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Serena Shim filming a report at a Baghdad checkpoint earlier this year. Source: Facebook.

I didn’t know Serena Shim very well and I haven’t spoke to her in years. She was killed yesterday in Turkey, apparently in a car accident. Her employer, Press TV, is linking the death to threats she had received from Turkish security services a few days earlier. But so far there isn’t a lot of evidence to better understand the conditions of the crash.

I met Serena about 8 or 9 years ago at a media production company we worked at in Beirut. She was fresh out of school and began anchoring a program. She had lived in the US and would say things like “I come from the Burj,” with a thick Detroit accent. Her reference was to Burj Al Barajneh, a densely populated neighborhood in south Beirut close to a major Palestinian refugee camp. She also occasionally wore ‘boots with the fur’ which were in fashion at the time.  Serena donned the veil only on camera due to the policy of her employer.

Though some of us in the office didn’t think she was ready to anchor a program, Serena ended up proving everyone wrong and went on to cover conflict zones around the world from Iraq to Ukraine. She was hard working and enthusiastic. But I will always remember her sassy attitude and the way she would make us laugh during the brief period we worked together. RIP Serena: we can only imagine where your career would have taken you.

Watch her last broadcast here, as she describes the pressure she was under by Turkish authorities, who had accused her of “spying.”

 

 

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It was great to finally meet Karem Shehada (left) and Mohammed El-Madhoun (right) tonight. Mohammed is the editor in chief of Watania News Agency, Gaza’s most prominent news outlet and Karem is head of IT. The two were co-participants with myself and Beirut Report in 4M, a six month accelerator program to support independent media in the region. But Karem and Mohammed never made it to Beirut– where the program was being held– until today, for the last week of the cycle. This is because of repeated closures at the Egyptian/Gaza border following the war, as well as the election of Egyptian general, Abdel Fatah Al Sisi. (Palestinians were far freer to travel and cross the border under deposed president Morsi, they said).

At 25, it was Karem’s first time out of Gaza and first time on an airplane. It was Mohammed’s first time on a plane since he was a child. But the trip was not easy. The two had to travel to the border–which they say can only be accessed through “wasta” (connections) and where they say Egyptian guards charge up to a whopping $700 per person for crossing– far out of the range of most Gazans. Once in Cairo, they and other Palestinians are escorted to the airport, where they are held in the basement–they are not allowed out and there is barely any food inside. Along with the other Palestinians, they were forced to sleep on the floor overnight and had to pay triple or quadruple the price to have food brought to them by Egyptian airport workers. Both were really excited to be here. “I’m trying to absorb everything,” Karem said, wide-eyed and with a big smile as he looked up and down Hamra street.

They only had one complaint: “I can’t believe how slow the internet is,” Karem exclaimed, telling me the upload and download rates in Gaza are 4mbps, more than 4 times the average download speeds in Beirut and more than 10 times the upload speeds.

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For those interested, the guys and I will be speaking at the 4M media conference this weekend. See link for details.

 

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I recently got a better look at the ruins discovered at the “Saifi Plaza” project, which I have been blogging about lately. There seems to have been significant progress since my last post, earlier this summer. Some activists believe the site, which is slated to become a series of office buildings, could contain Roman baths.

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Of course it’s hard to tell because government-employed archeologists maintain a policy of not speaking publicly on new digs and discourage photography and discussion about them in the press.

If we zoom in, there appears to be an underground structure or chamber with large stones:

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Could it be a Roman structure due to the large size of the stones, perhaps part of a wall or foundation?

To the left of this, a number of stones also seem to have been recovered or dismantled from the site, near the bulldozer:

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Here’s a closer view:

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If anyone has more info about this site, please feel free to share in the comments below or get in touch via the ‘contact us’ form at the top of the page.

 

 

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It’s not every day that you see young people walking the streets of Hamra, sketching on pieces of paper while following a woman pulling a cart on a bicycle.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of them until I stumbled upon their cart again set up at AUB this afternoon:

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The performance is called “Naked Wagon” and it’s part of a three day conference taking place at AUB called “Beirut: Bodies in Public”– featuring academics and artists from around the world looking at public performance in Beirut and elsewhere and the discourse that surrounds it.

