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

Credit: Ayman Trawi
Credit: Ayman Trawi

Even holograms have been made to showcase the transformations.

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

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

Photo: Gaby Daher

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Rene Burri

But during reconstruction, the entire area was eventually leveled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Richard van der Graaf

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

Fouad Elkhoury

Until the bulldozing began:

Fouad Elkhoury
Fouad Elkhoury

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

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

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

 

 

 

In the shadow of the towers of new Beirut, the ruins of ancient Beirut have literally been dismembered and piled up at the edge of town.

It may be hard to believe today, but ancient Berytus was a very prominent city in the Roman empire, one of a handful of Roman cities to contain a law school, which played a key role interpreting and producing the cannon of Roman law, foundational to legal systems across the world today.

Did these columns come from the law school or did they come from the famous chariot race track of Berytus that once hosted 1,400 gladiators in a single day? Or did the columns belong to the city’s Roman theatre, its baths, churches, gates or colonnaded roads?

Possible placement of ancient Beirut hippodrome and theatre. Source: Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage

The sad answer is we don’t know and we may never know. Piecing together the story of these columns and the spatial history of the city may now be impossible according to a source with the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) quoted in L’Orient Le Jour, which broke this story a couple of weeks ago.

“Since these stones have not been numbered, it is of course impossible to know to what specific sites or constructions they belonged.Unless the scientific data, formerly collected by the intervening specialists, have been archived … ” 

So how could this happen? In the 1990s, Beirut was reportedly the biggest archaeological site in the world, with teams from universities across the globe working in its trenches.

I had a closer look at the ruins last week after blogger Elie Fares pointed the site out, following up on the L’Orient piece.

The columns were hard to find because they are literally invisible from the new waterfront road:

… tucked below the dirt patch, near the water’s edge:

Upon closer look, there were no labels in sight. In fact the ruins were haphazardly piled on top of one another, not even slightly spaced apart:

One was barely balanced on a flimsy piece of wood:

Yet all this seemed uncontroversial to the new culture minister, Ghattas Khoury, who noted that the columns were “well-organized” and “monitored” by the Ministry of culture and “everything is proper and well-preserved,” as he said in this video shared on Twitter.

Minister Khoury, a surgeon with no background in archaeology according to his bio, said the ruins will be carefully moved to Beirut’s park, Horsh Beirut, seemingly as decorative pieces.

The minister rejected criticisms of the government’s handling of the ruins, vaguely laying blame at those who participated in the anti-corruption protests of last year “which led to nowhere.”  He also took aim at MP Sami Gemayel who delivered a Facebook live video earlier in the week, angrily questioning the column’s placement after reading about it on social media, and likening the ministry’s handling of ruins to that of extremist groups destroying heritage.

“These are priceless, do you know what that means,” Gemayel shouted. “You are just like ISIS.”

“You don’t protect the country from ISIS, we all protect the country,”  responded Minister Khoury, who counter accused critics of “destroying the ministry of culture.”

The columns had been placed in storage around 1992-1993 by the controversial multi-billion dollar real estate firm Solidere, Minister Khoury claimed, adding: “Solidere moved them because they want to work on the marina. And they let us know…”

It seems Khoury was not referring to the yacht marina but rather the giant piece of legally dubious reclaimed seafront he was standing on, known as the “waterfront district,” Soldiere’s upcoming project, worth billions of dollars, as I had reported on previously. Thus the ruins apparently had to be moved to make way for more luxury real estate towers.

But how is it that a private real estate company came to be responsible for housing and moving these ruins instead of the government?

In many ways, the story of these columns can be seen as a metaphor for how archaeology has often been handled during the postwar reconstruction period.

While reporting for the BBC on the discovery of ancient Beirut’s Roman chariot race track, I spoke to the former head of archaeology at the American University of Beirut who was blunt in her description on how ruins have been handled both in the capital and across the country:

“They keep everything secret. People focus on Beirut but they have no idea how many more substantial things are being destroyed across Lebanon,” said Professor Helen Sader.

Since publication of the piece, the chariot race track has now been completely gutted to make way for a bank and luxury villas owned by another minister.

Meanwhile Solidere and other archeologists who worked for company continue to present their reconstruction and archeological preservation efforts as world leading at conferences in Lebanon and around the world. But with ruins tossed in a pile with no labels, something has clearly gone wrong.

Perplexingly, the head of the antiquities department, Sarkis Khoury, claimed in a revealing LBC interview that as the columns are moved, each would be labeled according to its size and physical dimensions.

