Story of Beirut

Can a historical city lose its identity?

Has Beirut lost its identity along the way of renovation?

 

“For many of us, it’s synonymous with war and strife. But for the artists, chefs, designers, architects and scholars who live there, Beirut will always be a place where ideas and beauty flourished… and flourish still.”

Michael Specter, the Eternal Magic of Beirut

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Beirut, the city that is washed by the Mediterranean Sea and ringed by mountains, remains despite all clichés the Paris of the Middle East. From the times of French mandate to the 1960s, everyone felt at home in Beirut from rich Europeans, Arab royalties to celebrities like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Even, the infamous MI6 officer Kim Philby, spent many evenings at the bar of the Saint-Georges Hotel. The outdoor cafés were always filled with chatter and laughs. The city was free, vibrant with people coming from every corner on earth. Beirut, was the city of dreams. It was the city of the Phoenix with all its archaeological sites and its outdoor living where Lebanese people from all backgrounds co-lived in an open environment.

“There it stands, [the Impossible city of Beirut], with a toss of curls and a flounce of skirts, a Carmen among the cities. It’s the last of the Middle Eastern fleshpots.”

Jan Morris, 1956

Morris wrote this passage during the Golden age of Beirut, before the Lebanese civil war destroyed this city and left it deeply wounded.

When the renovations started in the late 1990s, Solidere promised to revive the memory of Beirut before the 1970s. It promised to safeguard all the historical sites and never let Beirut lose its sense of a cosmopolitan and open area.

Did this company keep its word and protect Beirut not only renovate it?

Is the city that was destroyed and built seven times still present?

Is the 2000s’ Beirut similar to the 1960s’ Beirut?
I doubt.

Solidere’s stated goal, as mentioned earlier, was to revive the memory of the days before 1975 when Beirut was pluralistic and prosperous. In fact, before the disasters that torn Beirut apart in 1975, the city has never been more cosmopolitan, more tolerant and more self-indulgent than any Arab city. People from different ideological and religious lines co-lived in this city before the war divided them.

Solidere did renovate the bullet-riddled facades beautifully. However, the development also wiped away centuries of history and most of Beirut’s rich architectural heritage.

To get a sense of that, Beirut Souks were always Beirut’s center of commerce that attracted shoppers from all around the world since the Phoenicians. Solidere rebuilt the Souks along its historical grid plan, which was supposed to assure continuity. Truth is: it didn’t. The souks today are filled with shiny objects and marble floors. It’s a great place to buy body creams, a 10,000$ Hermès bag and a Tiffany and co. ring. Don’t get me wrong, the Souks are splendid but they have far more in common with the Mall of America than with the many bazaars that have dominated the Arab market place for thousands of years.

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Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative Literature at UCLA, has written:

“The most urgent question here is not how a collection of Pizza Huts or body shops and Gucci stores gathered together as a “souk” will recapture any lifestyle other than that of a shopping mall. The point is not that this is a misnomer, nor that a traditional souk is necessarily more genuine and authentic than a shopping mall, but something strange is happening to our sense of history when we confuse a shopping mall with a souk.”

Georges Arbid, director of the Arab Center for Architecture and associate professor at AUB, in a New York Times article, replies when asked about the development project of Beirut’s central district:

“The city center is rebuilt beautifully. But the question is for whom? It wasn’t built for the middle classes, and certainly not for the poor.”

This makes us question the integrity of Solidere when it came to keeping its promise of protecting the Beirut of the era before 1975. The era when the city center was for all Lebanese, disregarding their social class.

The civil war divided Beirut according to ideological and religious lines. And today, another kind of wars is dividing Beirut according to economic and social lines.

Maybe Solidere is not the only company that is not safeguarding the identity of Beirut.

 Let’s wider our scope a bit and look at the neighborhood of Electricité du Liban headquarters. Electrical service in Lebanon is not something to be proud of but the building itself, dating from 1965, is magnificent. Arbid who has a passion for modernism is still fascinated by the architecture of this building that reflected the local traditions of outdoor living. Buildings had arches and plenty of room for people to mingle. “That is the traditional Lebanese construction”, he said, “open and inviting”.

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While walking in the streets of Achrafieh, you do not feel the sense of the traditional Beirut era with many open spaces. The era we live in now is an era of darkness. Now we have 40-story buildings leaving no place for the terraces of the Lebanese tradition and no place even for coffee shops and meeting places on ground floors. In fact, ground floors are nothing but banks, bakeries, restaurants and shops. The newest towers, many of which are hovering above beautiful old villas, are nothing but giant glass walls. Previous terraces are closed by windows which are hardly opened. Arbid notes that nearly every place became a gated community, with no public place, no place to chat.

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Beirut is a beautiful city that fascinates all its visitors. However, we were so fascinated by the glass buildings and the shiny places that we lost our identity along the way. Ask any stranger about what Beirut means to you, they will either say bombs and gunfire on one hand or vibrant and excellent nightlife and “the one-hour trip between mountain and sea” on the other hand; as if the city that was destructed and rebuilt seven times doesn’t exist anymore, as if the cosmopolitan Beirut disappeared.

Shiny buildings and beautiful blocks are representing Beirut nowadays. However, they lack any sense of history and continuity of the old Beirut spirit.

I cannot but ask: Is it possible that a city with so much history and old spirit like Beirut lose its identity?

NB: This is only a personal perspective. Beirut is a city very dear to my heart, and maybe the most beautiful city I have ever seen and experienced. Solidere is a very reputable company that should be thanked enormously for the efforts put in renovating Beirut. My criticism is coming from the idea that this company promised to safeguard Beirut not only renovate it, However, I feel that they only renovated it. Even if the renovation was accomplished beautifully according to high standards, the company didn’t keep its promise of protecting the old Beirut’s spirit.

 

This post is inspired and sourced by:

Specter, M. The Eternal Magic of Beirut, NYtimes.com . May 2, 2016.

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