the opposite sidewalk, unaware that a new occupant was sharing the streets with her, sat a 25-year-old Syrian beggar who hesitatingly identified herself as Salma, resting, her three kids’ sleepy heads on her lap.
“I have been coming to Hamra for many months now. I like this spot because it gets a lot of traffic,” she said.
“I never wished to sit on the street all day to make my living; maybe being a schoolteacher would have been nice,” Salma continued.
“If I were to toss a coin in this fountain I would wish for better health for my sick mother right now,” she said, hurriedly calling out to the next passerby.
Majzoub has his plans for the fountain’s reaps.
“Starting from next week, I’m planning to have collaborations with artists to perform next to the fountain and use its lap as their coin bucket,” he said.
Instead of taking the collected money, they would leave it, somehow creating an informal grassroots fundraiser for the city.
The installation is on display, as part of the 10th edition of the Beirut Street Festival, until Nov. 12. The artist will be documenting people’s encounters with his work through uploads on the website www.theperfumedgarden.info, on which any updates about the installation will be posted.