Learning to maneuver a public body before sharing a public garden

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Discussing public spaces is an important duty, for it is a direct indication of our identity. These spaces, which allow us to commune and demand from us that we collaborate to sustain them, are more important than the towers that make us look glittery in photos taken of this city from the sea. For some, this reality is hard to accept. A monument in Beirut is much easier to valuate and boast in social and political agendas than a bench, but a bench is what we really need. What we need is to be able to share a bench comfortably. This should be our baptism into becoming Beirutis. And while the lack of public spaces is at the forefront of urban debates, how we act in public is what actually matters.

Spaces become public on two conditions. First, that they are open to the people. And second, that the people exercise public existence in them successfully. It’s a consensual, ‘Please do not disturb’ sign on a community scale with an additional ‘please have a good day,’ if you’re a really good public person. A public space is usually a garden to many, but before we reach the gardens, let’s contemplate on the idea of shared spaces.

When you decide to live in a city, you sign a figurative contract in which you agree to share the air you breathe and the land you walk on with other people who made that same decision of living there. The sidewalk is not your own, it’s shared. The seat in the taxi is not your own, neither is the space next to the cashier in a supermarket or your table at a café.

It’s hard to live in a city. Contrary to the popular belief that living in a city means complete detachment from everyone else, your contract binds you to people you hate more than people you love. You have to make them feel comfortable so you can pass the test of being a city dweller, of being a Beiruti. That’s counter-intuitive for most. It’s tough, and sometimes you think, “But if I throw this little, tiny piece of gum on the floor… no one would be bothered. ” Besides the fact that it’s not worth it, guess what? You’re wrong.

When my age was still composed of one digit, my elementary school director told me something I would remember my whole life, “Treat them like you want them to treat you.” For a long time, she was Christ to me, and her name, Christine, helped. It’s a great piece of advice. So don’t throw that piece of gum on the floor. You wouldn’t have liked to step on one, so don’t make someone else do it. And at times when you think you’re weak and wonder, “Hmm… maybe no one’s looking,” also know that you’re wrong because you’ve seen your fellow citizens of all sizes doing the same, and you didn’t like it.

In the public realm, you are not exempt from communal consequence. It’s not like when you devour that extra bar of chocolate in your dark kitchen when your lover’s asleep. Your actions in the public realm matter. Actions make space, so mathematically speak, being good matters. It seems enough to be aware of the power of public space to realize that ‘being good’ is not as naïve as it sounds. And while ‘good’ is subjective, the good I’m talking about is Christine’s kind: “Treat them like you want them to treat you.” It would be difficult to go against that argument.

The general rhetoric is that the people are entitled to public amenities as a reward for their mere existence. Although this may be somehow true in the case of a functional nation, let’s recall that we live in Lebanon. You need to make things if you want them. And personally, I don’t want anyone to offer the Lebanese people public spaces. I want us to earn them. While on a public bus ride from Beirut to Tripoli, which took five hours because it was raining, I shared the long, sadly furnished moving vehicle with a lot of people going the same route. It was a very sad trip.

The man on my left, a middle-aged man in a suit, had two pieces of machinery on the foldable table in front of him, a tablet and a phone, each having its distinct ringtone and notification tones. I know this because the pings from his respective devices were the soundtrack of his WhatsApp marathon that lasted the entire trip. My soundtrack, however, was a mix of lies, noise and naiveté. The man behind me was creating loud fictional narratives of his whereabouts. He screamed his conversations, acting out an outdated machismo whose likes seem to have inspired the two young men sitting in front of me. The latter two entertained themselves by writing “fuck” and “shit” on the fogged windows of this very sad bus, directing their messages to the other cars on the highway.

The woman on my right, wearing a beautiful flowered head scarf, spent an hour gossiping about a friend to another friend, interjecting the conversation with advice on who to talk to for a good ‘wasta’ for her thesis at the Lebanese University.

This is but one of the shameless and violent social performances witnessed is Beirut every day. It comes off as more accentuated simply because I was trapped in a bus in the rain. But we are trapped in these unhealthy performances in our everyday lives. We act in isolation, irrespective of what’s happening outside of our bodies… in public. The streets, institutions and cafés of Beirut are filled with loud people destroying each other with WhatsApp audio recordings, earphone-less Skype calls and mostly racist jokes that have become the essence of being Lebanese. We need to work on being in public before we invest in public spaces. Who wants a public garden full of these people?

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

Comments

The Victoria Market, early Saturday morning, standing in the small crowd in front of the fish mongers stall, waiting your turn to purchase fresh fish.
Almost every Saturday as I stood there looking at the fish to see which looked the best & freshest, someone, would touch me up. Which means that there was a perverted man who would brush his hand against by bottom.
Do you have any idea how enraging it is ...!
It got so that I became determined to catch him & expose him for the creep that he was, who ever he was, so I focused on the matter at hand, but no matter how fast I turned around I could not spot who was doing it.
I certainly was not his only victim, even today, we are several women, who would have given him what for - if only we had been fast enough.

1976. I was on the Rathdowne Street bus on its way in to town, at Grattan Street a very pregnant young lady got on the bus, it was late afternoon, she was so pregnant I wondered how she could still walk, I was pregnant also, with my 5th child, but definitely not as far gone as she was, all the seats in the bus were taken, & as luck would have it , by men, all except me, my seat had me sitting in it, I was the only other female on the bus, she stood there swaying as the bus took off, she was in trouble, I stood up & gave her my seat, "are you sure she said to me" I looked around the bus at all the men who did not give up there set for this pregnant woman who had no business walking, let alone riding a bus & replied "yes, its okay, really." I had to get off at Victoria Street, which was the next stop, but that is not why I gave her my seat, I was a gentleman after all.

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