Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beirut Update: The Face of the City

        New brown signs have appeared here and there on the roadside saying, in French, something like "A district of traditional culture." It's a step; at least someone recognizes that the traditional face of the city of Beirut, the architecture that survived the civil war, deserves attention, care, and preservation.
            Two years ago we were impressed by the energy of the new construction in this city. Grand, enormous luxury hotels going up by the waterfront. We also heard a lot of worries then about the number of old buildings, the city’s architectural heritage, being torn down and replaced with modern, more expensive housing. That worry is still there. Some of the hotels are finished, some buildings have been saved, the noise of new construction still greets us every day, and the major change we’ve noticed is that a dense, busy, often noisy city is now more of all those things because more people are living here than ever.  
Anne and I walk the streets of the city, taking pictures of the now mostly isolated buildings in the old Arab or Ottoman style, hoping they can be maintained, saved, preserved from the next development scheme. More typically in the central city – the areas people want to visit; they places where they want to live -- they are being replaced by larger modern buildings, and the city loses its character as a result. (See pic at left)
We revisit some favorite spots. The remains of the Roman baths (second photo, left), abutting the government building known as the Serail, survived the rebuilding of the downtown after the destruction of the Lebanese Civil War. An old building like the “Quo Vadis,” (third photo) restaurant or hotel once frequented by foreigners, survives in splendid desolation. Maybe it will escape destruction by redevelopment.
More security conscious from the spillover of the Syrian war, some residents are locking doors that weren’t locked before. We see more uniforms on the street; some recognizably Lebanese army, some in the gray camo fatigues adopted by the new city security force whose job, I suspect, is to make sure people in Beirut feel secure in the fact of the bombings in other parts of the country by factions supporting one side or the other in the Syrian war and the other spillover of that horrifying disaster, a million refugees.
            Many of these inevitably end up in Beirut, where half of the country’s population already lives; housing has grown scarce, rents are up, and jobs scarce. As visitors, we encounter some refugees living a hand to mouth existence. Black head scarves covering all their hair, gowned mostly in black as well, some women sit on the sidewalk with their back to a wall waiting for people like us to pass by. Generally accompanied by a small child, they hold out one hand and emit a sing-song plea for alms in Arabic. If the children are old enough to run around by themselves they do a more aggressive begging, approaching with similar chanted pleas and then running alongside their target, foreigners for sure, as we try to walk away. The Lebanese are used to them, speak their language, and decide on their own terms whether to tolerate them or not.
         People make their own decisions on how to respond to a phenomenon the city has not experienced in the past. Some store owners chase them away. The same people who chase the children away in public may be giving to them privately through organized charities.
            Anne has made a practice of changing larger bills to gather some small denomination 1,000 Lebanese Lira notes (less than a dollar). Keep them separately in a pocket, Sonya urged; that way you don’t have to open your wallet, exposing the rest of your liquid wealth. 
            Anne  hands the bills to the women or children who solicit us. A very small gesture in a very big world.