Beirut's Annus Miserabilis 2020
Luka Lazović- 27.08.2020
I’ve been meaning to write a piece on Beirut for a while. A piece on its urban destruction, decay and dilapidation of its historical core, by way of neglect, feverish and frenzied development, gentrification on steroids, client and for-profit architecture, corruption, resulting in a crime against its architectural and historical heritage and lack of common space, affordable housing and public sphere.
When I visited Beirut and Lebanon in January and February 2020, Covid-19 was still just a Chinese worry…And I’ve been ever since thinking about beautiful and oftentimes abandoned mansions and palaces, ornamented with traditional Beirut triple or multiple arcade windows and how many historical, political and socio-economic factors colluded to destroy them through the processes I just mentioned.
What they couldn’t achieve in several decades, although they gave it a good go, a double blast did on 4 August, and Lebanon, once again, started dominating the news cycle.
Waking up in thousands of miles away, after the fact, I listened to an audio message a friend of mine had sent me from Beirut, along three now omnipresent video of a horrible and thus far unimaginable destruction. My immediate thought was – there’s no luck for these people. Really though, economic and political crisis, Covid-19 pandemic since February, Lebanon’s defaulting on its debts in March, unstoppable inflation in July, fear of a second wave and an announcement of a 5 day lockdown beginning of the August, only to be interrupted by an unseemly explosion of over 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that left many dead, even more injured physically and mentally, and in seconds rendered thousands of people homeless in a country already bursting at its seems.
The explosion itself was so strong that there’s little wonder that it was compared to a nuclear Armageddon. Within five kilometres there was hardly any building, shop, restaurant, hotel, office block without damage. Significant damage. With country’s financial system and economy in tatters, and inability of people to withdraw their money in USD, there is no telling how this all is going to be fixed, if the reparation is going to be done privately and individually, not least because all the labour and material needs to be paid in this foreign currency.
Even before the dust of the explosion had settled, we could see the narrative in the western media getting set – that this was somehow Hezbollah’s fault. The Australian PM, claimed that it happened in a “Hezbollah-ran port”. As explained in my previous piece, Lebanon’s post-war power sharing based on sectarian lines is a very complex and delicate system (that makes Bosnian political system after Dayton peace accords very simple in comparison), but a system that is extremely prone to cronyism, (as each of dozen and a half sects gets rewarded with seats in parliament, as well as jobs in public companies for their group )corruption, lack of democratic mandate, and inability to do something useful for society as a whole. In addition, it is bound to make certain ethno-religious groups less satisfied than the others. Now, if Lebanon had one person one vote representative democracy, then Hezbollah would be the main beneficiary of such system. For years they have been lurking in the shadows but since the revolution had begun in October, they’ve taken a more prominent role. Why they don’t support it, there are several explanations. One of them is that it would lead to further atomisation of society and that it would be much harder to stand independent from big forces that already have major influence on Lebanese politics. In no particular order the US, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey, Iran and more and more present Russia.
Of course, the big shadow of Syria, once the same land as Lebanon, and its never-ending war, also affects daily life in Lebanon, and particularly Beirut. Not only that Lebanon harbours an enormous number of Syrian refugees, on top of the Palestinian ones, but also because of Hezbollah’s involvement in that war, and particularly because they are on the winning side, Lebanon is under American sanctions, along ¼ of this world’s population.
In any way, on 10 August 2020 after another bout of demonstrations and unprecedented public anger the government fell, customs officials were questioned and arrested and there’s a big spike in coronavirus cases packing already overwhelmed hospitals with sick patients. For a short while, there was a hope that the current corrupt political elite will be replaced, but by whom?
Be it as it may, it is also terrifying that a number of historical buildings is under threat in Beirut after the blast. Historical quartiers like Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael were particularly affected, and according to Unesco there are 640 historic buildings, of which dozens are at risk of collapse.
These areas I walked just 6 months ago, and marvelled at their beauty. But at the same time, I felt gutted at the neglect of some in those and other historical and heritage areas of Beirut. There are cafes that we visited and restaurants, fast foods, all the places where we enjoyed our time and had friendly conversations with people still friendly and impeccably mannered despite all their struggle as a consequence of casino economy trajectory their country has been on for the last three decades.
In contrast to those vernacular Ottoman and subsequent colonial Beirutian edifices, houses, streets and quarters, there’s this plethora of gargantuan projects that are essentially who’s who of global architecture – and a testimony to enormous wealth spent on them, particularly in a country the size of Lebanon, and with its structural impediments.
