Tags Posts tagged with "public space"

public space

Beirut activists are fighting hard to preserve two of the city’s key heritage sites and you can support them by attending a series of events they have prepared this week. The events are actually FREE (another endangered thing in Beirut) so all you have to do is show up. Scroll down for full schedule. 

Following several years of pro bono organizing, lobbying, researching and fundraising, volunteer urban activists have managed to put two Beirut sites on the list of 50 endangered sites worldwide as listed by the World Monument Fund’s Heritage Watch Day. To bring public and media attention to these rare surviving spaces, they have put together an impressive schedule of art exhibitions, films, music, food, cultural, environmental and educational events around Watch Day.  Follow the Heritage Watch Day Facebook page for updates.

The two endangered sites are Dalieh of Raouche peninsula, the only remaining natural headland in Beirut with a 7,000 year history; and Heneine Palace, one of the largest and only remaining buildings from the 1800s left in the city today.  Both sites are threatened by private developers. Both sites are part of vanishing historic neighborhoods. Both sites tell a story-a million stories- about us, our ancestors, our city, our country, our humanity. Both sites need your support, your pictures, your social media posts, your feet on the ground, to demonstrate that these places are important, valued and popular enough that demolishing them will cause a public uproar. 

A mega seafront project was planned for Dalieh,  but activist multi-pronged legal, design and research efforts have helped slow that. Meanwhile Heneine Palace is located in the heart of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Zokak el Blatt, which is rapidly being erased by glass towers, gentrification and real estate barons. Neither site is safe however, and activists need all the volunteers, voices, shares and feet they can get.

It all starts with an opening this Thursday at 4PM at Antwork (located on Spears road across from Future TV just before BarBar on the left) where you can pick up fliers and more info. It is followed by an exhibition at the ministry of tourism hamra exhibition space (yes activists are taking over the ministry, peacefully this time).  Other events will be taking place in Mansion (take a right after Bar Bar spears and head up the street with old mansions falling apart– it’s the yellow old mansion still in one piece. )

Here’s the full schedule below the map. Tell your friends, your cousins. Bring your mother. Scroll down to the end of post for event posters and GIFs at the end. Share, share, share.

Thursday, May 18th

  • Official Watch Day Launch and press conference for Dalieh and Heneine
    4:00pm, Antwork
  • Dalieh Exhibition launch
    6:00 pm, Glass Hall, Ministry of Tourism. The exhibition will continue until the 27th of May
    The work of the winners of 2015’s Dalieh Ideas Competition “Revisiting Dalieh: Calling for Alternative Visions along Beirut’s Coast” will be displayed alongside the work of universities, students and artists engaged with the coast.

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Screening of Jocelyne Saab’s movie, “A Suspended Life”
    7:00pm, Orient Institut

Friday, May 19th 

In Dalieh

  • Revealing of site-specific art interventions in collaboration with Temporary Art Platform. On view until Sunday May 21st.
    All day, Dalieh
    Thin White Line (Ieva Saudargaitė Douaihi), Dalieh’s Infinity Pool (Raymond Gemayel), The Flag (Omar Fakhoury), 4’50 (Omar Fakhoury)  Partially Occupy Darkness (Ghassan Maasri), The Invisible Soundtrack (Nadim Mishlawi), On the Same Wavelength (Pascal Hachem and Rana Haddad), Washzone (Mustapha Jundi), Kunsthalle 3000 (Thomas Geiger). 

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Exhibition launch: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities
    Mansion, 9:00am to 9:00pm daily, until the 21st of May – Launch at 7:00pm
    Includes a virtual tour of the Heneine Palace – Models produced by school students during heritage workshops – Architecture projects produced by university students from USEK – Screening of film “Mapping Place Narratives: Beyhum Street” – Heritage situation overview by Save Beirut Heritage

Saturday, May 20th

In Zokak el-Blat
Celebrating Heritage: Heneine Palace and Zokak el-Blat (12:00pm – 8:00pm)

