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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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An LBC camera crew has become the latest victim of violent Lebanese real estate companies seizing the country’s diminishing natural shores, destroying essential ecosystems for profit and assaulting anyone who tries to document their activities. The LBC crew was violently attacked on Wednesday while filming a new resort being built in the tiny village of Mansouri in South Lebanon, home to the country’s only untouched sand beach and rare sea turtle reserve.

The attack was recorded on the TV reporter’s cell phone and is now making the rounds on Facebook. As soon as the news camera pans toward the resort– built directly onto the public coastline, in what appears to be a clear violation of the constitution and international maritime conventions–a man comes charging toward the TV crew with his fist raised. He throws the cameraman to the floor and then yanks him up by his shirt, shouting in his face: “What are you doing you dick!

He then grabs a man helping the crew and holds him by the shirt: “Do you know who I am? If I want to shoot you I will shoot you, you dog!”

Get the hell out of here,” he repeats,  adding in the crudest terms: “kissikhtkoon bi aiiry (I’ll put my d*** in your sisters’ p****)!”

The man then approaches the woman being interviewed, Mona Khalil, who manages the turtle reserve and operates a small bed and breakfast nearby the new resort development, whose owners have not been revealed. The man rushes toward her and says. “I will burn tires in front of your house on orders of the Hezb (Hezbollah) and the Harke (Amal Movement).”

Watch the video here:

[ممنوع التصوير]

يوم تغيب الدولة.. يضرب الزعران..اوقفت شعبة المعلومات ح.ش (مواليد عام 1981) لإعتدائه على فريق LBCI اثناء اعدادهم تقرير حول محمية السلاحف البحرية في صور.(Source: LBCI)

Posted by STOP Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

 

The cell phone footage was used to open the LBC news bulletin, which condemned the destruction of Lebanon’s coast. It was also featured in the reporter’s news package and the broadcaster even ran a full in-studio interview with the reporter Sobhiya Najjar, for a first hand account on the attack she and her cameraman, Samir Baytamouni experienced.

بالتفاصيل – ماذا حصل مع فريق الـ LBCI في صور؟

بالتفاصيل – ماذا حصل مع فريق الـ LBCI في صور؟لمزيد من التفاصيل زوروا موقعنا https://goo.gl/8WESLg

Posted by LBCI Lebanon on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

 

Najjar said she was prompted to investigate the story after seeing a Facebook post by Khalil, who has been vigilantly documenting the resort development since construction began. She says the construction has been taking place slowly and secretively, and that the resort will put the turtle nesting project and the entire ecosystem at severe risk.

 

The attack began when the reporter was looking at the social impact side of the story by interviewing a young boy asking him what would happen if the beaches were privatized and closed to the local community. At that moment the man came out of nowhere swinging and punched the cameraman in the face.

Of course this developer must be afraid of our reporting because he just attacked us immediately, he didn’t even try to talk to us or ask who we were,” Najjar said.

Because the village of Mansouri is so small and has no mayor, Najjar said she requested and was granted permission from a local administrative official in Tyre before heading out to the site. But that same official curiously later accused her and the crew of breaking into the site and instigating violence against the assaulter.

The official also promised to provide the necessary permits proving that the resort was “legal” but then said the documents could only provided if Najjar handed over the attack footage. She simply told him he would see it on the evening news.

At this point, the interviewer also reminds viewers that according to a law recently passed by parliament, the media and the public have the right to access all government decisions and legislation.

Najjar ends by noting that this is not the first time her team has been attacked while reporting on a resort, with similar experiences in Adloun, an endangered coastal archeological site, as well as Ramlet El Baida, Beirut’s only public beach. Cameraman Baytamouni has also been attacked multiple times in the past.

LBC reported that the assailant was arrested and the crew waited at the turtle reserve until an army  escort arrived. But some worry the man could be bailed out of jail at any moment and that there will be no accountability for those further up the chain of command. It remains unclear who owns this resort.

It’s also important to note that not all journalists and citizen reporters carry the weight of LBC–one of the country’s largest and most influential media outlets– with its high level political and military contacts to get out of a jam. In May, an activist was attacked and his phone destroyed when trying to document the construction of Eden Bay resort in Beirut, which has also been built directly on the public sand coastline.

 

In February, straw huts used at the public beach nearby the Eden Bay resort were reportedly set on fire. Those who manage the area have frequently mobilized against the Eden Bay resort.

Arsonists apparently set fire to the straw huts at Beirut's only free public beach. This is the same beach that is being eyed by private developers. Will the police investigate?