Projects such as:
Zaitunay Bay by Steven Hall. This yacht marina, with luxurious sea-orientated buildings, promenade and everything that accompanies this high-class existence, was designed to make this part of central Beirut a Monte Carlo and Côte d'Azur of Levant. About 2km to the epicentre of the blast, one can imagine how it looks after.
The masterplan of Beirut, overseen from the beginning by British architect and planner Angus Gavin, is an unusual amalgam of wary urban design and preservation, dotted with showy outpourings by big name architects from around [mainly the Western] world. Sometimes one comes across to some recent development, executed on the same if not higher level, designed by a Lebanese architect shyly hidden behind these deluxe and costly monstrosities.
One can’t help but notice how with these splendid buildings saving money was least of designer’s and clients’ concern. Raison d'être of these spectacular designs is to boast and showboat. They are saying to the onlooker: “Look at me now, ye insignificant being!” If these buildings were a person, they would be a 40 odd year-old smooth operator, olive-skinned with plucked eyebrows and oiled hair, and pristine linen shirt and white trousers, navy blue loafers, and expensive sports car. Unsurprisingly, all materials that were fashionable in the last 20 or so years are there to be fill the passerby with amazement: from corten steel to advance façade systems to offer a wealthy Gulf sheik maximum discretion and comfort.
Then there the Beirut Souks, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, helped by Kevin Dash, consecrated in 2009. This complex worth $300m was built on the site that has been the city’s busy trade centre for the last 5 thousand years. Now beat that many nouveau riche capitals of the world!
Jewell in the crown of the Beirut Souks was meant to be late Zaha Hadid’s North Souks Department store. Executed in recognisable style that costs millions of dollars, ‘tis a masterpiece no doubt, and, at the same time a monument to opulence that was really never meant for the locals. The spaghetti monster is at least that could be fancied in this context, regardless of its cost.
Norman Foster was there too with 120 metres tall cascade towers. 3Beirut is another example of over-priced architecture for visitors that had stopped coming a while ago. Passing by, just as it is case of neighbouring Beirut Terraces by Herzog & de Meuron’s swanky building, one doesn’t see many lights through the glass windows when the Sun sets. Anyone there? Or Beirut has fallen victim to neofeudalist property hoarders?
Another two of world architecture superstars’ superego projects, Jean Nouvel’s 42-storey tower, and Renzo Piano’s Beirut’s historical museum, respectively, fortunately weren’t developed for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The high echelons of wealthy Arab (Gulf) states and satrapies were barred from returning to Beirut for their legal and illicit pleasures since the Syrian war and political turmoil in Lebanon. This splendour built for the elites, and the particular lifestyle with gambling, drugs, partying and prostitution organised or at least tolerated by the Lebanese authorities, naturally, outstayed their guests. It will be interesting to see, however, the future relationship of the Lebanon’s political class towards this collection of white elephants. While the profits from them weren’t shared with the population as a whole, the good old non-existent trickle-down effects notwithstanding, the question remains will the costs fall on the wealthiest or the poorest, as was normalised since my birth.
Around them, as a juxtaposition, there are shells of iconic pre-war buildings (like Holiday Inn, for example, opened a year before the civil war) left as a reminder of the Beirut’s halcyon days, when the (Cold War) world was a much simpler place. At the bottom of one, there’s been a military checkpoint, as if a passerby needed a starker reminder that the war has never really left. The blast, however, made them equal: windowless, people-less, gnawed away to the bare bones.
Nevertheless, Beirut shall remain Beirut.
And that means hundreds of thousands already live in and occupy informality. Evictions, displacements, illegal demolitions, these processes are so ingrained into the Beirut existence: be it Palestinian refugees living in camps and slums resembling barrios of Caracas, for decades, possibly the only people on this planet not allowed to return to their land, or the more recent fleeing the war in Syria; or the people moved into empty houses during or after the Lebanese civil war, now being at risk of homelessness because the capitalist investors hell-bent for lucrative high-rises are bulldozing down the whole historic parts. Needless to say, like in the growing capitals in the Balkans, developing, and the developed world, they all remorselessly suck on the existing, over-used infrastructure.