  • Souk el-Tayeb in Zokak el-Blat
    12:00am to 7:00pm, Hussein Beyhum Street
  • Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat
    First departure at 3:00pm, last departure at 6:00pm.
    A tour takes around 1:30
    Meeting points: Grand Sérail, Al-Hout Mosque, National Evangelical Church
    A fewer number of tours could be provided on Sunday 21st
  • Readings, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut
    6:30pm to 8:00pm, Mansion
    Readings by Fadi Tofeili and Mounzer Baalbaki, followed by a debate
  • Exhibition: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities
    Mansion, 9:00am to 7:30pm, until the 21st of May

In Dalieh

  • Candle-lit night vigil from Ramlet El Baida to Dalieh
    Meeting point at 6:30pm in front of the ‘Eden Rock’ project in Ramlet Baida
  • Open Air Film Screening of “Children of Beirut” by Sarah Srage
    8:30pm, Dalieh

Sunday, May 21st 

In Dalieh
Dalieh Festival (11:00am – 8:00pm)

  • Site-specific Interventions / Music and dance performances / Food Market by Souk el-Tayeb
    All day
  • Boat Tours with Dalieh’s Fishermen
    Every hour and a half, First departure at 11:00am., last departure at 5:00pm., from Dalieh’s port. Reservations and name registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
  • On site Tours by members of the Dalieh Campaign
    Every two hours, First tour at 11:00 am, last tour at 5:00pm
    Meeting point and registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
  • Speakers Corner
    12:00 am / 2:00pm / 4:00pm
    In several locations on Dalieh
  • Music & Spoken Words
    6:00pm-8:00pm
    With Ziad Itani, Jebebara, Zeid Hamdan, Tarek Bashasha & Zakaria Al Omar, Saseen Kawzally, Michelle and Noel, and many others

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Literary tour, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut
    10:30am to 12:30pm, in Zokak el-Blat, meeting point at the Bachoura Cemetery
    A walk of the neighborhood during which Fadi Tofeili will comment, from passages of his books, the places that he mentions in his writings.
  • Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat (To be confirmed)
    First departure at 3:00pm. A tour takes around 1h30
    To be confirmed – Number of tours to be determined according to attendance

Feel free to share. Hashtags are #WatchDalieh #WatchHeneine

Use of Dalieh is believed to date back to the copper age (5,000BCE) and the site is also reportedly mentioned in ancient Greek myths.

Animated GIF  - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

 

 

6

img_1081

Two years ago I posted about the near completion of construction work at Lebanon’s National Library. This week, I got a look inside for the first time. And what a privilege it was…

2e9v4062
Source: Lebanese Foundation for the National Library

img_1155

The library is housed at the old Ottoman Sanayeh complex, which has been renovated with a $25 million grant from Qatar. Formerly the law school of the Lebanese University, the atrium has been transformed into a cavernous and sun-drenched reading room, the perfect place to read (without having to pay for overpriced coffee) in an exhaust-choked city.

img_1153

It was just wonderful to spend some time strolling around what could be an actual public space in Beirut, a rare commodity in a city that has sold almost every square meter of open space (including the coast) to private developers.

So far only the reading room has been opened for an exhibition of local artists celebrating the published word. It was organized by the Lebanese Foundation for the National Library,  an NGO dedicated to preserving and restoring the vast collections following the civil war.

2e9v9048
Source: Lebanese Foundation for the National Library

But like all great public sector projects, there is a catch. Although the building is largely complete, its opening date now hinges on the political wrangling of appointing a managing board. This should happen “some time next year,” a volunteer told me.

The book collection, one of the region’s largest which is currently stored at the port of Beirut, will have to be moved in as well. In the meantime though, you’ll have a few more days to visit the space before the exhibition ends this Sunday, Nov. 13.

UPDATE (Nov 12): Due to popular demand yesterday, the exhibition has been extended until Nov. 20

Opening hours are between 11AM and 6PM, except Mondays. You can follow their Facebook page here.  Hurry and see it this weekend!

The art exhibits are also pretty interesting:

img_1088

img_1089

Staff told me they were to be auctioned off to help support the library foundation. There are dozens of others to see.  Also featured are the front pages of Lebanese publications since the mid 1800s.

