Beirut, once widely regarded as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, remains haunted by the shadows of war. But attempts to rebuild the city are blocking its path to finding sustainable peace.
It’s obvious at every street corner in the heart of Beirut: the city is a cluster of buildings inscribed with stories of war, occupation and colonisation. Marc Ghazali takes us on a tour to retrace the city’s political past.
The face of Beirut is quite literally as rocky as the history of Lebanon. Archaeological finds, dilapidated hotels and gargantuan investment projects line up side by side. Every building recounts its story of the past and is proof of how a society’s cultural heritage can be reshaped, preserved or obliterated.
Prior to the civil war, Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. The city is not only infused with far eastern influences dating back to the Ottoman era, it also bears the traces of two decades of French mandate between 1920 and 1941. Much of this heritage was destroyed during the civil war, whose front lines cut straight through the city. Some scars remain visible today, others are pointed out to us by Marc.
Two men loom above us. Their bodies have been perforated by bullets; one man is missing an arm. It’s the monument on Martyr’s Square in the heart of Beirut’s historical centre, a site visibly marked by its dramatic history. Participants attending the conference ‘Social and Transformative Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings’ are gazing at the bullet holes in the monument. The event, organised by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, is focused on the concept of ‘Positive Peace’, i.e. on identifying the issues that need to be tackled once the guns fall silent in order to prevent conflicts from reigniting. It has brought together experts from Syria, Colombia, Iraq, Serbia, Germany – and from Lebanon. The guided tour is part of the programme. Marc starts the tour.
In the Ottoman era, under French mandate, back when Martyr’s Square was still located outside the city’s walls, it became one of the most important squares in Beirut. In 1916, the men commemorated here were executed for publicly opposing Ottoman rule. In 1960, the monument was unveiled, replacing a statue of two women – a Christian and a Muslim – standing above a coffin holding hands.
“Martyr’s Square,” we learn from Marc, “already became one of Beirut’s largest public squares under French mandate.” Cars race down the road running either side of the square; extra lanes have been added, transforming it into a major artery. And then there is a huge car park and an artificial lawn with its fenced-in green. Throughout history, the square has been a site where protests have been staged – although the car park now leaves protesters with little space to assemble. But the civil war destroyed much of the square, the surrounding buildings and the monument. Looking east, we cannot help but notice the buildings cloaked in green nets. Everywhere across Beirut, new buildings are sprouting up.
Martyr’s Square used to be located on the Green Line that divided the city into east and west – Christians and Muslims – during the civil war. The conflict’s front lines cut through all social classes, just as the Green Line cut through the city. Snipers on both sides made it impossible to cross. It followed today’s Damascus Street from the Mediterranean through the city centre and past the National Museum – one of the many buildings of which only ruins remain.
We follow Marc and the Green Line into the city centre until we reach a landmark jutting up into the sky, a building resembling a huge bar of soap. Locals simply refer to it as ‘the Egg’, and it is one of the constructions that embodies Beirut’s more recent history.
From the outside it looks like a bunker, and yet, back in the 1960s, it was part of a vision. The Beirut City Centre was supposed to combine the world of leisure – with space for shopping and a cinema – with the inevitable world of work, which was to be accommodated in two office towers. However, only one of the towers and the Egg – the cinema – had been completed when the civil war broke out. But urban warfare has not been the only factor that has obliterated much of the Egg and the underground car park beneath it. Whatever remains were left were exposed to further destruction during the 33-Day War between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 – the scars on the Egg’s façade bear witness to this conflict.
Until recently, Marc tells us as night sets in over Beirut, locals had been able to use the Egg for temporary art installations, parties and performances. But now, a fence and security guards were preventing people from accessing the former cinema. There is an investor with big plans for the former Beirut City Centre: his idea is to transform it into a luxury hotel and exclusive office towers.
Such announcements are no longer news to Beirut’s inhabitants. Countless war ruins and an entire quarter have been bulldozed by investors from the Persian Gulf to make way for copies of the ever-same Dubai-style buildings. But that is another story for a later stop on our tour through Beirut.
St George Maronite Cathedral’s tower and the minarets of the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque appear before us, illuminated against the dark sky. The cross shines down on us, lit up by yellow LEDs. The tower and the minarets are exactly the same height. The mosque was completed in 2007, with minarets that clearly overtopped the cathedral’s tower. In response, the Maronites decided to build a new tower. In order to avoid an ongoing construction battle, both communities ultimately agreed that their sacred buildings should have the same height.
