For a good part of his life, Bahi Ghubril travelled between Beirut and London to visit his family in Lebanon and study engineering in England. In London, he could navigate the streets and neighbourhoods easily with the help of a city map.
In Beirut, however, Ghubril had difficulty finding his way around, and like many others, he had to identify his destination by the name of a nearby landmark such as a pharmacy, supermarket or some other establishment whose name is better-known than the official name of the street.
This dilemma prompted Ghubril in 2005 to create a map of the streets and neighbourhoods of Beirut, which he named "Zawarib Beirut: Greater Beirut Atlas". The atlas became the primary navigation reference used by a large number of Lebanese and foreign tourists alike.
In its small- and medium-sized editions, Zawarib Beirut maps out the streets and neighbourhoods of Beirut. It includes addresses of prominent locations, such as official head offices, hospitals, schools, universities, churches and mosques, among other commercial, banking and tourism establishments, as well as the landmarks or buildings whose names are still used in place of the official names of the streets.
"I launched the project in 2005 after returning from London and having difficulty identifying my destination to the taxi driver by the name of the street, as many streets have official names but no one uses them," Ghubril told Al-Shorfa.
"Thus the idea of Zawarib Beirut was born," he said. "I started by using a satellite and aerial images of the city of Beirut, from Dbayeh to the southern suburbs, to be specific."
Ghubril said those images showed the streets and residential buildings in detail, while "alleyway surveyors" carried out field work to collect all available information on each street from municipalities and traffic police officers, who know the official as well as the unofficial names of the streets and neighbourhoods.
"Some streets do not have names and are identified by the name of a pharmacy or gas station, and the like. Based on all that data, we drew the maps and indicated all the names and details," Ghubril said.
Although Zawarib Beirut has become the definitive guide to the capital, it has not yet succeeded in persuading the majority of Lebanese to use it.
"In spite of the accuracy of the information, we're having difficulty putting it at the disposal of a large segment of the population," Ghubril said.
George Jubeili, 60, told Al-Shorfa he is not convinced of the guide's usefulness.
"I grew up in the alleys of Gemayzeh and its neighbourhoods and I know Beirut by heart," he said. "Why would I need a map to complicate my life? I find pleasure in giving directions to the neighbourhoods to tourists when asked about a particular place by furnishing them with information and names that are etched in my memory."
Inspite of the resistance of some Lebanese in the capital, Ghubril continues to map the country. He has produced an expanded atlas named "Zawarib Beirut & Beyond", which encompasses Beirut as well as Tabarja to the north of the capital, the southern coast of Khaldeh, the mountain towns of Bchamoun and Aley, and from Broumana to the town of Ghazir in Kesrouan.
Ghubril is currently working with several private companies to produce maps that will help their customers find their location. In addition, there are several other projects on his agenda, some of which are in progress.
"We are currently working on mapping wine industry areas in Lebanon, linking their locations along a trail through nine areas in Lebanon to facilitate access to them," he said.
The main project he is currently focusing on is a collaborative effort with the Municipality of Beirut titled "Tales and Secrets of the Zawarib", which provides historical context and stories on the names of Beirut's streets.
Bilal Hamad, head of the Beirut Municipality said, "Zawarib Beirut is very important to the capital, as it helps tourists and even Lebanese citizens explore our city without having to ask a lot of questions."
Hamad told Al-Shorfa that the municipality is co-ordinating with Ghubril on the "Tales and Secrets of the Zawarib" project to erect 60 plaques in various locations around the capital that will feature, in addition to maps, information on every street, including its landmarks and commonly used names.
"The plaques will provide guidance to citizens," he said. "The project was referred to a special committee in the municipality to finalise the concept so Ghubril can implement it."