2e9v8983
Source: Lebanese Foundation for the National Library

The headers were a bit more decorative than those found today. Here are a few of them:

img_1116

img_1119

img_1125

img_1133

img_1118

img_1121

img_1134

img_1135

img_1139

For more on the library’s rare and extensive collection as well as the bureaucracy holding up the process since the project was announced a decade ago, see this previous post. Once again, hurry and check out the space before the exhibit ends. Also maybe pick up one of the beautiful collection booklets or illustrated coffee table books to support the foundation’s much-needed work.

 

UPDATE Nov 12: As this post went to press yesterday, the organizers announced an extention to the end of the exhibition from Nov. 13 to Nov. 20th. So you now have one week to see the library before it closes its doors again. Don’t delay, the foundation needs to know people want to use the library and push the politicians to appoint a board and open it. 

5

In a space of a few hours, one can witness two radically different visions for Beirut’s future.

On a recent afternoon, under the shade of ficus trees, a town hall meeting was held by Beirut Madinati, the new political collective comprised of activists and urban professionals running in the city’s municipal elections. The group is campaigning on an issue-based platform that seeks to look beyond traditional clientalist and militia-style Lebanese politics. As such, they have organized a series of these town halls in city parks and public spaces dubbed Masahat Niqash (spaces for discussion) to get feedback from citizens-which is rarely if ever done by mainstream parties, who often rule by cults of personality built around feudal strongmen.

Dozens of citizens spoke up. Each was given a two minute intervention. They raised their hands and waited for their turn. The atmosphere was passionate yet orderly.

IMG_6092 (1)
Beirut Madinati town hall in Ashrafieh
IMG_6119 (1)
Any participant could speak but with a limit of 2 minutes per speaker

Citizens produced a range of detailed ideas and questions related to the problems of water distribution, traffic, pollution, lack of maintenance of streets, sewers and sidewalks, municipal taxes and accountability. The questions and suggestions were written down and Beirut Madinati candidates responded with answers and proposals.

About an hour later, I was walking through Sassine Square, feeling slightly more optimistic about Beirut’s political future, when I heard loud music and honking in the distance. Soon the cacophony grew louder and suddenly a convoy of cars approached the intersection.

They included loudspeaker trucks, black tinted SUV’s, loud police-style sirens and an escort of young tough-looking men on scooters–all with the candidate’s face plastered on the front:

IMG_6220 (3)
Candidate convoy enters Sassine Square

The scooter men drove toward the center of the intersection—one of the busiest in Beirut– and began blocking cars from crossing. They held up traffic for several minutes as the entire convoy of some 50 vehicles blaring horns and sirens passed through a red light.

IMG_6233
Campaigners use scooters to block all lanes at one of Beirut’s busiest intersections
IMG_6224
Scooter men direct the convoy through a red light at Sassine

Here is a video of the affair:

Not only did the campaigners break multiple traffic and public order laws by seizing an entire intersection in broad daylight, using illegal tints, police sirens and running red lights– they also seemed to create their own laws.

This included allowing a fellow tinted-window “important” Jaguar to pass through the convoy. Clearly this car could break the rules, even the fake rules, perhaps due to his Wasta, i.e political connections.

IMG_6225
Campaigners make an exception for a luxury car
IMG_6227
Tinted windows will take you places in Beirut

At one point, some people began honking their horns–one man got out of his car and shouting erupted. Lawlessness had broken down to violence. But within a few moments the convoy cleared and the scooter men dispersed. The police were nowhere to be found.

Although it only lasted a few minutes, the scene can be read as a microcosm of how politics is often practiced in Lebanon. The powerful rule through force, they flout the laws when it is convenient to self-interest, while allowing exceptions to allies. This often leads to clashes between citizens because the police have abdicated their posts or lack any sort of power to confront feudal or militia strongmen. Thus the powerful act with impunity.

Lastly, the candidate appropriates public property with his posters attached to street lamps around Sassine. His sectarian identity is clearly displayed with a visible golden crucifix around his neck.

There is no platform, no issues, no listening to citizens’ concerns, no patience and thoughtful contemplation. There is shouting and pushing, monopolizing the streets for the interest of a few, while the rest of the population is held up in traffic, at the mercy of these cults of personality and their intimidating ground operatives.