Behind both places of worship lies an excavation site. An artist had envisioned a garden of forgiveness, a site of reflection and commemoration, but her plans were never realised. Today, five pillars of a Roman market from an era long past stand between recently erected buildings and those houses of prayer, testaments to the city’s dramatic history. As on so many other locations across the city, history remains visible, but there are no attempts at all to come to terms with the events of the past.
To this very day, the invisible lines have remained in place. The guns may have fallen silent, and yet the confessional divide continues to partition the city and the state. Today they coexist in peace. Churches and mosques reflect this reality, as does the Parliament, erected during French mandate, where 128 seats are distributed equally among Christian and Muslim MPs.
New power needs to be embodied by new sites, Marc explains. If under Ottoman rule Martyr’s Square was the centre of Beirut, the French added their own landmark, the starburst Place de l'Étoile, on the western tip of which sits the Parliament. At its centre stands a tower with a Rolex showing the time – a sign that we have reached Beirut’s noble district.
It takes 80 years on average for people to develop a sense of history, says Marc. Beirut’s population may have despised French architecture in the past, but today Nejmeh Square is part of the city’s consciousness. Perhaps one day this consciousness will also embrace the luxury towers funded by Saudi money – but that isn’t something he is expecting to happen in his lifetime, he adds, laughing.
‘Layers of a Ghost City’ is the title our guide has given his political tour, and having reached downtown Beirut, standing in between the buildings parcelled into privately owned flats, we immediately grasp the implication. Only a few windows are illuminated; many flats seem uninhabited, as though they only served a single purpose: speculation. The buildings emanate a coldness despite being bathed in warm light. The cultural scene that once made the quarter so vibrant has migrated. Not a soul is out on the streets, and banks, cafés or playgrounds are nowhere nearby.
One of the buildings immediately catches the eye: a grey, war-scarred, windowless block of concrete. It was once the most extravagant Holiday Inn in the whole of the Middle East, but its halcyon days ended barely a year after it was opened when the civil war broke out. The hotel was immediately occupied by snipers because its 26 storeys afforded a panoptic view of the city. Its façade is a reminder of that time: it has been gutted by bullets, grenades and missiles.
Today it is owned by several parties, a complex constellation that has effectively saved it from demolition. The Lebanese developer wants to restore the high-rise and build expensive luxury flats, like everywhere else in the quarter. The Kuwaiti side, however, wants to pull it down and raise a new building in its place that will blend more naturally into the existing landscape of luxury towers.
Who constructs such landscapes, and why is there not a single building in the vicinity that appears to be older than 20 years – aside from the Holiday Inn? We sit in front of the shell of a huge building that seems to have been abandoned a while ago. At some point in the future it will open its doors to well-paying guests – on the fence that has been installed to keep out unwelcome visitors there is a notice informing us that this will become Beirut’s Hyatt. The project will cost a minimum of 81 million US dollars – that is, if work is continued. Financial distress and political turmoil have, for now, brought the project to a halt.
Unlike the Hyatt, many of the other glass and concrete palaces have been completed and are gradually coming to life. But their construction has erased the city’s older layers, its history. On Roman, Ottoman, French and other remains of the past, a soulless district has been erected.
No company has pushed this destruction as forcibly as Solidere. After the war, plans were drawn up to reconstruct the city. Solidere, a privately owned company founded by then president Rafik Hariri , was made responsible for redeveloping the historical centre and went ahead with securing its ownership of the lucrative plots. Its vision: to foster Beirut’s re-emergence as a global city.
In reality, however, one can hardly speak of reconstruction. In no time at all, Solidere had demolished all the buildings in the quarter – regardless of whether they had been destroyed or scarred by war or had remained intact. Owners were only minimally compensated with shares in the company. Along with countless other members of the government and their business partners, Hariri, a multibillionaire contractor, profited from Solidere’s activities.
Yet the city, and its historical centre in particular, are gradually being transformed into zones of social and cultural exclusion. Profits and investment properties by far outweigh the interests of locals. The privatization of downtown Beirut may have helped to revive the Lebanese economy, but its upswing comes at a high cost: rents that fewer and fewer people are able to afford; a city whose rocky past has been glossed over by new properties for speculation and in which space for public squares and needs is in gradual decline.
Translation and Proofreading: Lyam Bittar and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair