It won’t be long before another historic building vanishes without a trace in Beirut. As one would imagine, there is a heated debate over the redevelopment of the city center, especially because it’s being carried out by a private corporation (Solidere), founded controversially by a former prime minister. What shouldn’t be up for debate however, is photography of historic buildings as they are being destroyed. But as soon as I began snapping shots of said demolition (see photo above), the troubles began.
“Hey you, what are you doing? That’s forbidden” a heavy man exclaimed from a parking lot across the street.
“Hey, what? What’s the problem,” I replied.
“Pictures are forbidden,” he said.
“Why, this is a public street isn’t it,” I asked.
“You are not allowed to take pictures of private property,” he said with certainty, his tone increasingly agitated. “That’s the law.”
I was documenting the destruction of the building, I argued. “Please leave us alone and be on your way,” he replied, adding “you’ve taken your pictures, now go on, leave us.”
He then claimed to represent the building’s owner and insisted I leave the area. When asked who the owner was, he became more anxious. “It’s none of your business who the owner is! Now go on, get out of here! Check the law, bring any police. It’s forbidden” he shouted, getting louder with every word.
“Don’t people have a right to see the history of Beirut before its gone,” I asked.
“KusUm Beirut (Fuck Beirut)” he said, before turning his back to me.
Upon returning to my car a couple of blocks away, I noticed a uniformed police officer standing across the street and decided to get his opinion. “Who told you not to film,” he said, growing anxious himself. “Come with me.”
I led the way and when we arrived the heavy-set parking attendant jumped up and faced the police officer, ready for a fight. “Filming is not allowed here,” he said, raising his voice. “The owner does not allow it.”
“Excuse me habibi, calm down,” the officer said. “Filming of private property is only forbidden if you have a permit. Do you have a permit?”
“No,” the man said, “but it doesn’t matter, it’s forbidden.”
“If you don’t have a permit, he can film from the sidewalk,” the police officer said calmly.
The man began shouting again. He then accused me of infiltrating the building. “He was inside the building!” Suddenly another man appeared, whom I’d never seen before, agreeing with the parking attendant and accusing me of entering the building. “I’m responsible if he is injured (by the demolition). I will be sued!” the attendant said.
“That’s a lie,” I told the officer. “I was taking photos from the street. I never entered the building.”
“I am liar!” the man screamed, throwing his hands in the air. “You are a liar! You’ve come here to cause trouble!”
Naturally, the screaming drew a small crowd and soon a couple of men on scooters and Solidere private security guards showed up and began firing away questions, interrogation style: “Where are you from?”
“Where in Beirut,” he added, looking suspicious.
More questions: what do you do, who do you work for, etc.
After a few minutes of back and forth, the men– apparently Solidere undercover police–explained that I could not photograph anywhere, any building in the downtown area without a permit.
The police officer who accompanied me had remained silent the whole time. Then he turned to me: “Listen,” he said, “this is Solidere. Don’t cause problems, just go request a permit.”
“But the building will be gone before I get one,” I countered.
“What can you do,” he said. “They are in control here.”
“But you should be in control,” I told the policeman. “This is the middle of Beirut.” He shrugged his shoulders.
When the officer and I walked back toward my car, we encountered another officer, who had overheard our initial conversation. “What happened,” he asked.
“Turns out Solidere owns the building,” I said.
“Ahhh, Solidereeee,” he said, stretching the name for emphasis. “Don’t even think about taking pictures over there.”
Here are some of shots I took before getting “caught”.
It seems to be part of the Grand Theatre complex (adjacent un-destroyed bldg visible above on the same block) which I have written about here. The parking lot attendant/owner representative denied this however, saying “It’s just an old building, where people used to live.”
Yet judging by the architecture, the building seems to be as old as the adjoining Grand Theatre. If anyone has any information on the use of this building or its connection to the Grand Theatre please let me know.
On the subject of the Grand Theatre, I highly recommend Omar Naim’s documentary on it, available here.
During the film, activists argue that the theatre should be preserved as a public space, a point that a Solidere representative seems to agree with during the film. Solidere even had murals painted over the construction walls, showing images that evoked memories of the theatre in its hey day.
Then I noticed this numbering on the blocks, which also seems to indicate some planned restoration work:
But a nearby worker said those plans have been abandoned as have those to create a public theatre space. The Grand Theatre, where legends like Oum Kultoum once sang, will reportedly now be turned into a boutique hotel. Somehow, I imagine the elite guests of said hotel will not appreciate photography either, and yet another part of Beirut’s history will become off limits to the public.
Solidere Project Manager, Tamara Mae Napper, has promised that the building under demolition will be rebuilt. She said: “Solidere has carried out a detailed survey and even taken moulds of the facade features and salvaged some architectural elements in order to reconstruct it.” Responding to a Facebook thread, she added that the 1930s building was “in a poor state of repair” and “never had any functional or physical connection” to the Grand Theatre, though it seems to have been built around the same time. It is worth noting that the two buildings shared a continuous arched walkway which can be viewed in this picture I took a few years back. The two buildings also shared a common Solidere construction perimeter wall with similar artwork, as seen above.
It remains unclear what function the new building will serve, what, if any, access the public will have to it and to what extent it be “reconstructed”. These basic questions can also be asked about the Grand Theatre. It is also unclear if Solidere will salvage any of the original building materials during its demolition such as the vintage 1930s glass sidewalk, colored glass ceiling and old signage–covered in this post— or the original iron dome with roof opening as seen in Omar Naim’s film.