The Sea is Mine: A Peek at Beirut’s Private Coastline
The Beirut-based Dictaphone group specializes in live art and site-specific performances. One of their goals is to uproot popular conceptions of urban spaces so they can re-imagine a city that’s not closed off to its inhabitants. This often means that the group’s performers can be found doing unexpected things in unsuspecting settings.
One such performance took place at the “Bus Cemetery” in the Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael – a lot full of decayed, rusted buses once purchased second-hand by the Lebanese government from the Czech Republic. The buses couldn’t take the Lebanese heat and spare parts were unavailable – an apt metaphor for Beirut’s measly public transportation system. Participants hopped onto a bus-cum-time capsule as the Dictaphone guide announced: “What is beautiful about our trip is that it is obviously imaginary because, as we just discovered, these buses don't work and there is no way they'll ever work.”
Dictaphone’s latest “experiment” begins at the Ain al-Mreisseh port a few hours before sunset. “This Sea is Mine” has participants board a small motor-powered fishing boat to “explore the nature of ownership of the Beirut seafront, the laws that govern it, and the practices of those that utilize those areas.” It’s a bookish front for the group’s accessible and playful approach, which is part poetic protest and part d on the perils of coastal privatization. Even the title reminds us of Mahmoud Darwish’s Jidarriya (Mural): “This sea is mine. This fresh air is mine. This sidewalk and what is on it … [is] mine.”
At first, one might wonder what the difference is between an art intervention and an educational tour. But this becomes apparent as the boat cruises out of the concrete port, under a dark overpass, and onto the open sea. Performance artist-turned-guide Tania El Khoury treads water in the middle of the ocean, barely visible except for a blue sign – doubling as a flotation device – that reads in Arabic, “This Sea is Mine.” She joins us on the boat, as Adnan al-Oud, a fisherman in his 60s, begins the trip with stories of building and land reclamation projects, and their destructive effect on marine life along the coast. At one point during the trip, he points to a concrete structure belonging to one of the private resorts, surrounded by beach goers: “This is where I was born.”
“This Sea is Mine” takes as its starting point the ill-understood nature of Beirut’s coastline. In the exhaustively researched booklet provided to participants, Dictaphone member and architect Abir Saksouk explains how – contrary to popular misconceptions – coastal land wasn’t transferred from the public domain to private owners. Rather these properties were privately-owned by various Beiruti families as far back as the French mandate period, when the first land survey was conducted resulting in “a fundamental transformation in the history of land ownership in Lebanon, including Beirut’s coast,” according to Saksouk.
The public’s use of these properties, coupled with various planning laws – some of which date as far back as the 1920s – blurred the binary categories of public/private. The performance aims at highlighting this paradoxical nature of Beirut’s coast. Participants are provided placards displaying the numerous laws that govern the coast, which in turn are read over a megaphone. As the boat motors on, it stops intermittently so the performer-guide can point out various coastal resorts’ infractions of Lebanese law.
When the boat stopped close to one of these resorts, El Khoury jumped into the water and swam towards a floating platform, holding up the sign “This Sea is Mine” to an audience of bewildered middle-class beach club goers. If it weren’t for these part-protest, part-performative interventions throughout the trip, it may have easily felt like a sophisticated guided tour of Beirut’s coastline. In fact, few Beirutis ever go on these boat trips, usually catered for tourists, and get a chance to see how “the Paris of the Middle East” looks from the sea. Dictaphone's clever approach is an inspiring reminder of the potency of agitprop theatre.
As the boat glides over the waves, one senses that, even as the group insists it is the right of all people to access the coastline, the reality may be much more complicated. From Ajram Beach Club to Ramlet al-Bayda, the coast is being hacked up by developers that do not only encroach further into the ocean, but build a wall of buildings blocking the rest of the city off from the sea. While the project does not delve into the history of these residential high-rises, which have cropped up and encircled the city over the last ten years, one can argue that they have transformed parts of Beirut’s coastline into one of the ugliest on the Mediterranean coast.
Particularly concerning for the group is that coastal properties were transferred from family-owned lots to real-estate development companies, almost all exclusively owned by the late Rafik Hariri. The scenic Dalieh area – a space where lower-income families, swimmers, recreational fishermen, and lovers meet – may soon be transformed into a closed-off port for the rich. “Hariri envisioned the coastline of Beirut to be full of touristic hotel resorts with a marina for yachts and boats,” boasted a representative of Hariri who was in charge of negotiating the sale of these lots of land, according to Saksouk. Between 1995 and 2007, real-estate companies bought the 13 lots that comprise the Dalieh coastal stretch from their original owners. The most significant purchases happened in 1995, when over half of the area was sold to two real-estate companies belonging to the late Rafik Hariri.
Towards the end of our trip, we caught a glimpse from afar of the Ramlet al-Bayda beach. This is literally the only public sand beach in Beirut, and has been an integral part of the Beirut landscape for hundreds of years. Until the 1950s, it used to be the site of the annual Arbaet Ayyub (Ayyub’s Wednesday) festival, during which Beiruti families gathered to commemorate the Muslim prophet Ayyub, whom is said to have taken refuge on the same beach to heal from an illness – the same legend is still celebrated in Northern Sinai Egypt.
The beach was also bought up by Hariri, except for two lots which are owned by Beirut’s municipality. According to the environmentalist group Greenline, the new owners intended to erect a hotel and yacht marina, but were prevented from doing so by Law no. 4810, which requires that the developer own all the land intended for building. The Dictaphone group speculates that Hariri may have succeeded in purchasing this lot of land from the municipality through an illegal transaction, although they could not verify the claim, due to the “property registry’s refusal to release the land title.”
What is missing from Dictaphone’s awe-inspiring and penetrating performance/research is the scandalous land reclamation project underway adjacent to Beirut’s downtown area. The Council for Development and Reconstruction, a Hariri-controlled government institution established during the civil war, has been in the process of transferring 291,800 square meters of the remaining land from public ownership to Solidere (the infamous company established by the late Rafik Hariri, now owned by his inheritors along with investors from the Gulf, Europe, and the US). This land encompasses 35 percent of the original reclaimed land area, and its estimated worth is over $12 billion – a figure far exceeding the cost of construction, estimated at $475 million, according to 1994 figures. It is undoubtedly the largest transfer of public property to a private firm in the country – without a single dollar changing hands.
After the beautiful but reflective journey into the sea, we returned to the port. We asked one of the men gathered there for a game of cards what he thought about all of this. “We can’t just blame Hariri and Gulf money; we’re also in this,” he griped. He glanced at Adnan al-Oud, the grey-haired fisherman who took us on the trip, and grinned: “You know, his father sold his properties, and so did my uncle – and for a meager amount!
“We are destroying our sea and our city by our own hands.”