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A Love Letter to Beirut and Lebanon

By Luka Lazovic

Photo: Luka Lazovic

Beirut, being there in 2020, made an impact on me like no other place I’ve visited before. I’ve been wanting to articulate my thoughts and write a piece on Beirut for a long while; a piece on its urban destruction, decay and dilapidation of Beirut’s historical core.

Multifaceted destruction by way of neglect, feverish and frenzied development, gentrification on steroids, for-profit architecture, and corruption is itself a crime against the city’s architectural and historical heritage.

When I visited Beirut and Lebanon in January and February 2020, Covid-19 was confined to cities in China.

The world was indeed a different space.

Lebanon was in the midst of a faltering revolution; a strikingly obvious example of a failed political and socio-economic system. Beirut is a place where neoliberalism can be perceived without any ideological layers that hinder us from imagining a different and alternative reality.

There, like in many other places both in the global North and South, social and economic chasms are very prominent and perceptible in an urban environment.

The wealthy and the poor occupy the same space; they move through the same congested streets. And yet their trajectories couldn’t be more distant one from another. Beirut’s is a story of the wider deteriorating global economic system – through an urban sphere of the built, destroyed, hyper-developed, uncared for and abandoned structures. The buildings are the protagonists in this story, and their voices are often unheard outside of Lebanon. They tell a much bigger story than their mere appearance.

Beirut’s beautiful and oftentimes abandoned mansions and palaces, ornamented with traditional Beirut triple or multiple arcade windows, narrate stories of the past. The Ottoman days. And the colonial days. They speak in clichés, of “Paris of the Levant” age. And of war. In these large, abandoned mansions, we witness the exodus and expulsion of its former inhabitants. The buildings here speak of a broader never-ending story of Lebanese migration and exile.

I wondered how many historical, political and socio-economic factors colluded to destroy them?

Photos: Luka Lazovic

What had not been eroded over the past decades, a devastating double blast did on 4 August 2020.

Lebanon, once again, became a feature in the news cycle. After the first anniversary of this tragic and unprecedented-in-scale blast, Beirut is plunged in an even worse crisis. With the lack of fuel and basic necessities available to the people of Beirut, the city is in economic, social, and political turmoil.

Additionally, like most of the world, it is overwhelmed with the Covid-19 pandemic and its most infective Delta variant.

At the time of writing, Israel’s military forces are bombing (again) southern parts of Lebanon, and Saudi-backed and financed thugs are roaming the streets of Beirut trying to provoke sectarian clashes, while regular people are at their wits’ end.

Last August, waking up thousands of miles away, I listened to an audio message sent by a friend of mine from Beirut, and watched three now omnipresent videos of its port’s destruction.

My immediate thought was – having been there in the midst of a revolution triggered by an inflation and cash shortage crisis in 2020 – there’s no luck for the people of Beirut.

This miserable past year – a year of economic and political crisis coupled with a Covid-19 pandemic and fears of an overrun hospital system, and Lebanon’s subsequent defaulting on its debts in March 2020, with unstoppable inflation – will ultimately be remembered by an unseemly explosion of over 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that left many dead and even people more physically and mentally injured. And in seconds rendered thousands of people homeless in a country already in a precarious situation.

Photo: Luka Lazovic

With country’s financial system and economy in tatters there is no telling how this all is going to be fixed. Not least because the labour and material to reconstruct the damaged buildings needs to be imported and paid in this foreign USD currency, yet people are unable to withdraw their money in USD. The situation is further hindered by the rising prices of building materials as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even before the dust of the explosion had settled, we in the West could see the narrative in the Western media getting solidified – that Beirut’s suffering must be somehow Hezbollah’s fault.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was one of the first global leaders to comment on it. Morrison claimed that the explosion had happened in a “Hezbollah-ran port”.

Lebanon’s post- Civil war (1975-1990) power sharing based on sectarian lines is a very complex and delicate system and bears significant responsibility for Lebanon’s predicament.

