Tags Posts tagged with "Beirut"

Beirut

If you live in Lebanon, you would probably fall out of your chair if I told you government ministers were being awarded for public services. With no constant supply of water or electricity, no sewage treatment, poor roads and zero police presence to maintain public safety on highways, most Lebanese know very well that the state is not an award-winning–or even a decent– provider of anything. As a result, people have to fend for themselves, installing their own water tanks and generators.

The problem is that diesel-fueled generators, used to provide power (and pump water) are terribly expensive and polluting. The air quality in Beirut is dangerously toxic according to researchers at AUB and generators are one of the biggest culprits. This summer is one of the worst yet with the state frequently providing less than six hours per day in many areas.

In addition to pollution, dark streets pose a danger on their own. Here’s Beirut’s most famous road, the seaside Corniche, last week:

It’s a place where thousands walk and jog at night, now increasingly by flashlight:

But it can also be dangerous during the day, in the city’s network of dark tunnels:

So how is it that amid this haze of polluted air, dark and dangerous streets, and citizens spending all of their money on fuel, that Lebanon’s energy and water minister wins an award for “Energy Ambassador of the Year”?

I’ve checked the website of “Beirut International Energy Forum” which issued the medal to Minister Cesar Abi Khalil, but there were no details about the selection process, the jury or the basic criteria that makes candidates eligible. We are only provided with two sentences (that sound almost the same) about this award:

Over the past years, IBEF has given awards to the top leading personalities in the Energy sector for their achievements. Since 2013, the International Beirut Energy Forum acknowledges energy professionals and professional institutions for their achievements in the sustainability sector.

So what achievements are we talking about here? What achievements have been made when Lebanon has not had stable electricity production or transmission since the network was built during the first half of the century? What sustainability are we talking about when Lebanon’s energy is produced by burning fossil fuels at decrepit plants spewing black smoke out of their exhaust towers? What’s more, nearly half of the supply is not even produced by the state itself, but by rented power ships from Turkey parked off of our coastline? Is that sustainable?

Zouk power plant. Credit: L’Orient Le Jour

And as citizens pay more money for electricity every year, politicians are only getting richer, and there are rumors that many do not even pay for electricity in the first place. People will often boast that the power rarely cuts in their neighborhood due to the presence of a politician or state institution nearby.

Meanwhile, in much of the county, blackouts can last for over 12 hours, and power can even be out for several days, due to lack of maintenance, downed lines and very slow repairs.

But there is no need to single out minister Abi Khalil. Many officials and business owners profit from the electricity sector and its lucrative black market. Abi Khalil is the latest in a long line of ministers to make big promises about the future. In fact every Energy minister since the first postwar government in 1992 has promised 24 hour electricity and failed to do so:

Over that period, billions of dollars have been poured into the country’s power grid but corruption seems to be the only winner. The same can be said of other public service sectors, such as waste management, water distribution and telecommunications, where services are poor and yet citizens are paying some of the highest rates in the world for them.

Indeed to survive in Lebanon, is a feat on its own. Perhaps it is Lebanese citizens that should be getting awards instead of the privileged politicians and the daily incompetence we must endure.

 

 

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At a time when so many historic sites are being demolished in Lebanon, it’s refreshing to see that some in the country are also interested in preserving the past, and seeing a value in that.

Just last week I reported on the removal of an ancient Roman city wall in favor of a real estate project in Bachoura, Beirut– one among countless historic sites have been erased in the country in favor of Dubai-like prefabricated towers. But it is important to note that there are also rare victories for preservation and perceptions are changing about the value of historical spaces.

Take the current exhibition being held in the Grand Sofar Hotel, built in the late 1800s in the mountains above Beirut and once one of the most celebrated hotels in the Middle East. It was abandoned in the 1970s during the Lebanese war and probably occupied by various armed groups including the Syrian military.

But thanks to the art work of Tom Young, the hotel has welcomed guests for the first time in decades, as part of his latest residency.

As he has done before with projects like the Rose House (covered in this previous post) and Beit Boustani, Young spends several months or even years at a decaying and often threatened building, excavating its history and drawing paintings that are both conceptual and realistic, to convey an interpretation of a place’s past.

Tom often uses souvenirs or relics found in the buildings to help tell the story and frame the art. The Grand Sofar was also famous for its casino, where prime ministers, Kings, and spies probably tried their luck.

An old roulette table where the good times must have once rolled:

Often the pieces are paired with art and historical textual references. “I do not deny that I was fascinated by my first sight of this strange invention,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Ameen Rihani in his 1910 short story The Heart of Lebanon. “I considered myself lucky to have reached my long sought objective, which was to see the roulette,” he added in reference to the Sofar Casino, according to a caption prepared by Young.

In the kitchen, Young used old photographs to paint the chefs:

There is even an ancient kitchen elevator machine that looks like it may have been one of the first of its kind:

Old photographs of the former natural landscape around the hotel (now lined with houses and buildings) and old guest books are also on display:

A broken down piano:

Revived with new music during the opening night:

An ancient fridge, or was it an “ice box”?

But sometimes it is the items that are not on display, not part of the exhibition, that give additional meaning to the building’s story. Check out these vintage stickers, from old shops in Lebanon. Where these stuck up on the walls by the wartime militiamen, trying to making the place more homey?

Did they desire a more glamorous life than shooting at snipers?

There is even a homage to the 1980s hit Knight Ridder and its leading man, David Hasselhoff.