Posted by Beirut Report on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

 

And in November of last year, an activist resisting the Eden Bay resort by pulling out its dredging hoses (reportedly installed illegally and subject to a constitutional lawsuit) was beaten and bloodied, as shown in this video:

Activist reportedly beaten after trying to sabotage dredging work at private high rise project (Eden Rock) on Beirut's…

Posted by Beirut Report on Tuesday, November 15, 2016

 

Finally I have personally been assaulted by developers when photographing ancient ruins discovered during the excavation of the massive District S project in downtown Beirut back in 2013. Site workers and supervisors locked me inside the project gates, tackled me and twisted my arms until I erased all photos I had taken of the ruins. The project is now going forward and all traces of the ancient history of Beirut on that spot have been erased. See previous post:

Getting physically assaulted today at District S site

 

The question begs asking: are real estate developers more powerful than the state itself? How exactly did we relinquish control over our country and its scarce natural resources to these violent, destructive and self-serving firms?

All of these attacks raise important questions about the lawless state of Lebanon’s multi-billion dollar real estate industry, its frequent destruction of public space and ecosystems and its intimate relationship with the country’s leading politicians, who have routinely bent or broken laws to make projects happen. Above all the real estate industry’s immense profitability is made possible by a shameful lack of environmental or labor regulations compounded by an utter lack of taxes paid into the system to cover the damages and drain on resources and infrastructure these mega projects cause.

In fact, as I have reported for the Guardian, there are over 1,000 illegal resorts built on Lebanon’s coast making immense profits and paying no taxes with many owned by politicians themselves. While police take pains to crack down on minor violations such as destroying tin fisherman shacks along the coast or possession of small amounts of cannabis among poor farmers, the police fail to take any action against multi-million dollar resorts and their wealthy and well-connected owners. And let’s remember these projects are not only local–many are financed, designed or executed by multinational corporations, regional, Western and global, seizing upon the opportunity to exploit a developing market with weak law enforcement and low to nonexistent tariffs or regulations to ensure public health, safety or sustainability. 

The only upside to this story is that exposure and shaming of these resorts and destructive projects is gaining ground with activist campaigns mushrooming over recent years and growing more sophisticated in their use of technology, visualizations, distribution channels as well as major lawsuits being launched. See this previous post for more details on the battle to save Lebanon’s coast:

Beirut’s stolen coast and the growing fight to get it back

 

Of course all this exposure is being made possible by advances in the breadth and reach of social media, but also by old school print and TV media, which is becoming increasingly bold.

At the end of her interview, Najjar is asked if she will continue to report on seafront projects despite the dangers posed to her and her crew.

“Of course. We are not here to do regular reporting. We are here today to play a role as the fourth estate. We are not here just to represent ourselves, we are here to represent the public interest. 

You know, no one dared even to speak to us on camera in Tyre. This shows you the kind of political backing this project has.”

Perhaps it is time responsible real estate developers also exercise some social and moral responsibility for the immense profits they are making. If there are ethical construction and real estate firms in Lebanon, will they condemn this activity and be transparent with the public? Or will they and the country’s politicians remain silent and complicit in their colleagues’ behavior?

 

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“I didn’t say incinerators, I said ‘high technology,'” Beirut’s mayor Jamal Itani told LBC at a recent waste disposal conference. “We are going to start the pre-qualification before the end of the year…In terms of the land, I have two solutions but I prefer not to talk about it now so the criticism doesn’t start…”

The conference featured European guest speakers including the mayor of Copenhagen who claimed that most of his city’s garbage was recycled. But what does this mean for Beirut, what is “high technology” incineration exactly, what are the effects on public health and why is the mayor not disclosing the location or the actual technology being considered for fear of criticism?  

According to LBC, an incineration plant would cost over $100 million and require huge amounts of space and deep mines for dumping of the byproducts.  Intrepid reporter Sobhiya Najjar asks: “How can Beirut plan “high technology” incineration plant if it it cannot even sort its garbage at the source? 

Watch her full report here.

 

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No picture can capture the absolutely vile, all-encompassing stench coming from the Costa Brava dump, which is conveniently located just meters away from the main national coastal highway, concealed behind a concrete wall.

Getting stuck in traffic there is like sitting next to a million rotting eggs with nowhere to go. Closing the window or turning on the AC makes no difference–the scent is unstoppable. (Never mind that the nearby Beirut airport has had to stop using one of its runways due to proximity of birds flying around the landfill or that area wildlife and archaeology is also being destroyed in its construction.)

So whose bright idea was it to put a toxic smelling landfill right next to the highway that nearly every person in the country needs to use? It’s like saying: “hey, instead of putting a landfill far from population centers, let’s make sure everyone in the entire country gets to inhale it.”

Why were there no alternative sites for this landfill?

Perhaps parliament should be temporally relocated close to Costa Brava (where many people actually live everyday) to ensure a speedy resolution to this public health crisis.