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’.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.