Photo: Tom Young

Meanwhile the hotel’s famous night club “Monkey Bar” may have seen better days:

But it’s brought back to life with an old Middle East Airlines advertisement:

And the revelatory scenes are recast by both Tom’s imagination and records of famous guests like legendary singers Oum Kulthum, Farid el Atrash and Asmahan.

I won’t spoil it all. There are dozens of more paintings and historical pieces to see, including memorabilia and portraits from the old trains that used to whisk guests to the hotel, photographs and records of famous patrons and politicians who frequented the place and more information about the owners from the super affluent Sursouk family.  (There are rumors that the family plan to reopen the hotel, perhaps as a cultural space.)

And needless to say, the backdrops are almost as rich as the installations.

Best of all, the exhibit is totally FREE and there are even occasional shuttle buses available. It’s open every day from 11AM-7PM except Mondays and runs until October 14th. 

There are also performances and events for children. For more info on Tom’s work and the show visit his website. Here is a video of the Hotel Sofar event, as well as one of his previous projects, Beit Boustani.

A rare and well-preserved ancient Roman wall that once surrounded Beirut has been dismantled. Photography of the site is not allowed, but from the street, a truck-mounted construction crane can be seen hoisting stones out of the major archaeological site in Bachoura, just off the Fouad Chehab highway that circles around downtown Beirut.

We can see a pile of stones has already been lifted from the site, which contains a rare Roman cemetery,  documented extensively in this previous post.

The sprawling Bachoura site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the city, unearthed just last year, with 250 tombs discovered and perhaps hundreds of relics. Its well-preserved masoleum buildings marked by ornate carved statues, may have been a resting place for important Roman citizens or generals who lived in ancient Beirut, when it was known as the famous colony of Berytus.

The graves, along with the wall and other features could have made for an interesting attraction and archaeological park, as found in many other parts of the world where Roman ruins are discovered. But as previously reported, the area, which borders the Beirut Digital District project, appears to be slated for high end real estate towers.

Here is an image of the site from last year:

And here is a close up on the wall:

We can see that it is at least 10 blocks high and appears to have a built in drain of sorts:

There even seems to be remnants of another structure at the top as seen below. Could it have been a tower or a gate or something else?

Today however, wall has been almost completely cleared as seen in this photo taken this week and there is now little trace of the structure, save for the wood pallets the remaining stones have been strapped onto for removal.

Photo by Max Cochrane

A reader sent me this photo, and was yelled at by site workers for taking it.

What will happen to this wall? Will we see it again, will it be taken to a warehouse to collect dust or will it be discarded altogether?

Remnants of Roman and pre-Roman walls have been uncovered in many parts of the city, but most have been dismantled or destroyed, never to be seen again.

What will happen to the rest of this site, such as the mausoleums and other features, including this interesting ancient drain pipe:

There are also some structures that look like basins and mosaic floors. Here we can see some children playing on the site last year.

Photo: MC

After my initial post last year, archaeologists managing the site appreciated the coverage and invited me for a site visit to help answer some of the questions about its future. But this visit was later rejected by the Directorate of Antiquities, which claimed the project had been paused for discussions with the developer and thus press coverage would be seen as ‘unhelpful’ and could hurt efforts to negotiate preservation. And yet today, absent media coverage the site seems to be disappearing, despite those closed door negotiations that promised to save it.

So why is it that heritage is “negotiated” in Lebanon in the first place and not mandated? Why are the talks with developers secretive, why is media coverage of sites strictly regulated and often not allowed?

Will the site be preserved or will it meet a similar fate as other ancient sites that have been destroyed such as Beirut’s famous Roman chariot race track, its Roman Theatre or the site believed to have been a 2,000 year old Phoenician port that was chiseled away by jackhammers?

For more on these sites, what they have told us about the story of ancient Berytus and what sites remain threatened, see my in-depth report on the cover of last month’s Monocle newspaper, available here.

And stay tuned for more highlights from the report, which was made possible with the support of an investigative journalism grant from Meedan.

 

UPDATE Sept. 17:

The day after this post was published, the Ministry of Culture-which had provided no explanation of the wall removal- issued a “clarification” on the Bachoura site, claiming that coverage by the media of the site was “inaccurate.” But the statement does not point out what info was inaccurate, and actually confirms that the wall and tombs on site date back to the Roman period, which is exactly as stated in the post above.

 

Interestingly, the release does not directly reference the removal of the wall but merely says that all ruins on site will be “merged” and “reintegrated” into the real estate project. There are no details on how this merging will take place. Will the ruins be buried in the basement of a new high rise tower, will they be used as decoration in the tower’s private garden? The release vaguely references the ministry’s abidance by scientific studies, but without noting what these studies say or why the site could not be preserved in its entirety.

According to the Ministry statement: “Based on the scientific reports and technical studies, the Ministry of Culture issued a decision to preserve these facilities by merging them and reintegrating them into the project to be established after conducting scientific and technical documentation according to the principles and under the supervision of the General Directorate of Antiquities.”

What the release does not say is how citizens would be able to access the ruins on a private property or that high end properties do not tend to open their doors to average citizens. Most importantly, the release does not tell us any details on how the decision was made to remove the wall, where it will be placed and why the site could not have been kept as it is, to create an archeological park as one would find in much of the world, when a large Roman complex is unearthed.

The question raised by this post remains: who decides the future of Beirut’s ruins and why are the public and the media not given details about how those decisions are made.

 

“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.