But why are the columns being labeled now instead of when they were first excavated? After all, it is not the length and height of the columns that tells their story, it is primarily the location where they were found, the archeological context, what structures or artifacts they were attached to and or found around them, that helps us date them and understand their usage. But now most of those excavations have been destroyed.

Director Khoury noted that the ruins would be distributed in gardens and public institutions across Lebanon “so the Lebanese people can benefit from them.” Many have already been moved to the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut.

But does the public really benefit from columns with no identity? Columns that tell no story? Random slabs of granite laying on the ground with no meaning? How did such a massive archeological effort end this way? Why are the columns not being showcased across Beirut where they were found to give people a sense of the Roman city?

Some government archaeologists complain that the public does not appreciate history, but how can they do so if there are no signs or indications of what these stones and structures mean?

I plan to get more answers to these questions in an investigative piece I am working on with the support of a crowd-funding campaign by Press Start. Your comments or suggestions are always welcome.

In the meantime, one major thing has changed since the 1990s and that is social media. Posts by activist groups as well as prominent Lebanese bloggers such as Gino Raidy, Elie Fares and others have helped shed light on these issues, which were poorly covered by mainstream media in years past. But even the mainstream media is changing and becoming more aggressive in demanding accountability, as the reports quoted in this post by LBC’s Sobhiya Najjar and L’Orient’s May Makarem, show.

Going forward, let’s hope that with more media coverage and public debate, ruins won’t be brushed aside so easily in the future and we’ll be able to learn more about ancient Berytus as excavations and discoveries are likely to continue.

 

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A lot of you have probably seen the now viral cell phone video shot in the Beirut Souks mall earlier this summer. It’s a great pick-me-up, if you are losing hope in humanity (and in Lebanon and the Middle East in particular these days.) Spoiler alert: Grammy-award winning artist Seal sings a duet with the young street performer and ends by asking him to play at his concert later that evening.

But what a lot of people who saw this video probably don’t know is that unscripted public performance is actually banned in “Downtown Beirut,”  the part of the city that was rebuilt after the war by the private real estate firm Soldiere, which gentrified and commodified the old city center and ejected nearly all its old tenants, transforming the once gritty, centuries-old melting pot into a posh high street.

I’m not sure if Seal got a hint of this, but he did note that it was “slim pickings” to find a busker or street performer in Beirut. This may be because performers have been manhandled and hauled away by security forces as I witnessed and documented in this post a few years ago.

Seal also notes that despite Solidere’s offer of free-wifi (one of the many ways the corporation claims to give back to the city) the internet is actually “nonexistent” and thus he is forced to upload the video from his hotel room later on.

It all starts when Seal shoots a brief intro video outside the Souks shopping mall, which used to be series of famous actual souks or open air markets in prewar Beirut (until Soldiere and its elite urban planners decided Gucci and Prada would be a better fit.)

Seal then “stumbles upon” Peter Choucanii, a 21-year-old with a beautiful voice who has been performing in local clubs.  When asked if he performs here often, Choucanii says he doesn’t and prefers to perform in other cities in North Lebanon like Jbeil and Batroun. It’s never made clear why he doesn’t perform on the streets of the city he lives in, where there is far more traffic than distant towns. But the two create a lovely performance. You can watch it here:

Now Choucanii is not overly surprised to see Seal (unlike another street performer he encountered in Manchester who was starstruck) and Seal later admits from his hotel room that the performer was given advance notice that he was coming, which was not what he asked for.

 

It’s hard to say to what extent this encounter was staged, but I wonder if the Solidere private security would have just stood back and watched if a famous star was not involved or if the street performer was not a good looking young kid singing in English instead of a poorer-looking Lebanese, Syrian or Egyptian singing in Arabic.

And it’s not just the Souks. Other Solidere faux public spaces such as Zaitunay Bay have signs that explicitly ban unauthorized music, food or any type of public panhandling.

What Seal is doing with street performers is a laudable act of using celebrity power for public good. And as Seal often often notes: “the best performers can be found on the street.

Maybe Solidere and the Lebanese authorities should listen to that advice. Because if people were allowed to sing and express themselves in public places, maybe more talented people could be spotted and given a chance, especially youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. Beyond that, street music adds a texture and a serendipity to the city, which is largely lost in a manicured and corporate-controlled environment like “downtown Beirut.”

Some of the greatest cities in the world are known for their street music.  Why should Beirut be any different?

***

Thanks to Marshall for reminding me about this video, which reached him as far away as Texas.

