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Beirut

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

Even if independent candidates don’t win big on election day, they are already having an impact on Lebanese political culture. They have introduced new styles of campaigning that come as a sharp contrast to how politics is commonly practiced in Lebanon.

While establishment politicians deploy their usual tactics: blanketing the streets with their faces:

Photo: Ali Harb/ Middle East Eye 

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on canvases that say nothing and will be thrown in the garbage:

But also colonizing public spaces and causing traffic jams:

وصول الرئيس سعد الحريري الى قهوة دوغان – طريق الجديدة

Posted by Saad Hariri on Friday, May 4, 2018

 

Throwing lavish events for their supporters:

Posted by LF photos on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Giving out free flags and hats:

Posted by OTV on Saturday, April 28, 2018

 

Free food:

Balloons:

And even a Hezbollah orchestra, literally singing for your support:

Independents, meanwhile are taking the race to some unusual places. But places that are not unfamiliar to most Lebanese, who are not living in a party atmosphere.

The Madaniyya party, for example, held a press conference at a giant trash dump to call attention to the incumbent parties’ failure to deal with Lebanon’s waste crisis that is endangering public health.

Rather than adding more pollution to the mix, the Kollouna Watanti party created virtual posters on Facebook, photoshopping over the politicians faces with a deeper message: “When you see their advertisements, remember their accomplishments.”

فقط للتذكير أنّ اعلاناتهم ووعودهم الانتخابية التي تملأ طرقاتنا.. كان الاجدى ان تستخدم بتكاليفها الباهظة ليخبرونا عن انجازاتهم لا تكرار وعودهم التي لم تتحقق طوال تسعة سنوات..

Posted by ‎كلنا وطني‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

Meanwhile the Kelna Beirut list decided to cover some of the faces with reflective sheets, bringing the campaign focus back to the voters and away from the leaders’ self promotion.

إنتو بيروت، كلنا بيروت

إنتو بيروت.#كلنا_بيروت

Posted by ‎Kelna Beirut – كلنا بيروت‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

The Beirut list, LiBalladi, also introduced something that shouldn’t be new: debates between candidates

Curiously, establishment candidates cancelled their appearance at the last minute for unclear reasons.

Independents are also using their new platforms to raise important questions not often tackled by the media.

Here, candidate Ali Darwish unpacks the danger to Lebanon’s water resources that may result from the recent loans taken out by the Lebanese government as part of the “Cedre” package:

موقف علي درويش من مؤتمر سيدر للاستدانة!#كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎Ali Darwish علي درويش‎ on Monday, April 30, 2018

 

Another party asks how well do you know your MPs? Do they ever come around when elections are over?

مين بتعرف من نواب بيروت الحاليين ؟#عصام_برغوت #بصوتك_يستمر_العطاء #لبنان_حرزان#تعليم #فرص_عمل #صحة #بيئة #انتخابات_٢٠١٨

Posted by ‎Issam Barghout – عصام برغوت‎ on Saturday, April 21, 2018

 

Finally, a LiBaladi commercial reminds voters that politicians have failed to address rampant pollution along the country’s beaches, the lack of safe public spaces for children to play and dangerous, overburdened roads with no public transportation:

شو عاملين ب6 أيار؟

Let's all get up and vote for hope on May 6!ما تطولوا النومة كتير، أجلوا مشوار البحر والجبل، وتعوا نصوت للتغيير ب6 أيار#شو_عاملين_ب6_أيار؟ #صوتي_لبلدي #كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎LiBaladi – لبلدي‎ on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Now what is interesting is also how mainstream parties have reacted to independent campaigns. While some like Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea dismissed independents, others have somehow taken up some activist causes of recent years.

Here, Nicholas Sehnaoui, a former minister and senior leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, includes the Fouad Boutros Park in his list of projects, a plan proposed by heritage activists five years ago.

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!تعرّفوا على برنامجي الانتخابي عبر: http://program.nicolas-sehnaoui.org

Posted by Nicolas Sehnaoui on Monday, April 23, 2018

 

Other candidates, such as Nadim Gemayel, have also begun speaking about the need for a right to the city, public spaces and sustainability, brought up extensively by new parties from previous elections such as Beirut Madinati.