Unfortunately, two days have already passed but there are still plenty of talks tomorrow and other related upcoming events, including an installation in Martyr’s Square and a picnic on the corniche. Check the schedule on their website here.

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Participants also get free passes for bike rentals in Beirut, located at the end of the booklet.

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For more about the Naked Wagon, which is encouraging public performance in the city, check their Facebook page here.

I think encouraging public performance in Beirut is a fantastic idea, especially because public performance has been banned in some parts of the city. A couple of years ago I documented a man who was aggressively harassed and then physically hauled off by members of both the Lebanese army and police just because he was singing out loud to a crowd in downtown Beirut.

Let’s hope efforts like Naked Wagon and other performances related to this conference help change attitudes.

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If you haven’t visited the pine forests of Bkassine, you are long overdue.

The village is part of the Jezzine district in South Lebanon, about half an hour’s drive from Saida. There’s a great place to eat within the forest, run by the people behind the trendy Beirut restaurant Tawlet.  You can try some local specialities such as Jezzine Kibbeh (left) and Jezzine potatoes (center).

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I love how the restaurant seems designed to preserve the trees around it:

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We paid $20 per person for a spread of small plates and grilled meats. But I’m sure there are cheaper restaurants in the area.

Try to go around sunset to watch the mountains turn purple behind the forest.

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Activists alleged that the state has illegally provided tens of thousands of square meters of public shoreline to well-connected investors. The move paves the way for the creation of at least five new massive resort projects on the last stretch of undeveloped coast in the capital.

The activists from the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh made their case yesterday at the press syndicate, presenting a series of documents that reveal the manipulation of laws that has allowed investors to seize public property for free, in some cases tripling the size of their existing projects.

The suit, which was launched last week, focuses particularly on Decree 169 of 1989 which removed state protection from the last undeveloped shore in Ras Beirut surrounding the landmark Raouche “pigeon rocks” and includes Beirut’s only free beach, Ramlet el Baida. The area is known as “zone 10″ and runs the length of the Roauche coastline from the Summerland resort, passed the pigeon rocks and up to the Sporting resort.

This area had been exempt from development until the 1989 decree but that decree was never published publicly, activists claim. According to Lebanese law, new legislation must be published in the weekly National Gazette– a state record of new laws– in order to become enforceable and legally binding. But activists said there is no record of the law’s publication. And if a law is not published publicly, it cannot be challenged as the time limit for appealing a law is only two months, the activists said.

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Activists deconstruct Decree 169 on overhead projection
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Activists provide maps detailing the appropriation of public property along the coast in Dalieh

The coalition was represented by architect and urbanist Abir Saksouk-Sasso (center) and Ali Darwish (left) the head of the environmental organization, Greenline.

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Investors exploitation in “Zone 10″ is further boosted by a controversial set of laws passed in the late 1960s and 1980s that give developers special privileges to take publicly held land adjacent to their projects at no cost. According to decrees passed in 1966 and 1982 investors who own at least 20,000 square meters of property are allowed to claim double the amount they already own in public land surrounding their projects with the aim of “supporting tourism” (though the resorts are often only accessible to elites).  Yet “Zone 10″ had been exempt from this development up until the 1989 decree that is subject of today’s lawsuit.

There was a pretty good turnout from the mainstream Lebanese press, including some regional channels such as BBC.

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And journalists seem to be taking the documents seriously following along with the presentation carefully, which is not always the case in a lot of press conferences I’ve attended:

 

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In part two of this post, I will discuss some of the interesting facts and figures presented by activists that detail millions and possibly billions of dollars in losses to citizens as a result of these sweet deals with investors over recent years.

And here is a copy of decree 169 of 1989 if anyone would like to follow up on this case:

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Note politicians who signed this document are recorded on the bottom.

 

Activists are determined and they are meeting on a weekly basis to help protect Raouche, Dalieh Ramlet el Baida and the rest of the last stretch of Beirut coast in Zone 10 . They are also looking for all sorts of volunteers to help . You can get in touch with them by sending a message to their Facebook page.