Thursday, 8 April 2010

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Like a stranger in Beirut: "they bought this city and sold it"

  • Thursday, 8 April 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • Yesterday, I went on a stroll around Downtown Beirut with my camera, taking pictures and rediscovering the city's lost heritage - something I do often and wherever I go. But yesterday was slightly different - a supermarket owner made me vow to pass on a message, and this will be my first attempt at passing the message on to my readers.

    Allenby Street in the 1940s

    I started my walk from the Fouad Chehab Avenue, from the eastern ramp near Tabbaris and made my way up the avenue which separates the relatively poor neighbourhood of Zokak El-Blat from the areas Solidere (and others) took over in their endeavour to create a new, modern up-scale Downtown designed to impress Beirut's visitors. I made my way past the Markazia Monroe Suites, Beirut Gates, ESCWA and past the Government Serail in Downtown Beirut. I then found myself stalked by security guards and Internal Security Force (ISF) personnel who kept reminding me that taking pictures in any direction towards the Serail was forbidden.

    But soon, the Serail disappeared from sight as I approached Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue in the Bab Idris (or Wadi Abou Jamil) neighbourhood. And even there, photography was forbidden. At first, I complied - assuming it might be aimed at protecting the Jewish synagogue from potential threat. But, even as the synagogue disappeared from sight as the Serail had earlier - I was still instructed not to take pictures along the "gentrified" Allenby Street (video of Allenby Street at night).

    For most visitors, the restoration of the neighbourhood and Allenby Street, or it's "gentrification", has revived its attractiveness and its revived war-torn Downtown. However, locals had another opinion.

    Allenby Street today

    I came across one, lonely building in dire need for rennovation. The building, bearing the scars of the Civil War and the fin de siècle architectural magnificence of the Arab Belle Epoque was the only remaining building in a sea of gentrified up-scale business and commercial buildings bought, renovated and resold by Solidere. The neighbourhood was desolate with no one but a few security guards and myself. Nevertheless, there was a convenience store on the ground floor of the deserted building from where I bought juice and chocolate.

    I struck a conversation with the shopkeeper when I asked her "why are they barring us from taking pictures of this historical neighbourhood?" The smile of boredom on her face soon turned into a look of sarcasm before she said "Beit El-Wassat is down the alleyway here." She was making reference to Prime Minister Saad El-Hariri's new house in the "Commercial Centre" (Al-Wassat Al-Tijari) which his father's company, Solidere, renovated.

    The shopkeeper then told me, "don't be like all those other airheads who look at Beirut today and feel happy about its reconstruction [...] they bought the country and sold it." She looked at me with lamenting eyes and said "this neighbourhood used to be full of Jews, Armenians, Christians and a handful of Muslims [...] I was born here, and so were my children. I sent the girls and boys to these two schools round the corner."

    In her opinion, "Beirut is no longer affordable for us, my children couldn't afford to buy property here, nor could they send their kids to school here [...] they had to move out [...] Today, I cannot afford a cup of coffee in the neighbourhood." She then went on to tell me about how she and friends spent Easter Holidays, "we went out of Downtown Beirut to afford a decent break. We stayed in a five star hotel, open buffet and wonderful hospitality for $170 a couple - the price of a modest lunch here in this ghost town."

    El-Bourj Square today

    She finally said, "but you know what, I ain't going nowhere... If they wanna renovate this, they better find a way to do it while I'm in my shop. I already lost my husband's laundrette opposite the street, but I won't give this shop up [...] I'm born here, raised here and I shall die here." She said it with so much determination mixed with anger and lament.

    Before she could reflect, or I could respond, a bunch of hungry-looking security guards and policemen from the Bourj police station next door walked in on our private conversation to buy food and snacks for themselves. I politely excused myself and made my way out of her shop, taking one last glance at the building.

    As I walked away from the shop towards Bourj El-Murr and the western commercial section of DT, I walked past the two schools to which the shopkeepers' sons and daughters went. I passed by one of the two schools that have marked Bab Idriss and Wadi Abou Jamil for almost a century just in time to see a school bus drive past to pick up the children leaving - the kids exited their high-security school, made their way through the tall iron gates, out onto Allenby Street before getting on the bus that would take them home.

    As for me, I made my way through more harassment and "no photography" instructions until I reached the old Maronite Church of St. Elie where the "no photography" hysteria gradually faded away.

    Downtown Beirut today

    I've always had negative feelings towards Beirut's Downtown and have always expressed concern, dislike and at times disgust at its fate. But this experience forced me to unearth a few of my old memories, old articles as well as dig up some archives on the architecture, social and cultural life of Medieval Beirut.

    Amongst the more recent, journalistic or opinion pieces that might be of interest to some of you are Ibrahim Al-Amine's وسط بيروت: ماذا فعلتُ بأهلي؟ (Al-Akhbar, 04/12/2006), Ossama El-Aref's هذه بيروت التي انقضت... وهذه أسواقها (Al-Hayyat, 13 October 2009), اعتصام أصحاب المؤسسات في الوسط التجاري (Al-Akhbar, 8 October 2006) and Bissan Tay's أين ساحة البرج؟" عائدة إلى الوسط التجاري تسأل عن ذكرياتها" (Al-Akhbar, 12 December 2006).

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