Gemayel spoke recently to Facebook page El 3ama, which illustrates an important campaigning media change: politicians are now talking to alternative websites, when in the past, political communication strictly took place on party-run or affiliated channels. Interviews like this one let us see the candidates in a less controlled environment, catching them off guard at times and thus revealing more than they may have wanted to say:

Live NG El-3ama

Posted by Nadim Gemayel on Tuesday, April 10, 2018

 

Mainstream media outlets like LBC also seem keen on capturing a broader youth audience, with shows like Lawen Waslin, which is a bit like Carpool Karaoke with politicians. In this interview, former minister and political veteran Wiam Wahab takes activist positions on the destruction of Lebanon’s coast by private resorts. But then also in an awkward moment reveals that “women should not act like men.”

Major Lebanese TV channels are also reportedly charging guests up to $250,000 per appearance, keeping primetime a commodity mainly limited to the country’s business and political elites.

We saw a similar trend of activists differentiating themselves from mainstream political practices during Beirut’s municipal elections in 2016, where ruling party candidates also mimicked activist rhetorics. (You can read more about that in this previous post.)

Could this influence continue to strengthen in future elections?

During an episode of Al Jazeera’s The Stream, this week, I spoke with independent candidates and was struck by all the organizing work that has gone into their campaigns, with some creating nationwide alliances for the first time. Activist causes helped bring these individuals together to build wider networks and stronger platforms, competing in municipal elections, union elections and now parliamentary elections.

You can watch the full episode here:

Independent candidates are realizing that politics is a long term game, that takes years of organizing, alliance-building and election strategizing. But they are advancing quickly and their influence is already being felt. The mere fact that politics is taking place outside the established party system, that people now have alternative ways of expressing themselves and being heard is a feat on its own.

The number of candidates running this year (1,000) is an exponential increase on previous years, particularly when it comes to over 100 women candidates, including an unprecedented all-female election slate:

Posted by 10452 on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

 

Suddenly establishment parties are also featuring a number of women on their lists. Was this also a reaction to gender rights activism over recent years?

In their campaign posters, establishment parties project an air of confidence. This billboard simply says: “Beirut, don’t worry.”

But maybe Beirut should worry. The country is facing an environmental disaster, a public services disaster, a refugee crisis on a globally unprecedented scale, just to name a few.  Even if activists do not win, they are forming stronger coalitions of dissent to challenge those in power.

The political parties are still very entrenched and well resourced- after all, they have been building themselves up for decades. But their media and messaging is increasingly undermined and outdated. With so many new online media outlets, they can no longer monopolize public debates and hide uncomfortable issues from public view. With so many people interested in politics for the first time (partly due to the party’s failures) competition and oversight is growing and politicians cannot rely on old tactics as much as they once did.

In this changing political environment, it is the old guard that should be worried or at least less comfortable, and that could be a good thing for everyone.

If you still haven’t made up your mind, there are many resources out there such as Mist3ideen and Megaphone that have put together some extensive research on the candidates and the voting process.

There is a fantasy among many in Lebanon- liberals in particular– that a silent majority of Lebanese do not support the country’s political establishment. That most Lebanese would prefer a life free from the political parties of today, which had largely been former militias established by warlords during the civil war. And if this is true, it is the millions of Lebanese living abroad that would be this best indicator of such a deep regime change desire, felt particularly by those who have fled their homeland due to the destruction warlords have caused.

So when voting was allowed for the first time this year from the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora, many hoped the balance of power could shift, that voices of those opposed to the political establishment would be heard more loudly.

But so far, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.

The voting is continuing as I type this, yet Lebanese TV stations are on the ground all over the world today, giving us a good idea of what the polling stations and early voters look like. And there are plenty of party colors to see.

In Sweden:

In Australia:


In Brazil, it was basically an FPM street party:

Future Movement had its corner too:

The PSP and Lebanese Forces were not left out though:

Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, West Africa, nearly everyone seemed to be wearing an Amal cap or T-shrit:

This case was similar in Berlin:

Posters of the party leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were even seen plastered around the voting area:

But the Future Movement ascots crew were not missing:

Meanwhile the PSP was strong in Montreal:

And in Washington, the Orange love was tangible:

Many reporters found this all too amusing, remarking on how well the rivals got along abroad. An Al Jadeed reporter in Africa was having a great time with partisans remarking: “all the parties are one heart today.”

But then one added: “We are only here for Nabih Berri.”

The Lebanese ambassador to Brazil was very proud that all the parties were represented and how “democratic” the affair had been. Suddenly places like Brazil and West Africa became “a model for coexistence” that the homeland should emulate.

Only one reporter noted that there were no representatives from alternative parties. None mentioned the fact that these parties all illegally reappointed themselves, cancelling elections for almost a decade. Or how they have failed to deliver any semblance of basic public services during that time, manage the garbage crisis or have direct roots in the destruction of the entire country and gutting of its institutions we are facing today.

