With the project to develop central Beirut now well underway, the Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut’s Central District — better known by its French acronym Solidere — has expropriated legally most of the land in the ancient city center. Previous holders of the property rights have been compensated with shares in the company. Investors have supplied several hundred million dollars in new capital to help finance the project (and to share in the profits). Squatters who had been living in the war-damaged buildings have been removed. Most of the traditional city center has been bulldozed and over half a million square meters of new land will be reclaimed from the sea. Immigrant workers (non-unionized, underpaid and housed in very dubious conditions) are transforming the dreams of the suit-and-tie Lebanese company planners into concrete realities.

The old burj of Beirut, with all of its associations and memories, is gone forever. It will be replaced in coming years with a gleaming new city center rising like a mirage out of the dust clouds of history. The construction project, however, claims it is a reconstruction, even though it creates entirely new facts on the ground in an entirely new space. Far from being a pointless academic inquiry, it is of political urgency to ask why this massive construction program should be presented not as new but as the reclamation of a lost past.

The plan to “reconstruct” Beirut’s market areas (souks) is a sub-project within Solidere’s larger scheme. The souk project forms part of the first phase of the overall “reconstruction” effort. Phase one is designed to set up two major magnets to draw life back into the central district — the banking area around Riyad al-Sulh Square, the Place de l’Etoile and the souk area. How is it that Beirut’s souks need to be “reconstructed” in the first place? For the most part, the old souks were destroyed not so much in wartime street-fighting (in which they were damaged but still salvageable by the end of the war) but rather in a series of mysterious demolitions in 1983 and 1986, and then a final wave of demolitions under the auspices of Solidere in the summer of 1994. The former souks have been replaced by a gigantic hole, which will eventually become an underground parking garage for tens of thousands of cars. The new “souk” will be built on top of the parking garage.

Solidere’s most recent information booklet says that the “souk” project will “recapture a lifestyle formerly identified with the city center and recreate a marketplace where merchants prosper and all enjoy spending long hours.” Elsewhere in the booklet, we are told that “the clearing of the old souks, which accompanied the clearing and demolition of buildings and sites in the BCD (Beirut Central District) mandated by the Master Plan, paved the way for reconstruction of that district over an area of 60,000 square meters.” This district will, as the booklet goes on to say, “incorporate department stores, retail outlets, supermarkets, theaters, offices, exhibition areas, residences and parking facilities. The total built-up surface area will be near 130,000 square meters.”:

The most urgent question here is not how a collection of Pizza Huts, Safeways, McDonalds, Body Shops, Burger Kings, Starbucks, Benettons, KFCs, Baskin-Robbins, Gaps, Blockbuster Videos, Tower Records and Banana Republics gathered together as a “souk” will recapture any lifestyle other than that of a shopping mall. The point is not that this is a misnomer, nor that a traditional souk is necessarily more genuine and authentic than a shopping mall, but that something strange is happening to our sense of history when we can confuse a shopping mall with a souk, or rather when we can think of a shopping mall not just as any old souk, but specifically as the recreation of a particular historic souk.

Regarding these “souks” as with its other projects, Solidere’s publications use the language of memory and nostalgia to characterize what they promise will be the flavor of the new central district. The nostalgic effect of the reconstruction project is, however, to be achieved solely in terms of appearance and facade. Hence the souk area will be called a souk because it will (supposedly) look like a souk. But what does a souk look like? In particular, what did Beirut’s old souk look like?

Assuming the souk is “rebuilt,” it will only be a matter of time before the generation of Lebanese that remembered the old souk, the old Beirut, will be gone. The souks and the old downtown area have been gone since 1975 and few born after 1970 have memories of them. One could go to Tripoli or Damascus or Aleppo to see other Arab souks, or to Istanbul or other cities in the region to see other Levantine souks; but each souk has its distinctive identity; even souks in the same city have their own distinctive identities and histories.

Why then call this area a souk? Why not just call it a shopping mall, like other such projects in the US and Europe in which time and history as much as “material” objects are commodified and marketed for consumption? Just as MTV and CNN compete on Lebanese airwaves, the streets of Beirut have already seen an astonishing proliferation of global consumer-culture outlets (witness the replacement of the memorable Faysal’s Restaurant across from the main gate of the American University in Beirut by a Pizza Hut).

In a few years, the new Beirut “souk” will present itself as recapturing and recreating the old souk, the lifestyle of happy customers and ask-no-questions merchants (harking back to the myth of the stable Levantine entrepot, to the happy Lebanon of the “good old days”). This new shopping mall will claim to represent the past and the historical collective memory of the old Beirut souks in what will be a genuinely new space, a space that has been disemboweled literally and cleansed of its past. It will be marketed as a recreation of what was there before, rather than as something that is entirely novel, something that has no historical depth. It is, rather, part of a much broader process that has from the beginning stripped away the past and laid bare the surface of the city as sheer surface — spectacle — and nothing more.

