How Beirut is breaking down the divisions of its past

St Georges Hotel photographed in 2015. Credit: Ammar Azzouz.

Barriers, walls, fences and checkpoints – whether in 20th century Berlin and Belfast or 21st century Aleppo, these do more than divide the built environment. They destroy social and cultural connections, divide societies, separate families, and create barriers not only in cities, but in inhabitants’ minds.

Yet the scars of war often remain even after the conflict is over. During the war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, Beirut was divided by the “Green Line”, a clear demarcation dividing the east of the city from the west, and the Christian population from the Muslim one. “With a few exceptions,” Aseel Sawalha wrote in Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City, “Many of those who lived on one side of the city never crossed this dividing line.”

In 1993, in the early years after the end of the war in Lebanon, a reconstruction plan was put in place which included rehabilitating the ruins of downtown Beirut. But critics of the programme argue that reconstructing the city’s centre has created new divisions.

“The rehabilitation of the central district was by standards of post-war regeneration successful in producing state of the art quarters along with public and green spaces, business districts, souks and residential areas,” Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut (AUB) writes of the reconstruction. “The development programme, however, over-emphasized the city centre, de-linking it from other areas in the ever growing city, and excluded from rehabilitation its backyard areas and neighbourhoods.”

Indeed, the downtown of Beirut floats like an island in the city. A short walk away, neighbourhoods remain far less developed.

In arguments familiar to anyone who lives in an area marked for “gentrification”, the reconstruction was criticised for excluding the average citizen in favour of the more affluent ones. But the reconstruction was also criticised for demolishing a huge proportion of buildings that were still standing after the war and could be repaired. Beirut, famously known as the Paris of the Middle East, was given a new unfamiliar face.

The erasure of these buildings has also erased memories of Beirut. As the Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis put it in The Resilient City: “The clearing of the downtown created a collective homesickness for Beirutis even if they still resided in Beirut.”


This sense of loss and homesickness may help to explain why local architects and activists are increasingly vigilant about Beirut’s buildings and heritage. Today, on St. Georges Hotel, built in 1932, a large banner says ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ in a reference to stop ruining the still standing buildings of Beirut. The hotel holds a symbolic meaning for residents: one of the first beach clubs on the coast of the city, it represents a golden age in Beirut.

Others have called to preserve the ruins as museums of war and memory. Beit Beirut (the House of Beirut) is one of these examples. Built in 1924 and located on the former Green Line, it became a sniper base during the conflict. With the gradual disappearance of the war ruins from the city since 1990, local architects campaigned to preserve this scarred building. Today it has been transformed into a museum and urban cultural centre, which addresses questions about the war, memory, social justice, and forgiveness. It is hoped that this project will foster togetherness, bring people back together, and help the Lebanese to face their past.

Despite its wounds, the destruction of memory, and the painful past, Beirut is a “city that refuses to die”. When I visited Beirut in 2015, I was fascinated by the city – its energy, the weight of history and the incredible level of friendliness of the Beirutis. In Al Hamra Street, at the heart of the city, people stayed late in the evening in the local cafes and restaurants. In a visit to the Corniche at 6am, the side of Beirut on the Mediterranean, people were running, walking, fishing, or having coffee. The city was alive, fresh, and beautiful.

One day, I joined a yoga session organised in one of the public parks, Horsh Beirut. There were over a hundred of people, all following the instructor’s directions, which were in English. Here there was no division – it was a place for everyone. 

As if it did not have its own scars to heal, Beirut is helping its neighbouring cities at the time of crises (the distance between Beirut and Damascus is just 53 miles). Beirut and its surroundings have become the sanctuary to 267,143 registered Syrian refugees (as of November 2017) in a country where the population is just over six million. In total there is around one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

For Syrians separated in different countries, with families and beloved still in Syria, Beirut and other Lebanese cities have become one of the main destinations to meet. Couples get engaged and married. Families reunite.

Almost three decades after the end of the Lebanese war, Beirut no longer displays the physical reminders of war. The young post-war generation, Nasser Yassin of the AUB told me, does not talk of East and West Beirut anymore, although the city is still divided by sectarian lines in some areas. There are spaces in the city where people from all sorts of backgrounds mix together - the souks and markets, universities, public parks, gardens and work institutions. “But to bring people back together is not only about creating spatial spaces for people to mix,” Yassin added.

For the city to truly come together, its residents need to overcome more than just physical boundaries. “To break divisions between people is much more about understanding the social relations between people that may take different forms on different spaces,” said Yassin. “This understanding is essential to open an honest conversation about the war; for people to remember, reflect and come to terms with our past’.

 
 
 
 

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