In times of peace, cities grow, move and live their own complex lives. Cobblestones give their way to asphalt, shabby little houses get renovated and ornate villas slowly sink into decay, while people live, die and are born among their walls. War brutally shakes up this complex balance and the cities are torn along with bodies. In Beirut there was war between 1975 and 1990, there was the 2006 war with Israel and occasional incidents have never stopped since. Throughout the country there is a strong sense of the civil war still lingering between the rather segregated religious groups, only now being fought with physical and mental walls instead of guns and missiles. When history is so ripped and still painful, residents can have a very hard time trying to re-establish both historic spaces and their own sense of belonging to them.
Collapsing public spaces and public sentiments
Beirut has always been there in some form or another, ever since human inhabitants first arrived at the Mediterranean. Their successive civilisations left layers upon layers of archaeological material full of tales of trade, blood and religions, cities created and destroyed on top of each other. Beirut was a small port for most of its time and only underwent significant urbanisation under the Ottomans and the French. The port expanded, warehouses and sarays were built and gates were erected to guard safety. Growth was rapid and haphazard, though. Professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, Samir Khalaf writes that travellers of the 19th century were just as mesmerised by the congested traffic of Beirut as today’s visitors are - the only difference is the switch from donkeys and chariots to cars and motorbikes.
Travellers of the 19th century were just as mesmerised by the congested traffic of Beirut as today’s visitors are - the only difference is the switch from donkeys and chariots to cars and motorbikes.
Urban planning was never the highest priority of either the Ottomans or the French Mandate’s establishment, thus Beirut never grew in a centralised way apart from the few short decades between independence in 1941 and the outbreak of the civil war. Conveniences available for all, such as pavements or regular street-cleaning, originally followed commercial interests: shopping streets and areas with restaurants and cafeterias became small hubs of semi-public space, where customers could stroll and chat. Hence these places mostly catered for a wealthier public, operating with a subtle logic of exclusion, just as the once famous Orient Express did, connecting the Levant and the broader Middle East with Europe via Istanbul. This exclusion was less and less prevalent, though. Independent Lebanon became famous for its Tramway Beirut, connecting today’s Martyrs’ Square with several points of the city. From 1964 public buses were in use as well. By the outbreak of the war in 1975, public spaces were flourishing and connected by lines of travel available for the masses - despite all its traffic and social tension, the city was alive and turning into a real living space.
The war swept this all away, together with the budding sense of real cosmopolitanism, and sectarianism flared up only to become impossible to overcome even today. Walking in Achrafieh or along the narrow roads in the Armenian quarter of the city, gun-holes are omnipresent, expressing the sad statement that peace is somehow perceived to be so fragile that it is hardly worth renovating the buildings. Heading downtown to St George’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral I stop and stare at the figure of Jesus painted on the wall, deliberately shot in the heart during the war, while the passionate caretaker of the church is pointing at the wounds full of bitterness, shouting tormented words of unforgiveness. The war is over, but somehow it just cannot be over with the buildings all standing as illustrations of this uncertain feeling of conflict.
The war is over, but somehow it just cannot be over with the buildings all standing as illustrations of this uncertain feeling of conflict.
Life came back to the city, but it feels like no-one wants to claim ownership of the streets, the urban fabric as a whole, the capital as a symbol of overcoming sectarianism and conflict. Streets are filled with cars but never with pedestrians and one would have a hard time finding a playground or a square where people could just meet and different groups could ease their boundaries. A new generation grew up, but they grew up on the ruins of a failed political consensus.
Solidere - solution or exclusion?
Beirut’s downtown, what we know today as Martyrs’ Square and the surrounding high-end shopping district with its immaculate buildings and expensive restaurants at Zaitunay Bay, was devastated in the war. As the city’s glamour came from its flourishing trade, the collapse of the central business district was a symbolic event; Beirut slid away from the world of international contacts and deals, as it failed to provide even the superficial economic peace needed to sustain it. What was once everyone’s land became no-man’s land, the green line between the frontiers of conflict, an icon of the geography of fear.