In fact reporters could have suggested that Lebanese parties have gotten along very well in the postwar period and warlords are now friends and even have dinner together. So clearly hugs and smiles are in no short supply.

Instead of asking tougher questions about the parties, reporters focused more on the excitement of the day. And indeed many first time voters offered moving stories, especially elder voters living abroad much of their lives. Watching the polling station workers, carefully reviewing IDs and passports, the multi-screen displays at the ministry of interior, checking live feeds from every polling station worldwide, and the excitement and relative calm of the operation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment.  It was indeed a historic day and the largely bankrupt Lebanese state somehow managed to pull it off.

But what does it all mean? That Lebanon is hopelessly locked into its current party system and nothing of significance is going on with independents?

No.

Independents are making a big showing this year, bigger than ever before. And party popularity, despite the loud partisans we may see in the streets, is at a low point and party leaderships are having to work harder for votes than ever before.

But we must have realistic expectations. Independents are not going to sweep to victory any time soon. Not because this is Lebanon and nothing changes, but because that is true in almost any established political environment, including Western democracies. It is very difficult for independents to break into an entrenched party system.

First and foremost it is hard to compete with that kind of money. Independents are generally small and young groupings that lack the huge campaign chests of major parties and even more importantly, the media and institutional power that they have been accumulating for decades, essential to sustaining their current positions of power.

But change is still happening, and we should look more carefully at how new political activists and collectives are having an impact on political culture and political practices, and not focus solely on poll numbers or election results. As I have argued in a major research paper I wrote at Oxford last year, political change is felt most strongly outside of elections and also in the ways that establishment political and media institutions react to the discourse and activities being put forward by activists.

In the paper, I try to give many real world examples of the tangible activist-driven changes felt in recent years, from changes and reversals in policies, laws and major projects. The title is Structures of Change in Post-war Lebanon: Amplified Activism, Digital Documentation and Post-Sectarian Narratives.

Yes we can be optimistic for change. But we also have to be realistic about the deep power of political parties and how that power is maintained, no matter what their ideology may be. Independents are having an impact, but if they want to win, they need to understand more about what these parties have offered and continue to offer, beyond simply dismissing them as backwards or irrelevant.

 

3

When I exited the plane in Beirut last night, I noticed an Ethiopia Airlines plane parked next to ours and thought little of it. But as we walked through the skywalk and then into a long corridor, this sight confronted all arriving passengers:

Hundreds of young Ethiopian women waiting to be picked up by their “sponsors.”

This is the face of the kafala or sponsorship system.

In Lebanon and in several countries across the Middle East, the kafala system means women seeking jobs as domestic workers are treated not as individuals but as merchandise.

The young women’s lives are literally signed over to a person who has paid for their trip and contract fees and then takes legal guardianship over them. Basically governments in the region have relegated state control over migrant workers to their employers, who will be fully responsible for all their activities while in the country. So instead of treating the workers as any other tourists, students (or white folks in general) who visit or work in an Arab country–and are held personally responsible for their own actions– these women migrants are “adopted” by families or businesses who assume legal guardianship.

As one can imagine, this system leads to grave abuse and some have likened it to a form of modern day slavery. There are regular stories about sexually or physically abused girls and suicides are common. With no interference from the government, some families choose to lock domestic workers up at home in order avoid being held responsible for their activities outside the home. And yes in many cases, the women choose to flee to work illegally or independently, which is naturally a better deal for them and provides more money to send home to their families.

On the other hand, the workers desperately need jobs and many live in decent homes and become part of their adopted families. Many even come back to Lebanon after their contract ends and often sign new contracts to work for other employers or stay with the same family for years at a time.

But human rights cannot rely on the goodness of random individuals. The workers should be treated as human beings under the law, as normal adults and not adopted children. They should have the right to break contracts, change employers, be provided a safe working environment and have the option to leave at time. While some governments offer these rights on paper, little is done to enforce them and many women may find themselves trapped in the system.

Bahrain has recently taken steps to reform its kafala system, providing workers more freedoms, but gaps still exist in ensuring workers’ rights. It is high time that Lebanon also follow this trend of reform and give the worker’s basic human rights and also ensure they are being met by adequate policing and inspections. Having these workers line up on the floor is reminiscent of images of worker’s piled into slave ships. They are not chained up and have willing come in search of paid work. But they are still being treated as merchandise, tossed anywhere, not even offered a chair to sit in.