This system makes the Bosnian political system after Dayton (a legal and political quagmire defying all logic) seem simple in comparison.

This dysfunctional system is extremely prone to cronyism (as each of dozen and a half of sects gets rewarded with seats in parliament, as well as jobs and sinecures in public companies for their group), corruption, lacking in fundamental democratic mandate, and unable to contribute something (anything) useful for society as a whole.

In addition, it is bound, and most likely designed, to make certain ethno-religious groups less satisfied than the others.

A point always intentionally obfuscated or entirely ignored in Western analysis of Lebanon is that if Lebanon had one person one vote representative democracy, then Hezbollah would be the main beneficiary of such system.

For years they have been lurking in the shadows but since the revolution in October 2019, they’ve taken a more pronounced role. Why they themselves don’t support such democratic model, there are several explanations. One of them is that it would lead to further atomisation of society and that it would be much harder to stand independent from big forces that already have major influence on Lebanese politics. In no particular order the US, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey, Iran and regionally more and more present Russia.

Of course, the big sister Syria, once the same land as Lebanon, and its never-ending war, casts a long shadow over the whole social realm and affects daily life in Lebanon, and particularly Beirut.

Syrian children are a constant scene in Beirut’s streets and public spaces. Lebanon harbours an enormous number of Syrian refugees, as well as the 1948 as well as 1967 Palestinian refugees.

Photo: Luka Lazovic

As of recently, it is claimed in some circles that Lebanon’s fuel crisis is partly a consequence of fuel being smuggled into Syria. It is not inconceivable since American forces, under aegis of both Trump and Biden administrations, still occupy Syrian oil and wheat rich regions.

On 10 August 2020 after another bout of demonstrations and visceral public anger the Lebanese government fell, customs officials were questioned and arrested and there has been a big spike in coronavirus cases packing already overwhelmed hospitals with sick patients.

For a short while, there was a hope that the current corrupt political elite will be replaced, but by whom?

A year later, old guards reappeared in the form of a tycoon billionaire Najib Mikati who comes from Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city and a place of origin of tens thousands of Australian Lebanese.

Photos: Lula Lazovic

When it comes to the state of Beirut, it is terrifying that a number of historical buildings is under threat after the blast. Historical quartiers like Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael were particularly affected, and according to Unesco there are 640 historic buildings, of which dozens are at risk of collapse.

These areas I walked not that long ago – although in post-travelling world it does feel like an eternity – and marvelled at their beauty. But at the same time, I felt saddened witnessing the neglect of some in those and other historical and heritage areas of Beirut. These were places full of cafes, restaurants, fast foods joints, all the places where we enjoyed our time and had conversations with people still friendly and dignified despite all their struggle as a consequence of ‘casino’ economics trajectory their country has been on for the last three decades.

In contrast to those vernacular Ottoman and subsequent colonial Beirutian edifices, houses, streets and quarters, there’s a plethora of gargantuan projects that are essentially who’s who of global starchitecture – and a testimony to enormous wealth spent, particularly in a country the size of Lebanon, burdened by its structural impediments and contradictions.

Projects such as Zaitunay Bay by Steven Hall.

This yacht marina, with luxurious sea-orientated buildings, promenade and everything that accompanies this high-class existence, was designed to make part of central Beirut a Monte Carlo and Côte d'Azur of Levant. About 2km to the epicentre of the blast, one can imagine how it looks now.

The masterplan of Beirut, overseen from the beginning by British architect and planner Angus Gavin, is an unusual concoction of wary urban design and ill-fated preservation, dotted with showy outpourings by big name architects from around the (mainly Western) world. Sometimes one comes across to some recent development, executed on the same if not higher level, designed by a Lebanese architect shyly hidden behind these deluxe and costly monstrosities.

One can’t help but notice how, with these splendid buildings, unlike when dealing with their usual clients in the West, saving money was least of designer’s and clients’ concern. Raison d'être of these spectacular designs is to boast and showboat – like a luxury sports car, useless without petrol.

