Khaldeh’s Unhappy Mix

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Similar to the Nael Project, the Sea Breeze Complex was built in the late 1990s. When people came they were looking for safety, but also low rents. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Rajana Hamyeh

Published Saturday, September 29, 2012

The wooded area that overlooked a nameless valley in Khaldeh, south of Beirut, is no longer there. It did not disappear gradually, tree by tree, but vanished all at once. Local residents, both old-timers and newcomers, complain of the “deliberate” deforestation of the area. Its green spaces are inexorably disappearing or shrinking, for reasons best known to those versed in the real estate business.

Things happen quickly in Khaldeh. In place of the vanished woodland, a huge building sprang up virtually overnight. Visitors are always struck by how the place has changed. Khaldeh looks nothing like it did 10 years ago, or even three years ago when the big construction boom began. It doesn’t even look the same as it did one year ago.

Before the 1983 “Mountain War” stripped Khaldeh of the Christian component of its identity, the Druze stronghold there was the palace of Emir Majid Arslan. Beneficiaries of the emir’s largesse recall that much of the land in Khaldeh was the property of the Arslan family, including his sons. They say his son Faisal took to selling land “on the gambling table,” and that was one reason for the advent of “incomers,” as Faisal termed them, into the Christian and Druze area.

The land in Khaldeh at the time was largely wooded and was not valuable. The residents were mainly Christian families, in addition to the bedouin who lived on the outskirts, for most of whom the emir later acted to obtain Lebanese citizenship, a process carried on afterwards by Walid Jumblatt.

More changes came with the start of the civil war. In 1976 refugees from the massacres at Karantina and Mudawwar fled to Khaldeh, where they initially lived in tents. Many later moved into the first residential development that was built in the area in the early 1980s, called the Nael Housing Project. Following the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, middle-class Sunni families also fled to the area, seeking relative calm and affordable apartments.

The area thus gradually got busier. After a few years, building construction began to pick up. That is when what one old Druze resident terms the “influx” began. “Buildings started to go up in an illegal way. I mean, they would get a licence for four storeys, and then add a couple or more extra ones.” Thus construction started to flourish in Khaldeh, and “eyes were cast” on the area.

With the construction activity began the Shia influx. During this formative period, the Christian inhabitants had been expelled in their entirety, and a minority of them were striving to return. Only those with homes still standing actually did.

Looking for a New Home

In the mid-1980s, when the Nael Housing Project was built, displacement was rife. Displaced people moved into the development, which, intentionally or not, assumed the status of a Sunni zone. It could just have been that most of the former Karantina residents who fled to the area after the massacres were Sunnis, as were the “naturalized” Khaldeh Bedouins who joined them.

Similar to the Nael Project, the Sea Breeze Complex was built in the late 1990s. This was the Shia destination, housing people who had been displaced by Solidere [development and construction company] in central Beirut, from the frontlines and South Lebanon, or by the June 2006 war. The Shia community in Khaldeh effectively began taking shape in 2000, as civil war refugees were followed by migrants. Housing prices were part of the attraction, and part of the reason for the separation of population groups, which, residents say, was not deliberate at the outset. When people came they were looking for safety, but also low rents.

Gradually, communal identities formed: Shia, Sunni, Bedouin and other. The local Christians had lost their land and been expelled during the Mountain War, and the few Christians who eventually returned could not recognize the place. “They took everything. The only remaining Christians are one family of ten people in a few houses,” says recent returnee Ghattas Wehbe al-Boushi. He struggled hard to be able to come back, despite Druze opposition, yet today has no sense of having neighbours or friends. His memories of the civil war prevent him from making friends in his hometown.

Boushi remembers the 1970s, “when the land was owned by the family of my grandfather Abdul-Karim and the area was mainly Christian, though there was also the emir’s house and some Druze families.” This did not last long. After the Mountain War, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) took control and formed its “civil administration,” and what he terms the “extermination” of the Christians began. They were expelled to Saida and then moved to Jezzine, and then were evacuated again and taken to the Port of Beirut by boat.

Afterwards, Boushi lived on the dividing line between the suburbs of Cheyyah and Ein al-Rummaneh. When in 1995 the Ministry for the Displaced began compensating civil war refugees and arranging for them to return to their homes, the Khaldeh Christians were hopeful. “But we were forbidden to return. They told us: if you come back we’ll slaughter you,” he said. So he bided his time for a while. But with the start of the transformation of the region, he took the plunge and returned to his home over two decades after the family was expelled from it, leaving all furniture and belongings behind. It was empty, and all he had was the $6,000 compensation money with which to rebuild his life. The returnees faced a host of other problems too. “We had stones thrown at us on the street,” he says. That is why “only a few families have returned,” and “nobody else is going to come back.”