Lebanese should know better. They have faced a history of discrimination in foreign countries, along with other Arabs and Muslims. Just on our flight over from Frankfurt, we Lebanese were forced to stand or sit on the floor until our gate opened. This was unlike every other flight I witnessed, where passengers could sit comfortably until the gate was opened. But the Lebanese passengers had to be screened additionally and sealed off from the rest of the passengers in the terminal, as if they were somehow diseased and needed to be quarantined.

Having experienced abuse as foreign travelers and workers ourselves, we should be setting an example for how migrants should be treated, not repeating the same abuses and even much worse ones.

You can read more about the archaic kafala system here at migrant-rights.org and the efforts underway in some places to reform it.

 

Archaeological excavations have been mushrooming across downtown Beirut over recent months, providing a glimpse at how the city looked and functioned in ancient times.

Site 1:

The most visible and perhaps most interesting of these is a bustling site located near the Saifi neighborhood:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

The site is quite dense and appears to resemble a once vibrant neighborhood, market or industrial city:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

Some 900 artifacts have already been recovered from the site, according to an article that appeared in L’Orient Le Jour, which also featured this facisnating drone photo as well as some images of the discoveries:

Among the finds is a first century wall, structures related to roman pottery workshops, well preserved ovens for tile-making, storage silos and vases for transporting oil and wine, a large pond (a possible rare public laundry pool) and a temple for the worship of Minerva, patroness of artisans, according to the article.

The L’Orient article noted that excavations could go on “until 2018” – does this mean a decision has been taken to dismantle and destroy the site as it appears here?

After all the piece of land is owned by SGBL Bank, which plans to build a new headquarters tower here, designed by Italian starchitech, Renzo Piano.

Site 2:

Just a few blocks away, Piano, who seems to be doing well in Beirut (with hundreds of millions of dollars of projects across the city), has also designed a long awaited Beirut archaeology museum, delayed for over two decades since its announcement in the 1990s. It is to be built near the An Nahar building, yet ironically, archaeology was discovered while constructing this archaeological museum.

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane
Notice in the background of this shot we can see the previous dig in Saifi, just behind the parking lot. Photo: Typhanie Cochrane 

Site 3:

Finally, a new excavation has just got started also in the Saifi area, not far from previous excavations at the Paul restaurant in Gemmayze.

The site is also across the street and a block up the road from the Saifi Plaza construction site, where a number of ruins also discovered, but have since been cleared away.

In fact, it is the proximity to other excavations which helps us better understand these sites, fill in blanks and provide a global view of ancient Beirut and its many layers of history.

However, increasingly many of these sites are being wiped out, replaced by lucrative real estate projects, tied to political and business elites. Sites that have already been wiped out include the famous chariot race track of ancient Roman Beirut, a site believed to have been a Phoenician era dry dock (potentially one of the world’s oldest shipyards) the remains of Beirut’s Roman theatre, as well as Hellenistic neighborhoods and other sites, including one in which I was assaulted by multi-million dollar developers for merely trying to take a photo of ruins on site.

I’ve created a quick map showing the three new excavations detailed in this post and how the relate to other nearby excavations that I have covered previously, both those that still exist as well as those that have been cleared and built over.

The sites in red are the three new and ongoing excavations detailed in this post.

-The sites in yellow are recent excavations whose fate remains unclear.

-The sites in blue are previous excavations that are currently on display, but with limited access or explanations.

-The sites in white have already been cleared and no longer exist. 

In fact even the few sites that have been preserved contain no signs or information detailing the discoveries to give the public a chance to appreciate them.

And note this map is only a glimpse of a wider reality in the city limited to sites I have personally witnessed or reported on in the last six to seven years. There are tons of sites just east of this map in the Ashrafieh neighborhood, as well as on the western side of downtown, such as the aforementioned demolished Beirut Roman Chariot Race track and Phoenician port site. Meanwhile the fate of many recently excavated sites such as the Roman Gate ruins at Riad Al Solh and the (royal?) Roman cemetery on the Beirut Digital District  property remain uncertain. Across the city and the country, dozens if not scores of archaeology sites have disappeared over recent decades, in favor of new high rise towers.

Stay tuned for more of our continuing coverage on archaeology in the city, what stays, what goes and who decides the fate of our historic spaces. Hint: It has a lot to do with money, power and real estate.

2

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I’m not a fan of quoting cliches, but in these Machiavellian times, few phrases seem to articulate the situation better. Take the case of the recent media campaign praising Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s recently resigned prime minister.

Now it’s very normal to see posters praising politicians hastily strung up on light posts across Beirut. As you would expect, these are usually produced by a PR company or low budget design shop associated with the politician in question and hung up haphazardly by his supporters, illegally, often under the cover of night.

