Beirut’s city centre: between images of the past and present reconstruction.
Céline Nohra - 22/06/2010
Until the war’s outbreak in 1975, the capital’s bulk of activities were concentrated in Beirut’s downtown. In 1994, after the conflict, the responsibility to rebuilt and develop the devastated area was entrusted to a private company called Solidere (Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut) whose plan of action lasts till 2018. The project concerns 1.8 million square metres of which 600 000 are taken from the sea. This project appears as a symbol of the country’s economic and financial recovery.
Most of the young Lebanese aged from 18 to 30 have not known the centre as it was before the war. The image they have of it has been transmitted to them through the oral stories of their parents as well as photographs, stamps and old postcards and history books.
The same image is conveyed among these youngsters, a nostalgic and ideal image. “Cosmopolitan and colourful, the City Centre symbolized the golden age before 1975 when Beirut was called the Paris of the Orient” states Karim Geahchan, a 31 year-old entrepreneur. “It was the leading economic, educational, cultural centre of the Middle-East, adds Nassib Khoury, a 28 year-old historian and teacher. It was very modern, being one of the first in the Middle-East to host the tramway and the automobile industry while having a traditional and historic character with its old souks teeming with life, its streets and buildings dating from the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate”.
The pre-war City Centre is thus established as a myth; the young generations agree on using colourful and vivid descriptions of an authentic and abounding urban zone where religious and community conviviality, freedom of expression and the joie de vivre were the catchwords, where the elites of the region and the middle classes had created matrices for the exchange of goods and ideas.
What do young people think of the new City Centre under construction?
The City Centre’s renovation is commendable on several levels. In everyone’s opinion, the restorations were very well done even if not very numerous. The reconstructed area is the only one in Lebanon where there is a certain urban logic of rigorous quality generating the respect of the identity of the different districts with different characters, the alignment of streets… But drawbacks abound. “The City Centre’s reconstruction was undertaken by a private company whose ultimate goal and the driving force is to make money, sometimes at the expense of the buildings’ cultural and historical value, notes Karim Elian, a 29 year-old architect. A big mistake has thus been committed because the only part of the City Centre considered to have a heritage value was the one that dates back to the French mandate, therefore concerning the period from 1915 to 1943.”
“Many regrets emerge when I think of the new City Centre of Beirut adds Karim Elian. The old souks could have been preserved; the news souks are actually a series of standardised luxury shops that adapt to major international brand names. Moreover, the Ottoman buildings with three arches have all been razed with the exception of one. With regards to the Martyrs Square, it has lost its human scale that was perfect for contact and exchange to become an avenue, a major road, an esplanade. Finally, the use of all the exploitable area is an urban planning measure that has been highly criticised. The rise of exploitation ratios of the lands overlooking the sea, that are commercially speaking, the most expensive, the construction of giant towers that block the view and close the space up were favoured as the higher the building, the higher the profits.” The new apartments in downtown, with an area of 500 to 1000 square metres are only affordable by wealthy Lebanese expatriates or Arabs having substantial financial resources. And yet, a seasonal city is a ghost town.
According to Michel Hajji Georgiou, a 30 year-old journalist and political scientist, before the 14th of March 2005*, the new City Centre has been a leisure space for tourists where the Lebanese brushed against each other without meeting, an area characterised by a socio-political emptiness, an empty gallery established on the ruins of the 1990’s no man’s land just after the war. “I’m part of the uprooted generation who lived its childhood and a part of its adolescence outside the crushed and bombarded city, the relationship with the city happened with the outskirts. Back then, the city was not the political, civic, economic pole”. For him, like for many other young people, the City Centre was not built up with the logic that prevailed before the war and it is not faithful to the image and to the representation told by the older generations.
“But the 14th of March 2005 brought about a big change, creating a real explosion and a violent detonation when it comes to the City Centre’s function; the latter, reinvested by the population has suddenly become a space for the Other’s (re) discovery and for pluralism, an important place of reunion and gatherings, of a reticular logic and political claims. The crowd has thus recreated public space”.
Suggestions in the framework of a futuristic projection of Beirut’s City Centre that is still being rebuilt
“It is absolutely imperative to raise awareness about the importance of the preservation of archaeological remains,” states Nassib Khoury. “Beirut is a city that is archeologically alive hammers Michel Hajji Georgiou. But unfortunately, the state is not really aware of this city’s heritage and is irresponsible when it comes to the capital’s management. This amnesia and this permanent lack of citizenship are maybe related to the precarious socio-political situation that generates instant patronage, instant urgency, the perpetual desire to start all over again and to conceal things that last, tire, embarrass and disturb”. It is indeed the logic of business and savage capitalism that prevail in spite of the fact that a city with no History is a city with no future since it has nothing to transmit.
The city still retains its rights.
The young Lebanese complete their testimony with this positive note. They all want a new downtown in Beirut, one that is less sterile, les conspicuous, less elitist, more human, more syncretic, denser in terms of politics, meetings, cultural crossroads, dialogue and intermingling. Less a sanitized gallery and glazed window than a beating authentic heart of a country undergoing reconstruction.
So that Memory and History finally undertake the long and hard work of consolidation, equilibrium and reconciliation.
* Former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated on the 14th of February 2005, in an explosion that took place close to the City-Centre of Beirut. Tens of thousands of people gathered each evening at the Martyrs’ Square claiming the truth on Hariri’s assassination and the retirement of some 14 000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon. On the 14th of March 2005, a protest gathered more than a million Lebanese of all confessions, of all political parties; Lebanon discovers the new power of mass protest and national unity. Under this pressure and the one of international community, the Syrian troupes leave Lebanon.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech