Beirut’s ‘Wishing Fountain’ asks, what if money was a public resource?

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A trained speculator is not needed to realize that this country’s mess will birth more mess, if left to take its own course. Lebanon is meticulously designed to erupt at very low boiling points, so turmoil remains the name of our game. Read any article, watch any televised broadcast and sadly listen to any of our radio stations to easily conclude this omnipresent mess we’re in. But look closer, as cluttered, dense and oversaturated the ingredients of our current situation seem to be, they’re not really the roots of all our evil. They’re byproducts of a single seed.

We are not citizens.

I know, it’s an ugly word and it sounds like something you would stitch on your pants to patch a sad hole. Citizen. It really sounds bad. Citizenship makes it sounds heftier, but we’re still not buying it. We’re a group of people on a piece of land we refuse to share. You can’t build a nation without agreeing that its assets are owned by everyone, and that its people have the right to walk its streets and that its public spaces feel like home.

Alas, home is where the heart is, and it’s a shame our hearts have miniature spaces to exist within. We are not Lebanese. We simply hold the passport of a tentative country called Lebanon.

We are more likely to agree that we are a dumping ground for refugees from neighboring countries at times of catastrophe than we are to consider ourselves Lebanese. We blame our miseries on their influx. We join forces, as temporary Lebanese, to come together as one, to protest the pollution of our imaginary pure breed.

Inside, I’m sure we all know we are full of hummus. At least I hope so. While once blaming the Palestinians and now blaming the Syrians for our constant miseries, we are not really that good to one another even when alone. Like a lot of other Lebanese people, I am shunned, on a daily basis, by a lot of other Lebanese men and women who care less about what I have to say, except in conversations during which they can express how bitter they are at everything that breathes and everything that doesn’t.

While working on ‘The Wishing Fountain’, a public installation I will elaborate on below, one man, sitting near his store, told me that there was no reason for him to even think of helping me set it up. He saw no point. Another told me to ‘go play elsewhere.’ Arabic speakers could translate this literally and giggle. Even when I was trying to explain that this work in particular is a project that aims to improve or understand public well-being, I was told to choose someone else to help me out with whatever I was asking for, or to relocate to as far away as possible.

Violence. We are violent people. Of course there are arguments documenting how our daily conditions have made us accustomed to this violence, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is enough friction in the air of the streets of Beirut to generate electricity and lighten our darkened lives. We aggress each other, so it goes without saying that we are going to step on/over others, especially when they’re in vulnerable situations.

Walking the streets of Hamra in the past year or so, it became very clear that this city was in backwards metamorphoses. Its sidewalks were filled with an increasing number of houseless refugees and street beggars that fueled the already existing conflict the people of Lebanon have with their public spaces. Beirutis developed a strict urban diet consisting of either ignoring the growing number of people who now call the street their home, or being violent toward those they view as the “other.”

Desperate and dislocated mothers, children and the elderly are left with an assumption that not acknowledging their existence will cause their eventual dwindling.

The case is the polar opposite. This denial and professional neglect only fueled street beggars, making them more aggressive, and with that… some more aggressive Beirutis. A lot of people I know stopped using some streets because they thought they house more beggars than other alleys. The map of Beirut was changing in the minds of the people that call it home.

Amidst these troubled times for the area, the Sanayeh Garden opened its doors after having been renovated this past year. The Sanayeh Garden is an infamous historic public garden in Beirut. Like the remaining few of its siblings, it has a fence, a list of do’s and don’ts as well as opening and closing hours. As Beirutis rejoice to the return of public space to their city, “Do they know how to relate to public (shared) space?” is a question that is too obvious to dismiss. How does one shift from being monstrous against other people and places in public on a daily basis, to basking in the glory of a public garden?

With all these questions in mind, within the leitmotif of violence targeting refugees seeking safety and a livelihood on the dangerous streets of a paranoid city, it could be said that Beirut’s ‘Wishing Fountain’ was born in a womb of hopeful cynicism. If these street beggars need the cash, and Beirutis insist on ignoring them, there must be another way of dealing with the situation. The amount of wishing for good fortune, overheard from women seated on the sides of the streets of Hamra, was a pretty clear lead towards my decision to create a wishing fountain that borrows its function from the infamous Trevi Fountain, while formally resembling a female street beggar cross-legged on the street.

Conceptually, it is saddening that one would throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain in a touristic gesture regardless of their personal relevance to it, while leaving people in their own city’s streets hungry and thirsty, knowing that the same coin could go a long way in alleviating hunger and thirst. There’s a lot to learn about the etiquettes of being human; so in the meantime, Beirut’s wishing fountain is now seated in front of Hamra’s Saroulla Building as a prosthetic limb to this city’s malfunction.

The money collected in the wishing fountain’s lap is public. Anyone can use it. After diffusing the need for a congested relationship between Beirutis and the beggars, it has become a place to make a wish and toss a coin for whoever’s interested, and a source of money for whoever’s in need. The wishing fountain’s lap, like the aspirational future of this city, does not discriminate between rich and poor. With the main focus starting as a source of money for street beggars, it evolved into a place where people can share money. What would it mean if money, the main source and goal of privatization, is made public?

Observing reactions to the fountain, I have been in awe for the past week since installing this wishing fountain by the possible answers to that question. What would it mean to make money public and accessible to the people? What does it even mean to allow people to stop for a moment and make a wish amid Beirut’s hectic rhythm of life? Do these people realize they are sharing something?

On the first night of the wishing fountain’s month-long residency in Hamra, a group of young boys, resident shoe shiners of Hamra, dropped by curiously asking about the new lady on the block. After explaining how it worked, each took a coin, made a wish, and tossed it in the pond. The next day, there was a rose resting on her bosom. The amount of money in her lap is growing and shrinking as the days go by, with people using it for parking meters, food, public phones, etc. On otherwise repetitive Beiruti days, the same people walking their same trajectories are invited to stop, think and share.

If only a few adopt this ‘point’ as a step towards sharing space, could this be a step closer to an earned citizenship we are yet to attain?

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

No country can be developed by own. Every citizen should play his own role for the betterment of his country don't blame others for destruction of your country take right steps by your own.

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