BEIRUT: BETWEEN MEMORY AND DESIRE

By Elie Haddad

Beirut is a city of complexities and contradictions. The tensions resulting from such a condition have exploded into violence throughout its recent history, most devastatingly in Lebanon's fifteen-year long civil war (1975-1990), which was centred in Beirut, and marked the city in the international consciousness as a place of senseless violence and destruction. Some historians have attributed the destruction of the city to a latent hatred for what Beirut had come to represent for many of those living on its margins, i.e. an exclusive concentration of economic and political powers that reduced the rest of the population to a condition of subservience. In one post-war documentary, a militiaman candidly recounted the feeling of satisfaction that he and his comrades felt as they entered one of the grand hotels, heretofore a symbol of those in power, and violently took their sweet revenge on the place and all that it symbolized.

In fact Beirut's development from the 1950's onwards caused a chronic imbalance in comparison to the surrounding countryside and region. Some pre-war films and plays took the theme of those newcomers to the city, who migrated from their mountain villages towards the capital, and were struck by its glamour and libertine lifestyle, largely nurtured by the influx of petrodollars from the Gulf countries. Yet this unchecked urban development came at the expense of all other towns and villages, and the city became a magnet that drained whole populations from other areas of Lebanon faster than the city could accommodate. This intense concentration of migrant populations constituted one of the factors behind the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. The playwright Ziad Rahbani most succinctly expressed this atmosphere in one of his early plays Bil Nisbeh la Boukra Chou? [What's for Tomorrow?], which explored this condition of marginalization experienced by those newcomers to the city. The migrants from the agricultural hinterland and the mountain villages streamed towards the promising city, settling at the boundaries, in what became known as the [sometimes infamous] 'southern suburbs', which constituted a poverty-belt around the city. This condition was further aggravated by the successive influxes of Palestinian refugees, first in 1948, then 1967, and again in 1970. The dismal conditions of the refugee camps in the same 'poverty-belt' added another factor of instability to an already tense situation. It is within this zone that, one Sunday afternoon in April 1975, the civil war started in a street battle between Palestinian gunmen and Christian militiamen.

After the war, a similar opposition developed between the city centre, which became the focus of the reconstruction effort, and the surrounding districts within the city, which have been neglected. Outside of the center, rampant speculation is radically changing the character of historic neighborhoods, and gentrifying in the process these neighborhoods. This is largely due to the failure of the political authorities to develop and implement a new urban plan that limits densities, safeguards historic landmarks, and creates much needed public spaces and green parks. The urban sprawl now extends past municipal boundaries, subsuming what used to be the 'suburbs' within an indefinitely and ever expanding 'Greater Beirut'.

The post-war reconstruction of the city was entrusted to a private company, Solidere, through a governmental decree that allowed the expropriation, reconstruction and management of all land in the city center, what covers effectively the area of the 'old Beirut'. Thus the reconstruction effort was largely focused on the city center, in addition to other projects that would be of service to it, such as the airport, highways, and other infrastructure projects. The excuse for the expropriation of the 'Old City' was the extent of destruction, the incapacity of the original owners and the state to handle this large task, and the legal problems of multiple ownership and rental rights that could delay the reconstruction process. The expropriated landowners became mere shareholders in this new arrangement, along with new international investors. While this arrangement had the clear benefit of ensuring a comprehensive and homogeneous urban plan in a city where planning guidelines are outdated, its drawbacks were the exclusion of public debate, in addition to what most landowners saw as a violation of their ownership rights.

The reconstruction was also controversial at the urban level, as some districts irreversibly lost their character, such as Wadi-abu-Jmil and Saifi. First came the demolition of the old markets, the Souks near Martyrs Square in 1982, which paradoxically had the positive outcome of revealing an important archaeological site, the Roman Cardo axis. The historic Souk Ayyas, on the other hand, was razed in 1992, simply to increase the exploitation area. This action, which was met by widespread condemnation, led the reconstruction company to launch the first international competition in the city, for the re-design of the Souks. The winning schemes of this ideas-competition were overlooked, and the site was later parceled among a number of international architects, with the main part going to Rafael Moneo.

The other major space to undergo a tabula rasa was Martyrs Square, the central square of the city, which was stripped of its historic landmarks. Solidere launched again an international competition for the re-design of this central urban space in the summer of 2004. The Greek team of Agorastidou, Noukakis, Ioannidou and Babalou-Noukaki won the first-prize, with their proposal for a mix of functions around the square, from concert halls and museums to shopping areas and a public library, and a 'memorial void' at the center of the square. It remains to be seen to what extent this proposal for the revitalization of Martyrs Square will be implemented, as the competition was an 'Ideas Competition', giving Solidere a latitude in the implementation of its results.

Politics often supersedes 'urban design', and life with its unexpected events overtakes the emptiness inadvertently created by planners. Following the tragic events of February 14, 2005, the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, the people's 'revolt for independence' took possession of this public space and turned it into a political 'campus' for the opposition to the regime. For months, protesters held vigil, camped on the grounds, and organized demonstrations calling for the end to an occupation that lasted close to three decades. The grandiose new mosque that had been financed and built by Hariri at a prominent location on this square, took in its turn a new dimension as a rallying point for the demonstrators, as Hariri now lay buried in its grounds, a martyr for a nation in search of itself. Martyrs Square, in an ironic and unexpected reversal, thus returned to its original role as a public forum, a living, throbbing political space at the heart of the city. And the city which had been refashioned and marketed by the planners as an entertainment capital for the Arab World has proven its capacity to reclaim its role as a 'political' space in the full sense of the term, and a beacon to the Arab World.

Beirut is perpetually redefining itself: Mediterranean and Arab, cosmopolitan and nationalist, secular and religious, liberal and conservative, political and hedonistic, superficial and genuine... A city in search of its identity, at the crossroads of cultures from the Arabian Peninsula to the Caucasian plateaus and across the Mediterranean Sea. Beirut's dynamism and insatiable appetite for life may derive from Beroe, Aphrodite's daughter and the sister of Eros, who gave her name to this promontory, and who triggered a competition between Poseidon, god of the sea, and Dionysus, god of the land. Legend has it that Poseidon eventually won the fight, something that may explain Beroe's eternal longing for the sea. Yet Dionysus still casts his spell on this seductive maiden who willingly succumbs to earthly pleasures.