But what if the group putting up the billboards is not loyal to the politician in question, but actually allied with his enemies?

I began to wonder about this when I saw a Facebook post revealing Hariri billboards in or around neighborhoods loyal to his rivals, Hezbollah and Amal.

Mar Elias, photo: Dina J. Salem

The next day on my way to work, I noticed more of the same posters with the same font and message “#We are with you” plastered across many parts of Beirut.

From downtown:

To the corniche:

Bliss street:

And Hamra:

On nearly every light post, as far as the eye could see:

Yet the last few locations are not known to be strongholds of Hariri, but of other parties such as Amal and the SSNP. This was made abundantly clear during the clashes of 2008, when militants from these parties took over the streets fairly easily and strung their flags across these locations.

In the decade since, SSNP flags have appeared regularly across Hamra street and the party’s annual march turned into a military-style parade a few weeks ago that saw hundreds of party faithful take over the entire of Hamra street:

SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017
SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017

I thought about all this when I looked up at one of the posters, which had been put up so shoddily, it appeared to give Hariri a grimacing look:

 

I asked some tough-looking middle aged men sitting in plastic chairs below the posters if they knew who had put them up. At first one of them, a burly man in his late 40s, answered by saying “the Lebanese people put these posters up” and “it’s natural for a people to support their prime minister.”  Sure, I replied,  there is public support and then there are printing companies that print hundreds of these and distribute them in trucks. He smiled and vaguely suggested it was “political parties… all the parties,” that worked together to install the posters in their respective neighborhoods.

But I pressed him further: “But only certain parties can do that in Hamra.” Finally he conceded. “Yes we are the ones who put those up. The Hezb, the Harake and the Oumi Souryi.” This is shorthand for Hezbollah, Amal and the SSNP.

That’s a pretty savvy, next-level media strategy isn’t it, I replied. “Well the Saudis are donkeys,” he said nonchalantly.

“And what about this one,” I continued, pointing to the grimacing Hariri. What happened there? The man motioned to one of his cohort sitting in a chair behind us. “That’s Ali’s fault, I told him to fix it, he didn’t know what he was doing.” Then Ali shrugged and shot back: “You didn’t give me enough wood to put it up properly.”

I left the bickering men and tried to corroborate the story elsewhere on the block. But most people said they had not seen who had put the posters up because they found them in the morning when they opened their shops. So apparently the operation had happened overnight. But another group of men admitted laughingly that it was indeed the “Hezb, Harake and Oumi.” And they thought it was pretty hilarious too.

If this is true, could the Saudis have ever imagined this outcome? Were they assuming that Hariri’s resignation would have been taken at face value and that his opponents would have simply said good riddance, creating greater division in the country? Could the Saudis have imagined that Hariri’s opponents would be demanding his return even more vociferously than his allies?

Of course this goes beyond billboards: the President of Lebanon and the leader of Hezbollah-traditional opponents of Hariri–have been demanding his return on a near daily basis.  Even the leader of the Catholic church in Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Rai has demanded his return, making an unprecedented visit to the Wahhabist state.

This spawned some interesting memes. Here the two are speaking in code:

The highlighted letters in the Hariri caption say: “I’m being detained” to which Rai replies: “We all know.”

Perhaps the Saudis had imagined the Lebanese would react in a simplistic “sectarian fashion” where politicians or crown princes prioritize their own sect above all others. I wonder where they got that idea?

Suffice to say, Hariri’s opponents and even internet trolls have successfully thrown the ball back into Saudi Arabia’s court and the Saudi leadership probably didn’t see this coming. But since the Saudi royal court (or whatever is left of it) has effectively declared that Lebanon is at war with them, we can only hope the disintegration of their media strategy will give them pause before pursuing further actions on the ground.

Wouldn’t it be great if all wars were limited to creative media messaging, and the winner could be decided with likes and retweets instead of missiles and bullets?

Via: Abbas Hamideh

2

An unusually loud rumbling was heard over Lebanon early this morning. Having grown up with Israeli jets buzzing over my home–and sometimes witnessing them release red dots (missiles) that destroy power plants, bridges and nearby villages–I still get a little jittery when I hear them. However it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between a low-flying commercial plane and a fighter jet at high altitude. Nowadays you can verify your fears by going to websites like flightradar24 to double check who is in the skies above–military planes are never listed.

I did that this morning and almost fell out of my chair when I noticed it was indeed a flight from Israel, but this time a commercial flight. More specifically it was a United Airlines Dreamliner (perhaps explaining the noise) bound for San Francisco.