 

Meanwhile, Beirut Madinati continues to hold town hall meetings in an attempt to reach out to several neighborhoods. Last weekend they were in Kaskas, Horsh Beirut.

IMG_6291 (2)
Beirut Madinati town hall in Horsh Beirut
IMG_6344 (1)
Kaskas residents voiced concerns about unemployment and lack of services

The working class and poor neighborhood has traditionally voted for Beirut’s most powerful political dynasty, the party of ex-prime minister Saad Hariri. But rather than offer any sort of platform for fixing the city’s problems, he has merely used the clientalist patronage of his late father as incentive, superimposing his image in adverts:

13133195_10209579781915524_74194902385024805_n
Hariri municipality list as advertised on Facebook

Hariri’s campaign is using the slogan “Campaign for the Beyerti” a colloquial term, which for many, connotes notable Beirut Sunni families, the “real” Beirutis. Many find the term exclusionary to the city’s hundreds of thousands of residents that settled in the capital over the last few decades, including Lebanese Shia and Maronites as well as Palestinians, Syrians and others. Many point out that Hariri’s claim of authenticity is ironic considering the fact that his family actually hails from the southern town of Saida, and rather than address the city’s needs, his family’s massive real estate interests have only helped commodify the capital, erasing public spaces to facilitate massive real estate deals for wealthy Gulf investors that have helped fund his father’s political career.

The memes have already begun to voice that critique:

13082761_987177721363484_8116454484072581860_n
Source Swaha Cartoons

Beirut Madinati is not the only reform party. “Citizens Within A State”, headed by activist and ex-minister Charbel Nahas, is also proposing an issue-based platform and taking Beirut residents on free bus tours of corruption around the city.

Still, it will be hard for such groups to compete with the power of well-established political machines and the grip they have over public services and utilities as well as the meager handouts they offer the poor in exchange for votes. But whether or not they win, these new parties are introducing practices of Lebanese politics that differ significantly from their established rivals, offering a path toward change to build upon or at least the possibility of one.

One of the great things about the internet is that there is just so much floating around out there–like all the plans for Beirut that seemed to have magically disappeared.

There was/is(?) a plan to re-create part of the old promenade of Beirut, the original corniche, which was known as Avenue des Francais:

12743977_10207424608266377_3340416595832803466_n

Today’s seaside esplanade or corniche is an extension of this historic Avenue. But the bay was filled in with garbage during the Lebanese war and according to Solidere (the private firm created to rebuild central Beirut) the original coastline was “lost” and the plan was to use the garbage dump as a landfill and further extend the shoreline, thus creating hundreds of thousands more square meters of real estate property in the process.

For now, we won’t get into the controversy of how Solidere was formed and who profits from it (I’ve written about that extensively here and here). Instead, let’s look at one of the many promises it made to the public to build green and publicly accessible space as part of its rebuilding narrative. One of these projects is called Shoreline Walk, a series of interlinking gardens retracing the original coastal outline of the city as seen in the top photo of the Avenue.  It’s marked below by red lines.  We can also see how the large landfill created a new coastline enclosed by a new breakwater sea wall and yacht marina (which has also become a cash cow for Soldiere):

shoreline-walk-11

 

Designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, The Shoreline Walk was meant to “restore the energy and vigour of the old Corniche promenade” with “green infrastructure” that aims to “re-establish east-west links and connect together a series of new public squares and gardens for the enjoyment of the community,” according to the firm’s website, which contains the images below:

walkgarden.jpg

The project was designed 14 years ago in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of 5 million GBP (around $7.2 million) according to a company presentation. So where is it now? I’ve been living in Lebanon for most of my life and I’ve never seen or heard of it.

Here is an image of the design from Gustafson:

plan-shoreline-walk-940x430

It wasn’t easy to place the gardens on today’s Google map because so much has been constructed. So I resorted to an old aerial shot from the late 1990s to align the plots:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 2.36.29 AM

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 2.42.23 AM

And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 2.42.23 AMadd

As compared to:

plan-shoreline-walk-940x430

So where is it?