Fear and the Call to Prayer

When they moved into the Sea Breeze Complex, the residents set up a loudspeaker to broadcast the prayer-call. That was on a Friday. The following day, armed men came to the building and, according to Abu-Asaad “broke the loudspeaker and beat up the guys [at the mosque],” and shots were fired.

After that incident, “the mosque officials turned the loudspeaker in the opposite direction, but we got complaints from people in Aramoun. So we turned it in another direction, but a neighbour got disturbed,” he says. The loudspeaker thus started to become synonymous with the Shia presence in the area, and there was no way it was going to go. It remains, and there is now a prayer-room to go with it.

At that time, the “indigenous” Druze of the area began growing increasingly fearful of the “strangers” and “newcomers” in their midst. Accordingly, says Abu-Asaad, “they tried to impose their dominance but with time they accepted our presence.”

“The PSP fought us when we first came to the area in the late 1980s,” adds Abu Ali al-Najdi, who has lived in Khaldeh since 1988. “The civil administration was at the peak of its power then, and to come to the Mountain you had to pay protection money. They would say: either you pay or we’ll get you out of here.” But complaints about this reached Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and “from that day they stopped demanding protection money, and in time everyone was left alone,” continues Abu-Ali.

Identities began being established elsewhere, too. Visitors to Khaldeh can categorize the districts just by looking at the political slogans on display. A portrait in red of Kamal Jumblatt defines the relatively small Druze district, and beyond a buffer area lies the Shia district with its tributes to the Lebanese Resistance Brigades and the martyr Imad Mughniyeh. On the other side of the divide, banners of the Syrian revolution can be seen, along with slogans of a religious charitable society, and, in some corners, black Salafi flags. “We are here,” everyone seems to be saying, deliberately or not.

The Salafi presence is particularly striking. Locals say it only emerged in the open recently, as a result of the growing self-confidence of the Salafis and the easing of curbs placed on them by the Future Movement. They have little contact even with other residents, and emerged suddenly “as though coming out of hibernation,” says a local who lives near their Imam Hussein Bin Ali mosque.

He recalls how the mosque was built: “It was a concrete wall. One day we woke up and found windows, doors, and a prayer room ready for prayer.” They built a second mosque in the valley leading to Naameh.

The Bedouins, meanwhile, have a different story. Although they were naturalized by Talal Arslan, the heir to Majid’s feudal throne, they later switched their loyalty from him to the Future Movement. “They used to pay us money,” explains Abu Ali al-Daher. After Future’s largesse ran out, loyalties shifted elsewhere, with some supporting the Amal movement, others becoming Salafis, and some becoming close to Hezbollah. “Everyone wants to protect his back here,” Daher explains. There is also another factor at play which is universally acknowledged: cash for allegiance. Many become supporters of political parties just to help make ends meet.

There is fear in Khaldeh, fear of the new demographic mix, and it manifests itself in various ways. It began with political fear, “which came because the Druze no longer have any sway in this area,”says one old-time resident. But the greater fear, according to villagers in Choueifat and Aramoun, is of the scale of the social problems brought into the area, and the gradual encroachment of the other groups from the coast up into the mountains.

Municipal Neglect

Fear cannot explain the extent of the neglect in Khaldeh, where according to Abu-Assad some of the pot-holed streets have not been resurfaced for 17 years, and even then were mended by local people because the municipality did not bother.

Utilities are in equally bad shape. In the part of Khaldeh under its jurisdiction, Aramoun Municipality installed a 6-inch drainage pipe that is insufficient given all the construction that has taken place “and left it for people to dig channels from their buildings and connect them to the main one,” says Ahmad Akil, a doctor who resides in the area..

With so much construction underway, trucks and cement mixers operate around the clock, causing constant noise and pollution. Many of the vehicles belong to the mayor, Fadeel al-Jawhari. The owner of one construction venture, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the mayor facilitates the work of builders who hire vehicles from him. But this is disputed by another contractor, Abu-Ali al-Yamani, who insists that “Jawhari’s prices are lower. That’s all there is to it.”

Building regulations are not exactly rigorously enforced. Most new buildings violate them. “They encroach onto the street. “You can pass by a building and shake hands with someone standing on the balcony from the street.” And there is no urban planning. The town is growing in the way shanty-downs do during booms, and by the time someone tries to enforce the law it is too late to do anything about it.

And with the local forests disappearing, only one new tree had been planted. “It was planted by Jawhari 14 months ago,” in the part of Khaldeh that belongs to Choueifat Municipality “even though it too neglects serving the town,” says Aqil. Is that because locals don’t vote the right way, as they believe? Whatever the case, the neglect is palpable to the visitor, even in the way the municipal policeman stands at the edge of Aramoun village to guard what is supposed to be part of the municipality.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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