 

Here’s a closer view showing it over the capital.

I went to another tracking website, Flightware, to reconfirm I wasn’t seeing double:

So how and why did this happen,  considering that US authorities have long banned US planes from landing in Lebanon and Lebanese flights from landing in the US, which would seemingly cover air space rights as well.

According to the Facebook page “Lebanese Plane Spotters” the United flight was diverted due to bad weather and the air traffic control tower allowed this for humanitarian reasons. But there has been no official explanation I could find.

All this makes me think about the recent Twitter war and the hashtag #TelAvivLovesBeirut with a subtext of shaming Lebanese for not “loving” Israel back after a single Lebanese twitter account asked not to be tagged in a post by an Israeli.  The campaign took off after a shoddily reported and one-sided Haaretz article described Lebanese as “childish” and was later reinforced by the mock account of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad (which never misses an opportunity to dehumanize the other side).

Of course the real Mossad and the Israeli military is well known for its love of Beirut. This was not lost on Lebanese tweeps who have endured Israel’s wars on Lebanon. Among the responses:

Clearly love is a two-way street. Now would the Israelis or the Americans allow a Lebanese flight to travel over their airspace?

On the question of love and humanity, actions should speak louder than hashtags.

 

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Correction: This post initially misidentified The Mossad mock account as an actual account. But unlike other parody accounts, this one actually seems to support the agency it impersonates. 

 

Before and after pictures were at the heart of the project to rebuild downtown Beirut following the Lebanese war. These images filled the pages of promotional material, coffee table books and photography exhibits hosted and commissioned by Solidere, the private real estate firm that undertook the project. Some of these images can still be found displayed at the airport today, 25 years after reconstruction began:

Credit: Ayman Trawi
Credit: Ayman Trawi

Even holograms have been made to showcase the transformations.

But then there are the before-and-after pictures you don’t see-those that cover the vast majority of  neighborhoods in the old city reconstruction zone, which were not restored but demolished.

Take this image that was recently uploaded to Facebook by Gabriel Daher. (If you like old Beirut buildings, you should definitely be following him.)

Photo: Gaby Daher

You might recognize the large Capitole building on the right, a former cinema that still stands today and is more recently known for hosting nightclubs like the now defunct Buddah Bar and its current rooftop lounge. The Riad Solh statue would later occupy the empty space in the corner, which seems to be still under construction here.

While Capitole–and the corner building just left of it (formally used by Pan American Airways) are often seen in old photos of the city,  what is less often seen is the neighborhood in the foreground.

Here is another shot of the neighborhood as posted on the same Facebook thread by another great archivist, Kheireddine Al-Ahdab. This time the perspective is from above the Capitole building (left) revealing a large swathe of buildings across the street, bordering the Lazarieh tower on the far left.

Al-Ahdab identified this neighborhood to be known as Ghalghoul. So what happened to it?

I was able to track down this photo of Ghalghoul from 1991. Many of the buildings appear to have survived the war:

Photo: Rene Burri

But during reconstruction, the entire area was eventually leveled.

In this picture from 2013, we can see Ghalghoul has been reduced to a series of parking lots. All that remains is the double arched building in the photo above. Its blue canvas roof now replaced with red tiles.

IMG_3764

The big hole in the foreground was supposed to be a mall but that project was stopped when ruins were found on the site and a public pressure campaign began not long after photos of the excavations were leaked to the public. You can read more about those discoveries here.

In this shot we can see that the Capitole building on the far right has been restored, but now faces a large void where Ghalghoul once stood.

Dozens if not scores of buildings were razed, leaving barely any trace of the neighborhood.

Here is an aerial view showing the extent of the destruction in between El Amir Bachir street and the Fouad Chehab highway ( Route 51) and in between Syria street and Cheikh Toufik Khaled-nearly all flattened as parking lots.

In fact the only time Ghalghoul saw life again in the postwar period was during the protests of 2006-2009, when a tent city was established in its parking lots by opposition parties calling for the resignation of the government.

Photo: Richard van der Graaf

I tried to find more about Ghalghoul but the only results seem to be images of its destruction shot in the early 1990s, such as this 1995 series by Fouad Elkhoury. Many of the buildings were still standing:

Fouad Elkhoury

Until the bulldozing began:

Fouad Elkhoury
Fouad Elkhoury

It’s often said that more of Beirut was destroyed by the bulldozers of reconstruction than through the shelling of the war. In fact, some 80 percent of the old city was reportedly demolished under the Solidere plan. So while there are plenty of pictures of the 260 odd buildings that were restored, you won’t find any trace of the hundreds of buildings that were leveled, entire neighborhoods and streets erased, not only in Ghalghoul but everywhere large parking lots are found today such Martyr’s Square, Saifi, Zeitouni and others. Wadi Abu Jmel, Beirut’s old Jewish quarter is among these. I was lucky enough to document some of the last buildings and meet the Wadi’s last resident before she died in this piece a few years ago for Al Jazeera.