Conceived 14 years ago, it’s due date is nearly six years past, and beyond a few shrubs and a short row of sidewalk trees, the area remains largely baren and off limits to the public.

The only garden that is completed is Zaytouneh Square, on the lower left.

But in reality, this is a hardscape space with few trees or shade:

Image-67
Source: Landscape Architects Network

A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:

Gustafson-Porter_Shoreline-Walk_005

th_zaituneh-square

Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 5.52.12 AM

…than it does in reality:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 5.58.26 AM

On the other hand, the company seems to have had no trouble fulfilling its promise to construct blocks of high end towers for sale, with very few undeveloped plots remaining.

Still, Solidere’s green map is often touted in presentations and interviews with the press. Soldiere’s urban planner recently told design students at a university conference that the city center contains “60 parks and public spaces.” Many students were probably left wondering where these spaces are, as the presentation did not specify if the references and images described existing or planned projects.

In fact, Solidere has plenty of parks and public projects on paper. These include a range of archeological gardens, museums, fountain pools, even a large “central park” on the reclaimed new waterfront as seen above in the company map. But 22 years after Solidere began excavations in 1994, few of these spaces have materialized. And as seen by the example of the tiled Zaytouneh Square, the spaces that have been built often take the shape of sterile expanses with little seating that feel more like modern art to compliment private properties around them rather than inviting spaces for the general public to enjoy. But is that even the goal? Would the general public, most of whom are poor, be invited to mingle amongst the high security multi-million dollar apartments and luxury shops of the city center?

The Shoreline Walk was celebrated in a piece published last year by a landscape magazine which described the completed phase– Zaytouneh Square– as “daring, unique and dramatic.”

It added: “The sleek, bold, ultra-modern look of the square matches the character of the surrounding buildings and gives us the impression of a more modern, edgy Beirut.”

Here’s another image of that space:

Image-43
Source: Landscape Architects Network

Personally, I have never seen more than a handful of people loitering around the area and many of them tend to be private security. But will this change when the other “gardens” are completed? Will they be more green than this?

Although the magazine article was published last year,  curiously it makes no reference to the 14 years that have passed since Shoreline Walk was announced, neither does it ask any questions about when it will be ready. Soldiere’s web page on the Shoreline Walk also provides no explanation for the delay or any revised completion dates.

Perhaps the firm will say that political turmoil has hurt progress. Yet why has the same political turmoil not affected the completion of residential towers, sprawling condominiums with hanging gardens, a yacht marina and high end seafront shopping center (Zaitunay Bay) that have all been completed over the last decade? Are glass and steel towers easier to build than minimalist landscaped gardens?

Or does the $8 billion firm prioritize real estate gains for its investors over public space for the community? Perhaps someone out there has the answer.

***

 

UPDATE:

What is the state of “Shoreline Gardens” today? Dirt, broken tiles and a patch of grass. Here’s a view from the ground:

IMG_3637

IMG_3638

IMG_3639

The real estate, the multi-million dollar new buildings are there but where are the public spaces?

Compare this to Solidere’s official website description of the Shoreline Gardens (which was recently updated) and note the use of the present tense,  which seems to convey this place actually exists:

“The Shoreline Walk is a sequence of five connected spaces, placed between the old city, and the new land-filled area. The concept design suggested a new line which guides and reveals elements of history and forms a connective spine…

Shoreline Gardens (4,508 sq m) site of the historic Avenue des Français, provide a contemporary promenade. A long linear water feature and pergola unite the space, creating water movement over an undulating surface and dappled shade to sit below, re-establishing this area as a meeting point.”

Here again is the artist conception from 2002:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 2.14.48 PM

12006294_10207577664747534_307070317221192091_n
Abu Rakhousa + Oum Rakhousa = Rakhousa (source) One of several memes mocking a prominent businessman after his attacks on protestors for ‘cheapening’ Beirut .