In the centre of what they call the Down Town there are the Beirut Souks, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, helped by Kevin Dash, completed in 2009. This complex worth $300m was built on the site that has been the city’s busy trade centre for the last 5 thousand years. Many nouveau riche capitals of the [new] world can’t begin to compare with this! And yet they are possessively and more fiercely protecting their more often than not colonial heritage.

Jewell in the crown of the Beirut Souks was meant to be the late Zaha Hadid’s North Souks Department store. Executed in recognisable style that costs millions of dollars, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, and, at the same time a monument to opulence that was really never meant for the locals. See Sydney Market for comparison.

Norman Foster was there too with 120 metres tall cascade towers. Beirut is another example of over-priced architecture for the visitors who had stopped coming a while ago.

Passing by, just as it is case of neighbouring Beirut Terraces by Herzog & de Meuron’s swanky building, one doesn’t see many lights through the glass windows when it gets dark. Is anyone there at all? Or has Beirut has fallen victim to neo-feudalist property hoarders?

Photos: Luka Lazovic

Another two of world architecture superstars’ superego projects, Jean Nouvel’s 42-storey tower, and Renzo Piano’s Beirut’s historical museum, respectively, fortunately weren’t developed to inflict further misery on the middle and working classes of Beirut.

The high echelons of wealthy Gulf states and satrapies were barred by their despots from returning to Beirut for their legal and illicit pleasures since the Syrian war and political turmoil in Lebanon coalesced.

This splendour built for the elites, and the particular lifestyle with gambling, drugs, partying and prostitution organised or at least tolerated by the Lebanese authorities, naturally, outstayed their guests. As London based scholar Mirna Pedalo understands lots of Qatar’s moneyed moved their capital to surroundings of Sarajevo, Bosnia, spending big on land like a drunken American sailor causing an environmental and social disaster in the process.

It will be interesting to see the future relationship of Lebanon’s political classes towards this collection of white elephants. While the profits from them weren’t shared with the population’s lower strata, the good old non-existent trickle-down effects notwithstanding, the question remains will the costs fall on the wealthiest or the poorest, as was normalised in the last four decades.

Ultimately this is class struggle as much as it is a question of aesthetics or functionality, useability and others that the architects and designers pose.

Around these remarkable buildings, as a juxtaposition, there are shells of iconic pre-war buildings such as the Holiday Inn. Opened a year before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, they are left as a reminder of Beirut’s halcyon days, when the Cold War world was a much simpler place.

At the bottom of one high-rise, there’s a military checkpoint, as if the passer-by needed a stark reminder that the war never really left.

The blast, however, made these buildings equal: windowless, people-less, gnawed away to their bare bones.

And nevertheless, Beirut shall remain Beirut.

That means there are hundreds of thousands of people that already live in and occupy informality. Evictions, displacements, illegal demolitions, these processes are so ingrained into Beirut's existence.

Palestinian refugees living in camps and slums resembling South-American barrios and favelas, for decades, possibly the only people on this planet that are not allowed to return to their land. Their former towns and villages are built over and don’t exist anymore.

Or the more recent refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Or the people moved into empty houses during or after the Civil War, now being at risk of homelessness because the capitalist investors hell-bent for lucrative high-rises are bulldozing down pieces of Beirut’s historic parts as they are prime real-estate areas.

Photos: Luka Lazovic

In one abandon mansion, at the centre of these machinations, there is (was?) an inspiring group of designers, activists, architects, artists and creative people of various talents, documenting all those potential evictions and the criminally orchestrated and planned destruction of old Beirut in the name of and for the lust of profit. They’ve been collecting stories, essentially detailing people’s destinies. Every eviction that had happened, every building that had been expecting similar faith. The activists mobilised and placed themselves, as it happens, in the midst of a multi-confessional area called Zokak el-Blat, where one Nouhad Wadie' Haddad, also known as Fairuz, grew up.