How many other untold stories are out there from people and neighborhoods that were left out of Solidere’s vision?

If anyone has any memories of Ghalghoul or other razed neighborhoods, please feel free to share in the comments below and I would be happy to update the post.

 

 

 

What had been one of the most beautiful and historic buildings on Jeanne d’Arc street will soon be gone. Here’s a picture of it from January:

Jan 2017 (Before)

And yesterday:

Sept. 2017( After)

The demolition was well under way last week and it probably won’t survive much longer.

The Jeanne d’Arc building is/was just a couple of blocks up from the American University Of Beirut, a few streets from busy Hamra street.

Jan 2017

You could still see one of the arched window on the lower floor yesterday. Some say it will become a parking lot:

Sept. 2017

Elder neighborhood residents told me the building was easily over 100 years old. This would have made it one of the oldest in Hamra, where most development accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s. Before that Hamra was largely an agricultural area, a far cry from the urban density today where barely a tree can be found. Can you imagine how it might have looked, surrounded by orchards and greenery?

Jan. 2017
Sept. 2017

The door is still in tact too, but probably not for long:

Behind the building along Sidani street, there were three other old buildings, seen here in a photo I took for a post three years ago:

Dec. 2013

Almost all of these have also been demolished:

Sept. 2017

The block had already been in a poor state when I saw it, perhaps abandoned for decades:

Dec. 2013

But still quaint and worth restoring, one would think:

Dec. 2013

Now there is little left but the tree:

Sept. 2017

And the tree growing out of one building– compare to top photo. The tin door overhang is still there:

Also notice the turret-like stones on the building behind it. I’ve seen this on some old Ras Beirut buildings and not sure if it was decorative or part of the structure.

All the buildings are made of sandstone, which is supposedly protected by heritage laws:

Some said one of the buildings had been used as a school in more recent years, which seemed evident from some of the debris:

And the wall paintings:

I also noticed a number of roof tiles salvaged from the rubble:

They had a cool bee imprint:

Upon closer look, you can make out the name of the manufacturer: “Guichard Carvin & Cie” made in “Marseille St. Andre”

A quick internet search revealed these to be produced as early as the late 1800s.

Source: Mario

Can you imagine these tiles survived over 100 winters? I wonder how long today’s roof tiles last?

Another thing they don’t make like they used to is landscaping. Even though this decrepit block is falling apart, it is still the greenest place on the street, which is now full of concrete high rises:

Most people probably know the block by the old photo shop. A lot of things in the area seem to use ‘palladium’ including an old cinema not far away.

Questions remain. Why was one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood not protected? What type of heritage laws allow the most historic building on one of the city’s most historic streets to be razed without a trace? Where was the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Beirut?

This could have been a rare opportunity not only to preserve a single building out of context, but an entire block, frozen in the early part of the century.  Whether as a community garden, small museum or even refurbished shops or apartments, it could have been a chance to protect a sliver of old Hamra at a time when much of the neighborhood’s architectural identity is gradually being erased, replaced by methodic glass and concrete structures that can be found anywhere and devoid of detailed craftsmanship.

While it stood, this block was a faint reminder of where we came from: the urban heritage and the social fabric that laid the foundation for what would become one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods.

But that window on the past is rapidly fading. And it’s being filled with rubble and concrete.

Always take pictures of old Beirut buildings. You never know when you will become an accidental archivist.

 

When we hear about real estate developers working in poor neighborhoods, it often means they are tearing them down to build towers and looking to kick old residents out. But in the south Beirut slum of Ouzai, a former developer claims he is actually doing the opposite: making life more livable for existing residents to stay.

The project known as Ouzville began a year and half ago, according to its founder, real estate mogul Ayad Nasser.

Nasser says he spent over $100,000 to bring in 25 graffiti artists, local and foreign, to beautify the neighborhood. Why? Because he grew up here.

“I wanted to give back,” he says. “Lebanon gave me a lot.”

Growing up in poverty and largely without parents helped give him the drive to succeed in business, Nasser explains, adding he has since worked on 12 real estate projects in Lebanon and six in France.

Of course most Ouzai residents have not been so lucky.

