Public performance banned in Downtown Beirut

I’ve experienced many disturbing episodes in the corporate-owned and operated space known as Beirut Central District (BCD) or “Downtown.”

I’ve been banned from taking pictures of historic buildings under demolition; I have been detained by police for documenting one of the BCD’s oldest neighborhoods as it was being razed; I’ve even been censored by those protesting the space, namely Hezbollah, whose members forcibly erased my footage of the tents they used to occupy BCD in 2007.

However last night’s incident tops the list of petty policing in the luxury shopping district imaginatively branded Beirut’s “City Center” by its billion-dollar developer, Solidere.

Last night, nothing happened to me, but rather I witnessed the humiliation and harassment of another–a  defenseless middle-aged gentleman in a shameful incident that spoke volumes about the sincerity of the firm’s newest corporate slogan “Solidere: Places for Life,” as heard endlessly in a spot on CNN International.

It all began around 11PM last night when I approached the clock tower at Place d’Etoile, a vestige of the French colonial city modeled on its Parisian counterpart, now refurbished into a pedestrian high street.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a crowd of dozens of people clapping and congregating in the open space–Downtown’s largest–to the sound of a man singing soulful Arabic songs. Perhaps I had misjudged Solidere for having orchestrated a largely elite neighborhood, free from the nuisance of the poor and underprivileged and all things serendipitous or cosmopolitan that bring actual “city centers” to life.

But moments later, reality came crashing in when a police officer abruptly pulled the man aside in a threatening fashion to the surprise of the onlookers, who hurriedly dispersed. Clearly this bit of unregulated entertainment was unwanted and needed to be silenced.

As he stood quietly amid the stream of passersby, I walked up and asked the man, who seemed less than five feet tall, where he was from. He announced excitedly that he was Jordanian and represented Rotana, one of the Middle East’s largest music labels. Whether the speech was a stage act or bout of lunacy, this short, enthusiastic entertainer could be considered anything but a threat to the public.

“They said I am bothering them,” he pleaded to me in reference to the security officers, a usual mix of army troops and policemen, standing watch from the curbside.  He propped up his chest and saluted as one walked past.

Hearing his story, I lamented the lack of free expression and asked him (perhaps irresponsibly) to sing some more.

He gathered his breath and suddenly bolted out a swinging Arabic note with impressive timbre “Give us Hurriye (freedom),” he sang, “give us freedom,” he repeated, delivering the line directly to troops facing him across the street.

Some of the soldiers cracked smiles and a small crowd regathered, clapping enthusiastically at the lyrics. But the fleeting moment of ease was disrupted again when a stern-faced army solider, clearly annoyed, made his way toward the singer from behind. He gripped the man’s arm, yanked him backward and this time marched him out of the square entirely, adding a few expletives for effect.

“Why did you take him away,” I asked the burly soldier, having followed him to the opposite end of the square.

“That man is crazy,” he said loudly, gesturing a finger toward his head.

“Is it illegal to sing here?” I asked.

“It is illegal to gather publicly,” the solider said. “Public gathering is forbidden in the square.”

“What is the square, if not a place for public gathering,” I countered.

“Thats not your business,” he quipped, sensing my incredulous look. “This is a security issue. Our responsibility is security. Now move along,” he added firmly, before turning away and quickly walking off.

Other officers also left but a few remained near the clock tower, keeping watch over the crowd, as seen to the right of the photo below:

So what was this feared security threat, I wondered.

Were the Mandarins of the Lebanese government finally realizing that the time had come for them to worry about joining the fate of their regional dictatorial counterparts, beset with demonstrations in public squares?

Or were both the army and police under orders to ensure that those who profit from Downtown’s faux public space be limited to the millionaires who can afford to rent its exorbitantly priced retail spaces?

Indeed “Downtown” was ranked the most expensive neighborhood in the Middle East last year, seemingly in line with Solidere’s mission of creating the region’s “finest city center” according to its chairman’s message.

Rather than attracting Beirut residents– the vast majority of which cannot afford its shops–the BCD has evolved into a destination for affluent visitors and high wealth foreign nationals. In fact, last night the streets surrounding the clock tower were dominated by oil-rich Saudi Arabian and Arab Gulf tourists:

A boon to the economy no doubt, but one that largely feeds elite establishments, rather than the majority of businesses.

Perhaps those international investors watching Solidere’s adverts on CNN will need to place a sizable asterix denoting the growing list of exceptions to its slogan, which now adorns many city streets:

Places for Life*

*Does not apply to most Beirut residents, journalists, photographers, and now, street performers.

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