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:

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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As compared to:

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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:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

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

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

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…than it does in reality:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Watch this private security man get right in the face of uniformed police officers. According to Al Jadeed, the plainclothes men are security agents working for Solidere, Lebanon’s largest and most powerful private corporation.

According to Al Jadeed, the confrontation began when activists protesting the ongoing waste crisis, which is seeing garbage piled up on Beirut’s streets, decided to hold a demonstration in front of Zaitunay Bay, a luxury restaurant area, built around Solidere’s private yacht marina.

(Update: Photographer on the scene says he was punched by security agents. See details below.)

The private security around the facility allegedly attempted to ban video cameras from filming the demonstration, according to Al Jadeed, and the police were deployed around the protestors, who had obtained a legal permit for the rally, the report says. Of course Zaitunay Bay, which is built around public coastal property is very concerned with its image and has a series of rules it enforces to keep the area exclusive, despite claiming the site is open to all.

It took several police to restrain this man, identified by Al Jadeed as one of Soldiere’s private security:

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He’s heard shouting at the officers to get off of him, while he wrestles with those trying to pull him away. This would probably be considered assault of a police officer in many countries, a criminal offense that can carry a sentence of one or more years in prison.

But as we have witnessed in Lebanon, bodyguards and private security working for Lebanese elites frequently engage in violent behavior with impunity, the most recent example was the stabbing death of George El Rif. Other well-connected bodyguards have assaulted, beaten or even tried to run over protestors in the past facing very few consequences for their actions.

So was the security officer charged with anything? One of the protestors I spoke to said he was just left alone when police left. It would be interesting to hear what Zaitunay Bay or Solidere have to say about this. What does the police department have to say?

You can watch all the action in Al Jadeed’s report below. The clash begins at 1:06:

In the early part of the video, protestors are shown standing in front of the well-protected luxury property which has been insulated from the mounds of garbage piling up in other parts of the city.

One suggested people dump their garbage to places like Zaitunay, which is connected or owned by the politicians that rule this country. As I recently reported previously, the private yacht marina pays a negligible amount of tax on the public waterway, despite the huge revenues it brings in for exorbitant berthing fees.

Indeed the waste crisis has sparked a public uproar against the country’s uber wealthy politicians for failing to deal with a series of failures in state services, despite somehow always managing to succeed at enriching themselves. Tomorrow (Saturday) citizens are gathering in front of the Prime Minister’s offices to give them a piece of their mind, and perhaps bring some garbage bags along too.

 

***

UPDATE (25/7/15): One of the photographers on the scene, Hussein Baydoun, has just confirmed to me that he was punched in the back by one of the security guards on the scene. Baydoun, who works for the news site, Al Araby Jadeed, he was not hurt seriously but that another security agent also tried to slap him. He says the plainclothes private security agents were shouting: “No pictures!”

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A “super yacht” called Samar has just docked in Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay marina. At around 77 meters, it dwarfs the dozens of other smaller yachts in the marina (see below right).

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Samar has a helipad, gym, private movie theatre, cold and hot pools, guest elevator, three jet skis and a Mini Cooper as well as some 20 staff to serve you, according to a charter company that claims to rent it out.

But I wonder how much the Solidere marina charges it to park?

I wonder if the owner and the crew on-board are taking advantage of yacht crew tax accountants to keep their finances in order? Running a ship of this size must be expensive.

I recently reported for The Guardian that the marina around Zaitunay Bay has been rented for 50 years at the cost of just $1.60 per square meter. The marina is 66,000 square meters so that comes out to a total government fee of around $100,000 per year.  Thus the annual berthing fees for one yacht alone can pay the whole government fee,  Al Akhbar economics editor Mohamad Zbeeb, told me.

But what about a yacht as big as Samar? It’s not easy to find the rates of berthing at Solidere’s website but another site called Port Booker offers a calculator.  It only allows boats of a maximum of 30 meters, so I calculated a single day cost and it came out to $638 for one day. I tried for one month and it quoted about $17,000; multiply that by 12 months and you get over $200,000. But again this for 30 meters–which is less than half the size of Samar. If we were to double the fees, Samar would cost at least $400,000 per year to park, meaning it could pay off the annual government fee in just 3 months.

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Screen grab of www.portbooker.com Beirut rates for a 30 meter yacht, less than half the size of Samar

 

And remember, Samar is just one of dozens of yachts bobbing around in the marina.

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The boat is apparently registered in the Cayman Islands according to MarineTraffic.com and is rumored to be owned by Kuwaiti billionaire Kutayba Al Ghanim, number 4 in Kuwait on the Forbes list.

