Beirut: a captivating city of contrasts

Beirut. Once the Paris of the Middle East. Sophisticated and exotic. A place where more than thirty faiths have lived side by side for centuries. But also a place of destruction and sorrow. The civil war that raged there in the second half of the twentieth century blazed a trail of pain. And yet the city still has something magical; a reputation that kindles curiosity. What can you expect from a city with such a tumultuous past? And what can we learn from its people? Last week, Rinske was invited by Stipo [stipo.nl] to visit Beirut with a group of city-makers from Holland, Mexico and Great Britain. To seek inspiration and explore opportunities with local placemakers and students. Read her report below.

 

A city of extremes
Rarely – in fact, never – have I seen such a diversity of worlds in such a brief space of time. No other city played with my emotions like Beirut. It’s a city of contrasts, and finds its way under your skin and into your heart in a matter of hours. A city that takes hold of you, and fills you with amazement and awe. A city where war is never far away, and the uneasy peace frays before your eyes. But you can’t help falling in love with the immense friendliness and resilience typical of Beirut and its citizens.

A playground amidst pockmarked buildings.

 

Beirut is many cities
The city consists of thirty boroughs, each based on a shared religion. Faith is woven into the flesh and bone of Beirut. Atheism is a rarity. I was reminded of Dutch society in the 50s, and how it was compartmentalized. But in Beirut, that kind of separation applies to every facet of life. There are generations who spend their entire lives in their neighbourhood, never encountering people from a different area or religion. It’s only the younger generation who at least seem to venture further than their own back yard.


Make food not war
It’s still difficult for people of different backgrounds to interact. Let alone do business. But that’s changing now, with the Souk el Tayeb market. The market is held every Saturday outside the Beirut Souks, a brand new super deluxe shopping mall, clearly aimed at the happy few. People of different faiths and cultures rub shoulders at Souk el Tayeb. The market gives local farmers a chance to sell their (often organic) produce, which they can’t sell anywhere else. The market’s success has led to a second being launched at a different location.

The market is the brainchild of the same man who founded restaurant Tawlet. Tucked away behind one of the many parking areas, we discover an incredible lunch buffet and an inspiring story by the initiator, Kamal Mouzawak. At Tawlet, which literally means ‘table’, women from all ethnic backgrounds and faiths conjure up the heavenliest culinary delights, under the expert eye of a professional chef. Sunni, Shia and Christians, as well as Syrian refugees and Armenians, work here every day, side by side. Once again, food proves a powerful connector. Or, as Kamal puts it: ‘You can’t talk to everyone, but you can eat with everyone.’ Kamal has already won numerous awards for his initiative.

 

Restaurant Tawlet, where people from different backgrounds come together and cook and eat collectively.

 

Less than 1% of public space
Beirut has few outdoor areas where locals can meet up. Parks, squares and pedestrianized streets are scarce. Only 0.75% of the city’s surface area is public space. In an average European city, it’s 12%. A brief scan of the map of Beirut also shows that green space is truly a rarity.

But, right in the centre of the city, is the park Horsh Beirut. And it’s more heavily secured than a government building. If anyone from Beirut feels like a stroll in the park, they’re treated with suspicion. The park’s gates are guarded by gun-toting sentries, and we only managed to gain entry after undergoing what seemed like a cross-examination. The park is probably Beirut’s biggest secret, and barely sees any visitors, despite being the only green space in the city. And a fantastic one at that. How come? For a long time, the government claimed that the people of Beirut had no need of such a place. When this proved untrue, the state changed its story, saying people wouldn’t know how to treat a public space. For many years, only foreigners had access to the park because officials said it would be vandalized by the locals.

Our visit to Horsh Beirut, one of the rare parks in the city.

Jessica Chemali, of the local NGO Nanhoo, tells us how they encourage more people to use the park by organizing activities and, most of all, communications. Their most important channel is their Facebook page. And it’s not just the government that gets in the way – one of the biggest obstacles is, literally, the park’s accessibility. To get there, you risk life and limb, crossing the city’s main traffic arteries. And traffic on those roads is bumper to bumper.