The representation of the past in visual and iconic terms is recurring in Solidere’s various information booklets. Undoubtedly the most interesting of Solidere’s booklets is entitled “Beirut: Do We Know It?” This colorful booklet, in Arabic, with its cartoon format as well as storyline, seems to be aimed at a young audience. A little boy named Farid wants to know from his mother, “What is this city?” The following is the initial dialogue in the booklet (translation from the Arabic is the author’s):

–What is this city?
I was involved in organizing my things and had not been paying attention to what Farid was doing. I looked up at him.
–What city, Farid?
–This one! He pointed to a photograph album that he had taken from my table. I craned my neck to see where his finger was pointing.
–That’s Beirut, Farid!

At this point in the text we see a reproduction of a classic postcard of pre-war Martyrs’ Square. The storyline resumes:

He looked up at me in surprise, saying:
–We live in Beirut. I’ve never seen these buildings in my life!
I smiled. His life, that had begun during the war! How could he believe that this was indeed Beirut? So I explained.
–These are pictures of Beirut from before the war. Of course you’ve never seen it.
And I turned over a few of the pages.
–Especially these, Farid; these are pictures of the heart of Beirut. You and your friends only know and experience its extremities, like the extremities of the body.
He asked:
–And is the city like a body?
–Exactly like a body. A city is born, it grows, it changes, exactly like a body. And it’s the same with Beirut, our beloved city.

It now becomes clear that the booklet’s storyline involves Farid taking a tour of old Beirut. This is, in other words, not merely a narrative of the history of Beirut as Solidere would like that history to appear, but a full-blown guidebook, complete with a map, a legend and a route that should be followed through the center of the city, with descriptions of the various significant structures or ruins along the way.

There is one small problem with this guidebook: The area through which it proposes to guide young Farid no longer exists. Published in 1994 — even as the center of Beirut was being wiped clean by Solidere’s demolition crews — this booklet amounts not merely to a children’s history of the center of Beirut but to a guide book whose real referent has disappeared and has been replaced by the textual images that the book itself contains. It is a guidebook to a space that can no longer be found anywhere except in the sort of textual and visual forms that so dazzle little Farid. One can only imagine a real-life Farid taking the map and guidebook downtown and trying to follow the meandering route that it charts through a wasteland that has taken the place of the actual buildings that once stood there. Or did they?

As this little guidebook gets closer to the present and starts dealing with the time of the 1975-1990 war, we are presented with various dazzling examples of computer-generated graphics. Above a photo of Allenby Street as it was left after the street fighting, for example, there is a computer-generated photo of the same street as it is supposed to appear after it has been refurbished and cleaned up. But this photograph of a simulated future just as easily could be of the old prewar Allenby Street. Hence, once again, Solidere’s slogan: Beirut — An Ancient City for the Future, in which future and past become all but indistinguishable, the one a replication of the other. It is not clear, however, which is the replication and which the original or whether there ever was an original.

The Solidere project represents (as manifested in the souk sub-project) a corporate attempt to spectacularize history. What might have been called the flow of Beirut’s past or the collective memories of the city are worked into the Solidere proposals and booklets solely in visual form, in a pastiche version of the history of central Beirut and of Lebanon. In representing the imposition of spatial layers in corporeal terms as the “growth” of a single “body,” the passage of time is translated into appearance, into spectacle.

The demolition crews, and the powerful financial interests behind them, have produced an irreversible fait accompli. In retrospect, from at least 1983 there has been a concerted effort to wipe clean the surface of central Beirut; to purify it of all historical associations in the form of its buildings; to render it pure space, pure commodity, pure real estate. The most obvious and striking potential war memorial — in a country that seems to have forgotten its long war — the shrapnel-scarred statue in Martyrs’ Square, apparently will be completely repaired.

Lost in the development of central Beirut is a sense of history. The company’s rhetorical claim to resurrect the happy days before the war is an attempt to short-circuit the historical experience and the memory of the war itself, an attempt to pretend that the war never happened as symbolized by the historical purification of the martyrs’ statue. To be successful on more than a rhetorical level, the project must stitch contemporary Beirut into the fabric of prewar Lebanon, patching over the old city center with all its nostalgic memories — and with them the social and political problems that led to the war and continue to exist in contemporary Lebanon. It is as though the historical experience and lessons of the war are to be not just forgotten, but unlearned. In time, Solidere itself will fade away as though there had been no need for it, as though it had never existed. The social and political forces and processes that led to the destruction of the city center and ultimately to Solidere will be forgotten.

Far from weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living, as someone once put it, the past will be obliterated as surely as the buildings of the city center. In a country as fraught by historical experience as Lebanon, in a country that so desperately needs to come to terms with its history (rather than forgetting or reinventing that history), in a country teetering between the dizzying centripetal capital flows of the world economy and the equally dizzying centrifugal movements of regional politics, such forgetting would be nothing short of suicidal. For it would constitute not merely an invitation to another catastrophe, but a reminder of the social, economic and cultural disaster area that Lebanon threatens to become if it continues to forget.

How to cite this article:

Saree Makdisi "Reconstructing History in Central Beirut," Middle East Report 203 (Summer 1997).

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