Downtown Beirut: A City of Ghosts?

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For all intents and purposes, Wadi Abu Jamil’s original residents and owners have vanished: The jewelers that once lined the streets, in addition to the early Jewish residents and the civil war-era Shia migrants are all gone today. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Ahmed Mohsen

Published Saturday, January 7, 2012

Many Lebanese may take pride in their shiny new Beirut city center. The final product, however, is a city out of place where many more may not feel at home.

Most who visit Beirut’s commercial downtown area will say that the area seems rather “dead” to be the center of the Eastern Mediterranean’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan port city. The district cannot truly be dead however, because the dead are silent, and there is a great noise coming from downtown Beirut.

The muffled sound of construction can be heard behind its walls. The place is surrounded by yellow police tape and reinforced concrete blocks with “Beirut” written on them. The concrete blocks embody this part of the city, which seems designed to prohibit any form of urban interaction. They call this place Solidere, after the the name of the company — founded by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri — that rebuilt central Beirut after the war.

■ Photo Blog: Solidere: The Modern Ruins of Beirut by Marwan Tahtah

Much has been written about the new center being devoid of ordinary people. Even its passersby are distinguished by class. The giant buildings are windowless. Employees enter and exit through tiny doors that do not match the scale of the architecture.

In the morning, the streets fill with cars and their noxious fumes envelop the area around Parliament and the prime minister’s offices as employees flood into the city center. They spend the better part of their lives at work without much interaction.

Sara is one of them. She had previously lived in New York, so she knows how to get around in the city. But wait… “Beirut is not a city,” she insists. Sara does not acknowledge the urban space called Beirut. “Call it what you will,” she says and lists a number of examples: “A group of streets, planned intersections, a successful real estate venture, a Lebanese bazaar par excellence, etc.”

But don’t you dare say the word city within earshot of this young woman that once moved between Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I don’t compare Beirut and New York…This Beirut could be loaded onto a ship and moved anywhere in the world.”

Sara might be surprised to know that such a proposition is in fact plausible. Solidere’s director of operations, Mounib Hammoud, once revealed a plan to develop the downtown of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where Solidere would be responsible for a major part of the project. He also indicated that Solidere was participating in other similar projects in both Cairo and the UAE. Downtown Beirut is being replicated across the region, after all.

This is reminiscent of something once said by architect Bernard Choueiri, who also does not consider Beirut to be a city. Simply put, he said the nation was not rebuilt after the war. Solidere’s construction projects seem like grafts from a dystopian future. The buildings are sleeping mirrors that reflect the character of the people and the level of interaction between them.

Shopping at the “Souks”

For those who can afford it, the place to shop in downtown is “Beirut Souks.” Its distinctly English name belies the utterly alien origins of the place. For a while, Zeina, who works on the periphery of the city, did not know the root of the word “souks.” She thought maybe it was an acronym, until she discovered it was the plural of the Arabic word for market rendered in some kind of hybrid language.

Zeina understands the urban transformation that has hit Beirut better than most, because she was once a resident of Wadi Abu Jamil, now a part of Solidere. She says, “what was once known as downtown was turned into a real estate project,” albeit a successful one. Still, according to Zeina, it cannot restore the soul of the place. Downtown Beirut feels as if nobody really lives there.

One of the officials in the Beirut municipality agrees with Zeina. He says he honestly does not know if “there are people who live in downtown at all.” He thinks that most of those we see are guests, employees, and of course, tourists. When we insist upon finding an area with a population figure, he sends us to Saifi Village, where perhaps we might find something.

In Saifi Village — which sits on the northern edge of the central district — there are no signs of life, just benches that nobody sits on, apart from a few workers in need of rest. A restaurant guards the “village” and judges the importance of its visitors based on the type of tie they wear. Then again, what could we expect from a “village” in the heart of the city. When we ask about the size of the population, they laugh at us and immediately ask us to leave.

For all intents and purposes, Wadi Abu Jamil’s original residents and owners have vanished: The jewelers that once lined the streets, in addition to the early Jewish residents and the civil war-era Shia migrants are all gone today. The middle class merchants, businessmen, and professionals that built Beirut after the famous agreement between the Ottomans and European states at the end of the nineteenth century have also vanished.

After the war the juice vendors, newspaper kiosks, and falafel stands all left, taking their customers with them. Would the municipality of Beirut grant permits for such vendors to work the downtown streets once again? A source in the municipality says that they are “not thinking of anything like that at all.”

It seems that everyone who used to work in the city center has vanished, and if not for Beit al-Wasat — the famed mansion of former prime minister Saad Hariri — nobody would know if anyone actually lived there.

Property has come to mean stocks in a huge corporation. At least the house is still a house, from an engineering perspective, since it is fortified with a stone facade and decorated with Ottoman-style arches with a little taste of Tuscan architecture. It is quite like the other housing units in the center, whose inhabitants are shielded from the public by metal barriers, making the area appear as if it were abandoned if not for the security guards.

Beit al-Wasat is another story, because it is the last remnant of the area’s old landmarks. They have also added an army of guards to the picture, who have become the new facade of the premises. It is said that the current inhabitants of the neighborhood pushed out its previous occupants, who took refuge from the attack of Solidere elsewhere. That is how Saifi came to take on the appearance of a secure compound that is more commercial than residential.

Tourists seem to have mixed feelings about this corporate city too. For Chiara, an Italian living in Beirut, the whole thing seems artificial. “It’s as if whoever built this city built it for the coming years and not for its present,” she remarks. She knows that Lebanon has emerged from a war, but that never detached it from modernity. The problem is when “modernity is artificially manufactured like in Solidere.”