Sadly, this area is heavily on the radar of investors from Lebanon, the Gulf and the rest of the world, and these activists are trying to protect Beirut’s heritage and Beirut’s identity. Lots more about it can be found in James Kerwin’s take aptly titled “Paradise Lost”.

The notorious Solidere, the public-private ownership company (an acronym of Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction de Beyrouth) was at the heart of all redevelopment after the 1975-1990 war. It has resulted in a shameful record: out of 1200 mansions and palaces of high historic and architectural value documented in 1994 there’s now only 400 remaining. And they are at risk from collapse from this big explosion, as well as from developers and gentrification processes. This is despite the fact that, according to the master plan from the 1950s that proscribes anything be built there, there’s the intention to erect even more hotels and tourism-related anti-aesthetical monstrosities of low urban and architectural, and needless to say, humane significance.

The problem is, boundaries of Zokak el-Blat and Solidere’s project overlap.

Another, and more significant, problem is that laissez-faire development and neoliberal privatisation, much more brutal than in other places, has destroyed much of the country’s heritage, along with destruction of communities and individuals’ homes and workplaces.

Beirut, however, is a place of continual existence for more than 5 millennia. A place of such historical circumstance, of a fantastic intellectualism, and a particular knack for trade – a talent that has been nurtured for centuries and generations – warrants and deserves a grand rebirth.

Photos: Luka Lazovic

To be sure, everyone who has visited Beirut and Lebanon fell in love.

It’s a place that you deeply miss from the moment you leave it, even if you’ve only been there for a short time.

The kindness and hospitality, friendliness and resilience, dignity and indignation despite their plight, because of all this, the Lebanese deserve another crack to reshape their society, economy, and the outlook of their capital city.

The 2020 destruction, political instability, economic crisis, social unrest, Covid-19 pandemic, hostile neighbours to the south, faux friends on both sides of the Persian Gulf, endemic corruption, all this leaves the Lebanese to wonder about their future and what comes next.

Many, like hundreds of thousands before them, would probably prefer to vote with their feet and flee the country, and like many of their relatives be scattered around the world, from Brazil to Michigan, West Africa to the east coast of Australia, the Gulf and beyond.

Despite all of this, one still hopes that Beirut and Lebanon might come out of the cataclysmic shock a better country.

During Lebanon’s protracted revolution, there was a statue of a phoenix, a symbol of the coming Lebanese national rebirth and social reset. I am not sure what has happened to the statue, but I very much hope that this idea to which the statue was consecrated still exists in people’s consciousness.

But corruptive undertaking has set the atmosphere for city’s current, or rather pre-explosion outlook, pandering to the luxury consumerism for the Gulf elites, with hardly any parks, playgrounds, and public transport.

Not to mention the atomised and individualised utilities supply. I was shocked to find out that each building or hotel in Beirut is responsible for their own supply of power, gas, water etc. There is no surprise that Lebanon is never mentioned as an example of unchained free market capitalism.

Still, here’s hoping that the assorted imperialist and post-colonial carpetbaggers won’t use their typical plata o plomo methodology (or perfidious double dealing diplomacy) to 'help' Lebanon, and that their motivation when it comes to aid to this struggling country won’t be the profits of either their corporations or their NGO sector. After all, the Lebanese people are already reacting to neolibarlism with rocks, petrol bombs, mass demonstrations, chants, street art, and graffiti.

Here’s hoping that whoever is tasked with rebuilding Beirut won’t see it as a way of getting wealthy, or wealthier, quickly on the backs of the hundreds of lives lost in a series of tragedies befalling this country.

In other words, that disaster and vulture capitalists won’t be those whose say will be the ultimate one in Beirut’s re-build.

Here’s hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo: Luka Lazovic

Luka Lazovic is a migrant translator born in Yugoslavia. He has translated multiple journals and books on architecture, as well as topics such as philosophy, art, sustainability, and organised labour. He holds an MA in Critical Political Theory and is a former post-masters diploma graduate fellow of Gender Studies at the United Nations University & School of Humanities, University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He researches conflict, memory and urban politics and occasionally writes.

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