Not so walkable city
Where in the Western world there are many efforts to make our cities as pedestrian- and bike-friendly as possible, the concept seems entirely alien to Beirut. Beirut is a city where everyone has a car, or even two. Whether you’re a businessman or a student. Without a car, you simply can’t get around because walking’s too dangerous, and the distances too great. The war destroyed a large part of the existing infrastructure, forcing people to abandon bikes as the preferred mode of transport. Organisation Cycling Circle , however, is trying to reverse this. Public transport is either non-existent or very local. The 30 district councils don’t work well together, and public transport isn’t high on their list of priorities. At night, the glut of cars turns city streets into congested parking zones. Packed as tight as sardines. Like a life-size Tetris game, cars are shoved together to make room for one more. And when you want to leave, you shout out to your neighbours, everyone comes down, and the game of shove-the-car begins.

 

Tetris with cars in the streets of Beirut.


Placemaking for peace-making
But Lebanon is facing much bigger challenges. In the port city of Tripoli, an hour from Beirut, we’re dropped off precisely on the border between the Sunni and Shia zone. Just two years ago, this place was flying with bullets. You can still see the pockmarks in the walls of ravaged and abandoned buildings. With enormous energy and passion, staff of the NGO Utopia tell us about their initiative here, on this very site. Utopia’s pay-off is ‘a challenging step towards social justice’ and the fact that they’re working in this area testifies to enormous courage. Young girls and boys often work for free, and have ambitious plans. One includes bringing one of the many cinemas here back to life. In the 1980s and 90s, movie theatres were often sniper hideouts, and now lie in tatters. But if the young team of workers can pull it off, all that’s set to change. And they’re not just talking the talk. Nearby is a football field, built by the organization’s volunteers. It’s situated exactly on the line dividing the two communities. Months of negotiations were needed to persuade the six families involved to allow their land to be used for the game. And now children play peacefully on the very site where their fathers once faced each other, armed and hostile.

 

The football court on the border of two formerly hostile boroughs.

 

Relentless redevelopment
The next day, we visited an area that seemed worlds away: Beirut’s business district and waterfront, crammed with gleaming high-rises that wouldn’t look out of place in Dubai. The gloss and streamlined reconstruction seems to have stolen a piece of Beirut’s soul. The city centre’s now an echoing, sterile place – a ghost town for the rich. The construction was implemented by Solidere, the company that took on the massive project of renewing the city centre after the civil war. And it meant emptying the city’s heart of people – the few still clinging on. Solidere was founded by billionaire businessman and former prime minister Rafic Hariri, and got a hold of the city. Beirut is the only city on the planet where property development is in the hands of a corporation. In an article published in 1999 by the Dutch newspaper the NRC, Bernard Hulsman wrote of the factors leading to Beirut’s resurrection.

Solidere’s Beirut.

 

In what Hulsman so eloquently terms ‘an antique city of the future’ we wander, dumbstruck, from one surreal architectural dream to another. Entire apartment buildings to rival those of Milan. Elegant apartments that could have been plucked from downtown Paris. But most shocking of all is the emptiness. Some buildings don’t appear to have been used, or lived in, ever. And then, among the glitter and sequins of capitalism, looms a bullet-riddled building. Which, it turns out, is the Hilton Hotel, which marksmen used as their lair throughout the civil war. Here it stands, amidst the polished steel, glass and marble – a wondrous monument to the nation’s war-stricken past. A spectre in a phantom precinct minutes away from Beirut’s exuberant, famous nightlife. The city where locals may still dance every night as though it’s their last…

Beirut seizes you by the throat and leaves you bewildered and euphoric. One visit is never enough.

 

 

This Metropolitan Field Trip was organized by Stipo and the fantastic programme was selected by Minouche Besters. Citymakers from Beirut will visit us in October for the Placemaking Week in Amsterdam.