I spotted Samar once in 2008 in Beirut and did a short post on it.
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I wonder how many times she’s been to Beirut since then, and how much money her owner has paid Solidere.

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A glimpse of Samar’s interiors via CharterWorld.com

 

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ABC mall dancers

I don’t usually do lists, but with all the awful news I have been covering lately about demolitions and people getting beaten up, I thought I’d lighten up a little this holiday season. So here are some of the strangest Christmas displays I have seen around town. Some are actually kind of cool, others are completely awful, but all are pretty unconventional.

 

1.) Suspended East European dancers:

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Lebanon loves East European dancers. They fill our variety television shows, and now they are getting us into the spirit of giving… with skin tight outfits. Did I mention that they dance in two glass balls suspended from the mall’s roof?

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The guy at the sunglass hut seems thankful:

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2.) Flying trees

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Lebanon’s newest mall, Beirut City Center, wants a piece of the competition.

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Not only are these plastic trees airborne, they also double as… snowflakes?

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 3. Merry Christmas and F*** u from St. Georges:

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Tis the season to fight the power.

Many of you know the long-standing battle between Beirut’s oldest hotel and the country’s largest company, Solidere. The St. Georges owner has been fighting the real estate giant for several years, arguing that Solidere is using its political connections to prevent him from reopening his famous hotel.  (You can read more about the land conflict in an Al Jazeera piece I wrote last year. )

The St. Georges “Stop Solidere” sign has been up for at least 6 years, serving as the most visible form of resistance toward the multibillion dollar company. But this is the first time I’ve seen it decorated for the holidays.

4.) Almaza tree

 

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Lebanon’s best known brew works great for a tree the whole family can enjoy.

5. Junior Mafia

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Who doesn’t love Lebanese mobsters weaving in and out of traffic with their $200,000 sports cars? Now their children can learn to show off at a very earlier age. They even offer black-tinted windows for all the junior VIPs.  Quick, somebody sell them low number vanity plates to make this gift perfect.

6.) Humility

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This ABC kiosk says it all really.

7.) Christmas tank

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Nothing says Christmas like a Vietnam-era Armored Personnel Carrier parked outside a shopping mall.

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Checking to see who has been naughty or nice with a 50 caliber machine gun?

8.) Year round tree  

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Call it municipal incompetence or call it endless holiday spirit. When I noticed the Naccache neighborhood still had its 2013 tree up last September, I realized it probably wouldn’t be coming down in any time soon.

9.) Fake snow flake machine

If flying trees were not enough (see number 2)  City Center mall is also making it rain with fake flakes, which fall gracefully on its 5 story tree:

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10.) LAU: Blinded by the light

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The Lebanese American University wants to make sure you know what time of year it is. In fact, they are recreating the light of the stars that led the three wise men to baby Jesus. But they would probably need sunglasses if they stumbled onto LAU campus today.

Honorable mentions:

Despite the rampant and strange consumerist displays, it wouldn’t be right to ignore many folks in Lebanon that have truly embraced the sprit of giving this season.

Such as the kids who volunteered with the soup kitchen Food Blessed, who were taking donations at a Badaro Christmas fair:

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You can check out their website here.

I also noticed this stand at ABC where you can buy a teddy bear for 40,000LL that will help put a disadvantaged kid through school:

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It’s part of the “Teach a Child” NGO and you can check out their site here.

Finally, why not give the gift of recycled Lebanese garbage?  I also found this stand at ABC mall that uses discarded Beirut advertising canvas to make cool bags:

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For more interesting Christmas celebrations in Lebanon check out last year’s posts on Hezbollah Christmas TV specials as well as Beirut’s favorite Christmas techno song.

In the meantime, Beirut Report wishes you happy holidays and very merry/strange/Lebanese Christmas!

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I recently got a better look at the ruins discovered at the “Saifi Plaza” project, which I have been blogging about lately. There seems to have been significant progress since my last post, earlier this summer. Some activists believe the site, which is slated to become a series of office buildings, could contain Roman baths.

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Of course it’s hard to tell because government-employed archeologists maintain a policy of not speaking publicly on new digs and discourage photography and discussion about them in the press.

If we zoom in, there appears to be an underground structure or chamber with large stones:

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Could it be a Roman structure due to the large size of the stones, perhaps part of a wall or foundation?

To the left of this, a number of stones also seem to have been recovered or dismantled from the site, near the bulldozer:

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Here’s a closer view:

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If anyone has more info about this site, please feel free to share in the comments below or get in touch via the ‘contact us’ form at the top of the page.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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