In one abandon mansion, in the thick of it, however, there is (was?) an inspiring group of designers, activists, architects, artists and creative people of various talents, documenting all those potential evictions, all the planned destruction of old Beirut in the name of profit. They’ve been collecting stories, people’s destinies. Every eviction that has happened, every building awaiting similar faith. All this was also translated into English. The activists mobilised and placed themselves, as it happens, in the midst of the multi-confessional area called Zokak el-Blat, heavily on the radar of investors from Lebanon, the Gulf and the rest of the world, to try to protect Beirut’s heritage, and, if there is such a thing, Beirut’s identity. If you don’t believe me what’s at stake, do have a look at James Kerwin’s take aptly titled “Paradise Lost”.
The notorious Solidere, the public-private ownership company (an acronym of Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction de Beyrouth) was at the heart of all redevelopment after the 1975-1990 war. It has resulted in a shameful record: out of 1200 mansions and palaces of high historic value documented in 1994 there’s now only 400 remaining. And they are at risk from collapse from this big explosion, as well as from developers and gentrification processes, and despite the fact that according to the master plan from the 1950s nothing should be built there, there’s intention to erect even more hotels and tourism-related anti-aesthetic monstrosities of low urban and architectural value. Problem is, boundaries of Zokak el-Blat and Solidere’s project overlap.
Another, and more significant problem is that laissez-faire development and neoliberal privatisation, much more brutal than in other places, has destroyed much of the country’s heritage, along with destruction of communities and individuals. It is alleged that Solidere, company tasked with rebuilding Beirut Central District, with which the late PM Rafic Hariri, a billionaire robber baron with Saudi connections, who oversaw the rebuilding process and was its major shareholder, paid as little as 15% for expropriation of properties in the most lucrative areas of the city (See more T. Mango “Solidere: the Battle fo Beirut’s Central District, 2004”). Needless to say, these areas were of highest historical and heritage value. In the process, Rafik Hariri went from one billion to multiple billions until he was in 2005 martyred in a bomb attack. The UN-backed case in Den Haag just ruled on this, with one individual conviction for conspiracy to murder after years of deliberating and 1 billion of US dollars in cost. With his death, the value and reputation of Solidere, his brainchild, plummeted. In his obituary, the BBC put: “[F]or many Lebanese, the redevelopment of central Beirut meant dispossession of homes or property without adequate compensation, and the enrichment of Mr Hariri.” Nevertheless, his son, Saad, also close to Saudis, and also Prime Minister until January 2020, saw his father’s vision completed.
To be sure, Beirut, as a place of continual existence for more than 5 millennia, and a place of such historical circumstance, of a fantastic intellectualism, and a particular knack for trade, a talent that has been nurtured for centuries and generations and generations, warrants and deserves something grand like the Hariri’s envisioned. Everyone who visited Beirut and Lebanon fell in love with the place. The kindness and hospitality, friendliness, and resilience, dignity despite their plight, because all this, the Lebanese deserve another crack to reshape their society, economy, and the outlook of their capital city.
This destruction, political instability, economic crisis, social unrest, pandemic, instability in the region, hostile neighbours to the south, faux friends in the Persian Gulf, endemic corruption, all this leaves the Lebanese wondering about their future, and what comes next. Many, like hundreds of thousands before them, probably wish to vote with their feet and flee the country, and like many of their relatives be scattered to four winds, from Brazil to Michigan, from West Africa to the east coast of Australia, to the Gulf and beyond.
Despite all this I still believe that Beirut, and Lebanon, might come out of this cataclysmic shock a better country.
Here’s hoping that it won’t go through the same rebuilding processes like the post-war project overseen by the late PM Hariri and linked to his cronies. That time, as mentioned issues were numerous. It reeked of corruption to this day.
It had also set the atmosphere for city’s current, well pre-explosion outlook, pandering to luxury consumerism for the Gulf elites, with hardly any parks, children playgrounds, with extremely poor street and public communication and non-existent public transport.
Here’s hoping that the assorted imperialist neocolonial carpetbaggers won’t use their typical plata o plomo methodology, gun boat diplomacy to help Lebanon, and that their motivation when it comes to aid to this struggling country won’t be profit of their corporations. After all, the Lebanese are already reacting to neolibarlism with rocks, petrol bombs, mass demonstrations, chants, street art and graffiti.
Here’s hoping that whoever is tasked with rebuilding won’t see it as a way of getting [more] wealthy quick on the backs of the hundreds of lives lost in this tragedy. That disaster and vulture capitalists won’t be those whose say will be the ultimate one.
Copyright © 2020 Luka Lazovic / sunradio.rs