We’ve always heard our parents talking about places they’ve been to in « Sehit el Berj ». This iconic place had different meanings for them. For some, they had their shops. For others, it was where they went to the movies and hung out randomly with friends and family. This place is equivalent to what we call today the « downtown » or « Beirut Souks ».
After the « reconstruction » and the « expropriation » of the downtown took place, major changes were noticeable. It’s true that the war destroyed most of it but it doesn’t look like it was before. More importantly, a lot of its buildings were still intact like the police station, for instance, it got exploded by dynamites more than three times at least by the company (reference from the documentary « Le dialogue des ruines » of Bahij Hojeij). When I’ve recently visited the offices of Solidere for the purpose of this article, one of the architects working there informed me that the percentage of the archeological sites and ruins left was 7% and not 12% like their annual book states. What shocked me the most (other than the fact that his salary was and has been steady for almost ten years now) was his response to my reaction about the « 7% ». In his opinion, all of the ruins that were left should have been thrown out in the sea. Apparently, the archeological sites have no value and are just some worthless stones. What’s wrong with conserving archeological sites? They’re the intangible proof of a country’s history. If someone decides that history isn’t relevant, does it give him the right to wipe it out of the earth?
It is very well known that the Lebanese heritage belongs in the villages or the landmarks places like Jbeil, Baalbeck, Beiteddine but a part of that heritage is (was) in Beirut. It has a Hippodrome, the Grand theatre (Grand theatro), the Phoenician Port… Shall I continue? The ridiculous part is that the Grand theatro is about to see added to its prestigious wall a Boutique Hotel, offices and a swimming pool… As if we lack any of that!
As for the Phoenician port, it’s about to be dismantled and sent somewhere else (whereas in Greece the same type of Port was found and is still conserved in its place) and the Hippodrome, there’s a project to « conserve » it by burying it under a residential complex. However, it is important to note that these two propositions aren’t final because a controversial debate is taking place. Moreover, ICOMOS (an international NGO dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments and sites) and UNESCO haven’t even been consulted about these decisions. I’m not going to indefinitely enumerate all of the prestigious, marvelous and very important vestiges and ruins we have there, but if it’s all just some worthless stones, then they shouldn’t be in charge of the reconstruction of Beirut. Let the Lebanese choose what they want to conserve for once. Also, who could we hold accountable for this tremendous loss? Lebanese might not be proud of their electricity or infrastructure but hold their pride mostly for their rich culture, ergo the archeological sites that bring the tourists from all over the world. The only thing that they have, and they’re erasing it. Soon, Tyr is getting declassified from UNESCO as a touristic site.
The downtown that the youth of today is acquainted with is being called « A soulless city ». A whole bunch of articles in local journals, articles on blogs and studies for thesis for foreign universities surfaced the internet. They mentioned that although there was an effort with rebuilding Beirut but it’s definitely not back on the cultural map. It might have an urbanism but there’s something missing. In one of the studies, it is shown that most of the people who go there, don’t feel comfortable. They mentioned the fact that security guards are everywhere and track people down like hawks. For instance, if you were seen taking a picture of any building or « touristic site » they’d ask you to remove them. If you don’t, you’ll have to pay a fine of 500$. Let us not talk about the many encounters of people standing in front of a new complex on the sidewalk, they were yelled at by a security guard… so much for the civil liberties! Everyone who’s read the constitution knows perfectly well that the sidewalk is part of the public domain. Hence the right to stand, walk, jog on it anytime you’d like.
We may shop in their commercial centers but we would always feel like someone is watching us. A recent video of Michelle and Noel Keserwani (Lebanese singers) circulated on youtube « 3al jamal » is a parody about this twisted reality. This part of the city feels like a different country. We would almost soon need visas to go there!
Also, what’s strange is that most of the offices in downtown have never been occupied, sold or rented. Who can actually afford it? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go to the downtown, but next time you go there, take a second to do any of those following actions and see what happens: Try to take a picture of the inside of the Hippodrome or the Grand Theatro then stand in front of Zaitounay Bay with your bikes (on the sidewalk next to the complex) and see the guards’ reaction.
The Downtown became the iconic place to go shopping, eating and clubbing. The outrageous and most alerting thing is to hear foreigners saying « if you want to go see some culture go to Damascus, not Lebanon. Come to Lebanon to go clubbing, eat or do some shopping ». Why can’t we work hard on the preservation and classification of its prestigious monuments? Why can’t we for once, as Lebanese, do something right? It’s up to the gatekeepers of this country to do something about this. They don’t lack of institutions, they just need to get over their greed and their love for power. It’s shameful today to notice that this country can’t be proud of something real. Evolution is about progress and it’s time to move forward. Every person should feel responsible for what’s happening in this country. It can’t be perfect, it works the way it does, it’s how it’s wired, true, but some things are worth being saved. Some things are worth to stand up for. It may sound repetitive but if we’re the future everyone’s looking forward to then we should start showing them that our voice counts and we’re not going to let them erase our identity.