Tens of thousands of people live in the crowded slum, which grew rapidly as a squatting community in the 1980s when Israel was bombing south Lebanon. With no help from the state, internally displaced Lebanese from southern villages took up shelter at beach resorts along what had been Lebanon’s Cote d’Azur in the 1950s. Fast forward a few decades later and the place has become a shantytown not unlike Palestinian refugee camps.

Some of the new artwork makes use of the haphazard infrastructure. Once again, the state has largely ignored this impoverished community, alleging that most of the neighborhood is “illegal” and thus had provided few services. Yet today all the chaotic elements can be integrated into an artist’s canvas.

Some locals have even been inspired by the artists and contributed pieces of their own.

I met this young man who said he was so inspired he decided to paint his front door.

A few shops in the neighborhood have also decided to “rebrand” in line with the Ouzville project, such as this “Shisha Bar”

Other residents say the project also inspired them to take garbage collection more seriously. “I used to throw my garbage right into the sea because everyone did that,” said Mohammed Balita, 40,  who was born in Ouzai. “But when I saw everyone else cleaning up, now I take my garbage to the bin.”

Public services and environmental accountability are scarce even in the wealthiest parts of Beirut so the state is even more absent in an informal settlement like Ouzai.

I met Maher al Halabi, one of the neighborhood’s earliest residents, who was born around the 1950s.

He showed me a picture of himself standing in roughly the same spot when he was a child:

The wall he was standing on has been replaced by buildings. But what is also missing is the sand.

Al Halabi said the waterline used to be out where the rocks are today.

Balita, the other resident, added that during low tide a few weeks of the year, the water would recede enough to reveal seaweed marshes ideal for catching shrimp. “It was a beautiful beach,” he added. “My cousins from Australia would visit us and they said it was better here!”

But the tides and the sand vanished about 15 years ago, Balita and others said. And these days Ouzai is known as one of the most polluted places on the Lebanese coast. Much of this may be due to the fact that sewers from the area pour directly into the sea, much like other parts of Beirut. But what happened to the sand and the marshes?

The major event that changed things about 15 years ago seems to be the construction of the new airport in the late 1990s. Balita says everyday large barges were brought in to dredge the area over several months, sucking up all the Ouzai sand to be used in the construction of a the new runway, seen in the background below:

I have reported extensively on the destruction of Beirut’s original coastline, largely by real estate companies, but this was the first time I had heard about the damage done by the airport. If Balita and the others are right, the elimination of tides must create a larger environmental impact that may have occurred on several places along the coast since the end of the war.

But for Ouzville founder Nasser, the small steps are what matter at this point. He is happy the road was paved by local politicians following the start of the graffiti project. Some worried that they were trying to take credit for the project, but Ayad says he is not bothered. “Let them take credit, that’s great!”

Fresh pavement in Ouzville. Political conspiracy or just idle speculation?

Interestingly, a short article in The Economist claims local politicians are “threatened” by Nasser’s project and “suspect” he will run for office. But though the article speaks with certainty, it quotes no sources. Also it’s a little hard to imagine the major political parties present in the area, namely Hezbollah and Amal, with their vast military and economic networks, would be threatened by street murals.

Nasser says he is just trying to clean up his old neighborhood and even inspire some citizenship. Perhaps it is also a reaction to the urban sprawl industry he was so intimately involved in.  “We need to stop building, we should have stopped in 2010- and start beautifying the mess and that is what we are doing.”

Ayad Nasser standing below the home he grew up in in Ouzai.

“I consider Lebanon is more important than my two kids,” he adds. “If every Lebanese considers Lebanon as one of his children, we can save Lebanon and then we will become Lebanese citizens.”

Of course Ouzville is taking place on just one of probably dozens of streets like it in Ouzai, though Nasser says there are plans for expansion. At the very least, the project has also provided a more colorful environment for local children to play in.

Maybe some of them will get inspired to be artists themselves someday.

In fact many of the local children helped during the painting:

Some artists chose to draw greenery to help make up for the lack of trees.

That’s enough from me. I’ll let you enjoy some of the other art works. You can also check out more on the Ouzville Facebook page. Stepfeed also collected some great photos.

And definitely go out and visit. There is a lot more to see than documented here- 120 buildings says Nasser. If anything, this project could encourage more people to visit the area and help break the stereotype of it being a dangerous “illegal” neighborhood.

Also there is apparently a good fish restaurant not far from the murals known as Riba Cafe. Nasser says the fish come from down south and people come from all over Lebanon to eat there. If you get lost, use the restaurant as a landmark.

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