 

I’m hearing a lot of people say street protests are dying out in Beirut, though there are more demonstrations planned this week. Whatever the case and with so much going on, it’s easy to forget that street action is not the only contribution activist movements make. They also produce new avenues for expressing opinion and new opportunities for asking questions and discussing problems in personalized ways that can become amplified with technology. For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is largely seen as defunct, but some argue that the language it employed such as “the 99 percent” helped introduce new questions, accessible vocabulary and increased consciousness about financial power that may have an impact for years to come. In Lebanon over recent months, we have seen a number of memes and events that also question power in innovative ways. I look at one of these instances in my column for last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.  

 

 

Abou Rakhousa and the politics of poverty

Bold Magazine, October 2015

By Habib Battah

 

Like many young men from his town, my father felt compelled to leave his family behind and board a ship bound for South America. He was 18 years old, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had only three dollars in his pocket. It was all the money his father, an electrician, could afford to give his son, although he helped build the first national power grid to serve North Lebanon. The family of seven slept on the floor in a one-room apartment in Tripoli. They rarely ate meat and owned no refrigerator or oven so my grandmother would send her dough to the local baker, who took one out of every five baked loaves as a commission. Their story is not unique.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled their country in the 1950s and the decades that followed just to survive. The Western media fantasy of Lebanon as “The Paris of the Middle East” with high rollers in casinos and European models waterskiing on the Bay of Saint Georges was not shared by most living outside of the capital or even within it. Most Lebanese then and today live poorly with an unemployment rates of 24 percent and a minimum wage of less than $500. Meanwhile bank assets owned largely by elite businessmen and their political cronies are soaring past $200 billion or around four times Lebanon’s negligible GDP.

It was within this context that one of the country’s elite businessman criticized anti-corruption demonstrators for holding rallies in downtown. Nicolas Chammas, Channel distributor and head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, complained in a press conference that the rallies occupying public squares were hurting posh businesses in the central district. He said downtown, which hosted the country’s ‘finest and most respectable’ banks, hotels and shops should not be a place for “Abu Rakhousa,” a colloquial term implying cheap or discount stores. Chammas was reacting perhaps to the sandwich carts usually banned by police, but that have sprouted up at rallies to serve protesters. Chammas also took aim at what he described as the “Communist and Marxist” elements among the crowd whose ideas he said were “more dangerous” than violent rioters. “They are trying to start a class war and this is rejected” he exclaimed to a few claps from a small audience of businessmen. “We are the ones that have held the liberal Lebanese economy on our shoulders for 100 years and we won’t let anyone destroy that!”

 

But what about all hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that have fled their homes over the same century? Are they not victims of a type of class war where the rich get richer and the poor have to find work in other countries? Today, less than 0.3 percent of Lebanese control half the country’s wealth, according to an Executive magazine analysis of a 2013 Credit Suisse study, which noted that Lebanon was one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution.

With many of the same families and businesses in power for generations, that wealth also doesn’t seem to change hands very much. A study produced last month by AUB professor Jad Chaaban showed that individuals tied to politicians control 43 percent of bank assets and 18 out of 20 banks have major shareholders linked to political elites. Is this the type of free and “liberal economy” Mr. Chammas was talking about? One in which there are few jobs and very little upward mobility? An economy where citizens pay exorbitant amounts for basic public services that barely function with virtually no efforts to improve them? According to Professor Chaaban, 36 percent of the government’s earnings are sucked back into paying the national debt, which in turn goes back into the pocket of bankers and politicians who have loaned the money.

Much of the debt was incurred during post war spending sprees on “reconstruction” projects compounded by related revenue losses such as the selling of the entire downtown Beirut for a bargain to a private company known as Solidere. Founded by the late billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri and a group of high wealth associates, Solidere was given generous tax breaks and incentives to transform the once gritty city center into a shiny luxury district inhabitable only by those few that could afford its newly-laid cobblestone streets and multi-million dollar apartments. At the same time, many citizens across the rest of the city and country lacked water, electricity and garbage collection–the same problems that plague Lebanon 20 years later.

Of course questions about spending priorities and who profits from them often go unanswered because the country’s business and political elite are largely not answerable or accountable to anyone. But that could be changing.