She says the buildings seem imported, and they “do not resemble the real ones in Gemayzeh, Jubail, and Corniche al-Nahr.” By contrast, Nour from Saudi Arabia likes the city center “because it’s like Europe and there are no cars.”

This means that it no longer resembles Lebanon, which brings us back to the point of view of Lebanese architect Choueiri. “They overlooked the dynamics of architecture in the city and focused only on its reflection in some indefinite future,” he said. The future built this ghost town. It is true that the ghosts are colored, but they are still ghosts.

Workers in downtown

Around noon, the chairs begin to move. People sit down at the cafes and stay for hours before going without leaving a trace. The waiter rushes over to clean away their presence.

At nine in the morning, Hussein is inevitably in front of Cafe Street taking his last steps towards the cafe where he works as a waiter. He gets there before everyone else. Being late would mean a warning followed by the sack. He had previously been his own boss but he was losing money selling fava beans, so he became a waiter.

He has never considered selling fava beans in the city center. “What are you crazy?” he laughs at the proposition. It’s a long way from his home in Deir Koubel to the capital, and the beauty of the road ends the moment he arrives. Hussein sees the same things every day and he hates the capital.

There is nothing about the place that he feels he can relate to. But he is not asking to make the place like the popular neighborhood of Hai al-Silum mind you. All he wants is to be free of the psychological trauma that the people in Solidere inflict on him. The capital is hard for Hussein, who can only afford to live in the city’s poor suburbs. For him, downtown is just a place to work.

Unlike Hussein, who has more or less surrendered to the harsh urban reality of modern Beirut, you could say that Mariana is engaging more with the city’s character. She works in a clothing store and has started to resemble the store and its patrons. She says that it is “normal” for a customer to spend US$1,000 here. The real big customers are those who spend upwards of US$2,000 per week.

While Mariana is a worker, she is also a customer. She pays in installments for clothes from the store she works in, such as the pair of US$500 dollar jeans she wears, although her monthly salary does not exceed US$600. She has left the Lebanese University and enrolled at the American University for Science and Technology (AUST), because she says it is “modern.” Of course, that is not necessarily based on any objective assessment, and she acknowledges this. “AUST is more in style,” she says.

Then she recalls as if she had forgotten something important, “the ‘Down Town’ is like America.” In the end, “the DT” is nothing like America, because few Americans say that the city they live in feels like a foreign country.

The drunken prince

Downtown is infamously rigid, and people have talked endlessly about this fact. But this would-be city was shaken one night when a drunken prince from the Gulf began to curse the town and its people. This aroused the pride of some young men, who went so as to back up the police officer being humiliated by the stranger.

These young men have themselves so often felt like strangers here, searching in vain for its residents who have taken over their neighborhood and city. In the end, all they could find was this tourist, who in his drunken rage brought upon himself all the hostility these young men harbor towards the city center. They found themselves alongside the police officer who could very well be equally sick of his “service” in the commercial downtown.

After the investigations and punishments were handed out and things returned to “normal,” it was not long before another such incident occurred with another drunken “prince.” This time, the incident ended with a beating executed by the entourage of some political figure. The motives were different, the solution was simple, and everyone kept their mouth shut.

However, this collective silent acceptance must stir something. It should at least make one question the identity of downtown Beirut and its capacity to accommodate its residents. Even fans of the new city and the enemies of nostalgia must ask themselves: Where are the original windows, houses, pedestrians, and inhabitants? Who has dared to close the old and vibrant city center of Bab Idriss and throw the key into the sea?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Dear Mr. Mohsen,
After having read your text “Downtown: A city of ghosts”, many questions that I would like to ask you came to my mind. I mostly wondered: Why did you choose downtown particularly while there are many other dead places in Beirut? Why are you against modernity in Downtown? And finally, why did you portray a non-professional opinion about it?
In your text, you say that Downtown is now an empty place that no one steps in which lead you to describe it as a city of ghosts. This statement surprised me to the point where I decided to pay the area you described a visit. It was a Tuesday night. Place de l’Etoile was empty, which means the restaurants were empty. But after all, few are the people who stay up late on a school and work night. However, what was remarkable was that Uruguay Street was full of people.
So, I decided to pass by on a weekend to see if there’s a difference. Place de l’Etoile was full. Lebanese, Arabs and non-Arabs were all over the restaurant since it is summer season, and as always Uruguay Street was crowded.
I guess it is also important to mention that the Souks are always full of shoppers since there are boutiques for people of almost all classes so that everyone is satisfied.
And that’s where I ask you why Downtown? Why not Jounieh or Kaslik or the many other places that we can now consider as bad investments?
Adding to that, another statement that shocked me was the fact that you are against the architecture of this place. Downtown was built by Solidaire; one of the most famous construction and contracting companies. They built it in a very unique way, modern, with a beautiful preservation of the old Lebanese touch. The European kind of architecture and the arches with the off-white stones are facing the “windowless” towers that you mentioned. This is Lebanese in a way, eclectic and open to everything. We Lebanese are not like any other citizens of the World. We come from different places and have lived with humans of different nationalities, which means that our architecture and lifestyle come from everywhere. This modernity in the architecture resembles us.
Finally, I would like to ask you why you weakened your arguments with such examples and testimonies. Do you truly consider that the story of an employee at a normal shop who buys a 500$ pair of jeans is credible? Or the foreigners who are comparing us with the other big countries are credible? It is true that Downtown resembles to a lot of other places and that it can be moved to any other location but in every country there is a Downtown, which may make them all seem similar in a way.
Ending my letter, I would like to leave you with one thought to ponder upon: Can you imagine Beirut without its Downtown?
Best regards.

Could you please clarify that the architect is Bernard Chouieiri and not Khoury? If this is a mistake, please can you let me know?

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