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This may be your last chance to see some of the oldest buildings in Furn El Hayek, including these early century storefronts, which are about to be demolished.

 

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The shops are built into an old stone wall that hugs a corner in the Achrafieh neighborhood, overflowing with greenery–an increasingly rare site in the concrete city Beirut has become.

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I was told by older residents that this was once a garden connected to two nearby buildings (seen at the right corner) built during the Art Deco period in the early 1900s.

Naji, an activist with Save Beirut Heritage, drew our attention to the endangered buildings about 10 days ago, when he posted some pictures on Facebook including this one:

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But when I visited the area yesterday, I found the same building covered in tarp with the balconies and window facades now torn out –valuable items in the antique market, one would suspect:

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The buildings were classified as “protected” by the Culture Ministry. However that designation was voided by the high court or Majlis el Shura, which reportedly ruled in favor of the landlord who had appealed against the designated protection. And apparently he won.

The second building behind it has already been gutted:

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Floors and ceilings broken through:

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Revealing the old sandstone construction pieces, now used as glorified paper weights, holding down the demolition panels on the sidewalk:

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The old sandstone walls are also revealed in the exterior property wall:

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Which neatly wraps around the block, near the shops:

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If you make it today or tomorrow, you might still catch a glimpse of the early 1900s architectural features that will be lost:

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As well as some of the contemporary graffiti, that has colored the abandoned block over recent years, as residents have died or moved out:

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When new towers are developed in the area, will there be any place for posters or street art?

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There are still a few old buildings in the neighborhood, from Art Deco and earlier eras:

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But they are rapidly being replaced, by the looming towers:

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Uniform facades, free of any ornamentation:

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No distinct balconies or metal work:

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Which city would you rather live in?

More importantly, why is this happening and what can be done? Similar demolitions are taking place across Achrafieh. So why are courts ruling in favor of the property owners despite the Culture Ministry’s designations, produced by expert architects? Does the Culture Ministry lack the lobbying power or capacity to appeal such high court decisions or to provide a legal framework for heritage protection that will have more influence in the courts?

I will try to tackle some of these questions in an upcoming column. Any feedback, particularly from people who know the laws, would be appreciated.

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If you would like to visit the area, it can be accessed from Charles Malik street, near the BLC bank (Tabaris area). Take the diagonal road (Chehade) that goes up the hill. It is just passed the restaurant Beirut Cellar, the green patch on the bottom right corner.

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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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