Solidere was one attempt to transcend jealously guarded identities of traumatised communities by reconstructing the downtown, partly as a gesture to Beirutis, partly as a statement in front of the international community, expressing that safety and normalcy are back in Lebanon. The vision was to reconstruct the buildings in their original style to preserve the atmosphere of “the Paris of the Middle East” and create a commercial and economic hub that could become the engine of a countrywide regeneration.
The hybrid set-up between a private corporation commissioned and regulated by the government became something of a trademark of Lebanese governance, for better or worse.
Solidere certainly did achieve this mission and downtown is now a clean, stylish place with several UNESCO-protected buildings and heavily guarded shops. The hybrid set-up between a private corporation commissioned and regulated by the government became something of a trademark of Lebanese governance, for better or worse, and now basic services such as post and garbage collection are all operated through this model. Inhabitants have paid a huge price, though. The social fabric of downtown was completely torn and changed by Solidere, making a once-accessible area a closed, guarded space only seemingly open to the masses, fenced away from lower classes by surveillance and price-range. The confessional divides were doubled with class divides that are ever more overwhelming as the city’s public spaces are eroded and the last public beaches are privatised by clever bending of the law.
NGOs for public space - the fight is not over yet
Divisions are not gone from Beirut; they are embodied in the architecture and the layout of the city to such an extent that most people cannot help but take them for granted. While Solidere was offering its peculiar solutions, favouring the thin layer of the affluent, initiatives started budding though. A few students at the Lebanese University, the only state-owned higher education institute, gathered to establish the NGO Nahnoo, the first to become a meeting point for different factions of society, later on working for the spaces and the landscape where such meetings could take place.
I visited Nahnoo’s office to get a grasp of their plans and vision from executive director Mohammad Ayoub. Ayoub attributes today’s congested traffic and hostile cityscape to both the war and the subsequent mistrust in engagement between groups, and to the drastic speed of spreading cars from the 60s onward. As now only the oldest generation remembers pre-war and pre-car times, even the concept of public space or the right to streets is missing from public consciousness.
“We had to start from the very basics, asking people where their children play and whether they knew that once there was a huge pine forest in Beirut, Horsh Beirut, where people could go to spend their spare time. We had to tell them that if Lebanese houses are unimaginable without a salon, a meeting point for family and guests, then how could one imagine a city without a salon?”
We had to tell them that if Lebanese houses are unimaginable without a salon, a meeting point for family and guests, than how could one imagine a city without a salon?
He explains that forcing municipalities to deal with public engagement and showing Beirutis that they can and in fact do have a say in the fate of their city is a crucial task and a great success for Nahnoo and the wider NGO coalition they are part of. The peace offered by Solidere is one “for making money, not for making people happy”, as members of the civil society put it; thus they aspire for a more inclusive peace. They do not mean to exclude the affluent layers of Lebanese society, though, as they see the situation having a deleterious impact on everyone’s life, forcing people with cars to escape from the city outside working hours and those without cars to stay in the safety of their own homes.
Representation is a huge problem, as after the war, owners of Beiruti real estate largely moved out from the city in search of less crowded and more liveable life options, resulting in Beirut’s population becoming largely a renting population. Thus those living in Beirut usually do not vote in Beirut and vice versa, putting the municipality in a situation where it can comfortably avoid being pressurised by the people of the city. This is why Nahnoo and its likes are so immensely important in the intertwined future of people and spaces in Beirut.
During the last few years, movements have managed to at least bring these issues up to the extent that there is now a real public discourse on urban planning, the threats of over-privatisation and the rights of citizenry. This is probably a promising first step towards a real regeneration of the city, whereby both its past and its future could be reappropriated by local people, but whether such initiatives are enough will, sadly, only be decided by events of a much larger scale. The Syrian war and its million refugees in Lebanon, the current conflict in Gaza and the wider politics of the Middle East are all factors threatening Beirut’s fragile socioeconomic balance. If allowed by peace and national autonomy, Nahnoo and other NGOs might have a chance to finally put Beirut back on track without extremism, with peaceful coexistence and pride in its history. Given the current political climate of the region, though, one can only hope this chance would not be swept away by the abruption of violence and conflict.