Hours after Mr. Chammas’s accusations, #abourakhousa began trending on Twitter and memes and cartoons mocking the powerful businessman’s claims went viral on Facebook. Days later, activists had organized an entire #abourakhousa flea market in the heart of downtown Beirut, in defiance of its elite zoning laws and Mr. Chammas’s warnings. There were pop-up dollar shops, juice stands, even a barber stand offering haircuts for 60 cents. One table sold a pile of discount books about Marxism and Communism, just to spite the elite businessmen’s worst fears of “dangerous ideas.”

By evening, hundreds had entered the square and the TV crews were ubiquitous. There was free music, singing, dancing and reminiscing about old Beirut, which had been a melting pot of all income levels. Some old shopkeepers told cameras that their modest shops had been stolen by the state, a claim heard often from the thousands that were given small payouts for their properties to make way for luxury buildings. Many were overjoyed at the atmosphere and cheap eats, noting that today a falafel sandwich or any traditional affordable food can barely be found among the gilded streets. Activists claimed a victory in reclaiming the city center, even if only for a day, from the most powerful real estate interests in the country, who largely stood back and watched.

 

 

Sparked by a garbage crisis, the protests that have been gaining steam over the last few weeks have expanded to challenge the dynastic economic system that has underpinned political power in Lebanon for decades. Whether it is in the form of #abourakhousa market or sit-ins at government offices, there is a new air of defiance in how citizens are reacting to authority.

Millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora will be watching closely. Many are excited by a glimmer of accountability that may help prevent future generations from facing the same self-exile that they did. Not only did that exodus tear apart families, but it also drained the country of its human resources, innovative minds and potential leaders, alleviating any challenge to a system which allows a few to live comfortably at the expense of the majority.

 

***

 

Here are a few of the many AbuRakhousa memes and videos that circulated across social media:

12006231_599824023492317_4604170677119417696_n

 

12039246_10153770375368949_2875198628368450158_n
source

 

12004119_10153020112020163_8368490992265516192_n
source

 

12002122_10154062940891509_2083869299670159361_n
source

 

 

 

 

 

The following column was published in last month’s issue of Bold Magazine. I thought it would be appropriate to republish it today as we commemorate 40 years since the start of the civil war and think about the many challenges that lay ahead.  

 

By Habib Battah


Just south of Beirut along the Khalde highway, a giant green flag that had fluttered for years was lowered and wrapped up by a group of young men before television cameras. The oldest among them proudly announced that he was happy to abide by a new agreement to remove partisan signage from city streets. The men were not identified but the party colors–those of Amal Movement– would be clear to anyone familiar with Lebanon. One of the cameras belonged to the party’s mouthpiece, NBN. The acronym stands for National Broadcast Network and not, as it is commonly misidentified by Western journalists, for Nabih Berri News, which would conveniently reflect it’s main patron, the current speaker of Parliament.

It was speaker Berri that announced early last month that Beirut would be ’clean of all posters and slogans’ affiliated with Amal, its ally Hezbollah and their rival Future movement — as part of ongoing ’dialogue talks’ to reportedly defuse tensions between the parties. However despite the widely publicized removal of Amal and Hezbollah paraphernalia, a billboard campaign celebrating the life of late prime minister Rafik Hariri–the proverbial figurehead of Future movement– was plastered on dozens of panels across the country, often in double or triple displays, lining the highways and rooftops, even lit up on electronic displays. So why was this allowed? Is paid advertising not also a form of political propaganda?

Will Hezbollah and its rivals also be allowed to lease billboards for their events and propaganda? It’s not even clear if money was involved. Future movement maintains its network of friendly advertisers in central Beirut and the northern suburbs. Similarly, Hezbollah and its rivals have their own ad networks, in the southern suburbs and other neighborhoods where they are popular. Paid or unpaid makes little difference to the political elite who rule towns and neighborhoods in more ways than one. A better question may be to ask who are the unidentified men on the ground that put up these posters, the street operatives that grease the political machines that dominate political power in this country?

When it comes to power-sharing and reconciliation, one wonders why Christian parties–some of the most influential in Lebanon — were seemingly excluded from this truce of sorts. While posters honoring Shiite martyrs were brought down in some neighborhoods, giant posters celebrating Christian martyrs still hang in the streets of others, draping the Kataeb party headquarters in central Beirut for instance. In fact, the mere suggestion by one member of parliament that Christian symbols be brought down in unison with Muslim ones threw the country into a sectarian-infused panic.

In Tripoli there were attempts to remove black flags containing Islamic scriptures because the flags are seen as representing the city’s radical Islamist movements. Akkar parliamentarian Khaled Daher had led a protest against them, challenging the state to also remove Christian symbols in public spaces, alluding to the twelve meter Jesus statue that towers over the main coastal highway on a hilltop Keserwan, its hands outstretched like its counterpart in Rio De Janeiro. The comments sparked outrage among Christian pundits and members of parliament and, under pressure, Daher was suspended from Future movement just two days after the comments were made. The MP has since apologized, but he now faces criminal charges for ’anti-Christian’ remarks. Yet is it anti-Christian to point out the obvious inconsistencies of this truce campaign? And in a country where one party uses a cross shaped dagger as its symbol, can we always distinguish between political and religious imagery, be it Muslim or Christian?

In fact, Lebanon’s physical landscape is covered in Christian symbols. Statues of Mary and a multitude of other Maronite, Catholic and other saints can be found in shrines large and small, along major and minor roadways, on platforms or multi-storey towers such as the one in Zahle, looking out over a wide swathe of the Bekaa Valley. Giant crosses dot the mountain tops across Mount Lebanon, clearly letting hikers, skiers and picnic goers know which territory they are traipsing through. The image of Jesus has even been sculpted into one of the ancient trees at the Cedar forest, the country’s most prominent national symbol. Do Lebanese Muslims feel at home or even welcome in these places?

Of course the marking of Christian territory is not restricted to religious icons but also includes statues and sprawling memorials to the leaders of rightist Christian politics, often erected in town squares and traffic circles. The most prominent example that comes to mind is Sassine Square, one of the country’s busiest intersections featuring a black and white print of the late Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel. The Kataeb, one of Lebanon’s oldest political parties, also maintains other memorials throughout public spaces in Achrafieh and in village squares across the country. The sculptures are usually in the shape of a triangular cedar–the party’s appropriated symbol–which is also often engraved into entire concrete facades of the party offices across the country, transforming entire building blocks into beacons of propaganda that can be seen from miles away. Such structures would be seen as an affront to zoning regulations in many countries, but even more disturbing is the notion that public spaces can be appropriated by the parties without consent of local municipal councils and the residents that are forced to stare at them everyday. The same can also be said of towns in south Lebanon, where Hezbollah and other parties have erected their own memorials, often using captured Israeli vehicles as a centerpiece to hang flags and posters.

Proponents of the new ban may argue that change must begin somewhere. But it should also open up a broader discussion on the appropriation of public spaces, not only through flags and banners, but also by way of permanent structures–both religious and political–without focusing on the actions of some parties while ignoring others. Such a discussion should be mindful of the violent and chaotic circumstances that have brought those memorials and structures into being but equally mindful of the many citizens who were not consulted in their construction, the voices that remained silent, often out of fear, as militias took over the collective commons.

At the very least, if we are to accept these measures as a form of progress, we should also realize that this is not the first attempt and ask why such initiatives have failed so miserably before. As recently as 2008, another agreement to remove political signage from the streets was reached following armed clashes that year. At the time, much of Hamra was covered in red-stenciled graffiti bearing the logo of the Syrian Socialist National Party, which had claimed the neighborhood, despite its mixed political constituency. Meanwhile in North Lebanon that year, two people were reportedly killed over the hanging of a poster.

As we look forward, one wonders if several years from now, yet another agreement will have to be reached to clear yet another outpouring of street posters. Without having a serious discussion about why this keeps happening, and what can be done to prevent it, bringing down flags before cameras will be little more than a well-staged publicity stunt, prolonging the life of an aging political elite, desperate to sustain an increasingly precarious grip on power.

 

IMG_5193

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

IMG_5194

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

IMG_5217

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

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

IMG_5243

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

IMG_5245

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

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

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