Saturday, February 19, 2011

Some Reflections on Today's Beirut

I went for a run along the sea last night, my favorite way to reflect here in Beirut. Unfortunately when the weather is clear the pollution tends to accumulate along the old Corniche because of the ever-increasing construction of towering buildings that do not allow the wind to clean the air, making it an unpleasant path to run these days. However since last summer there is also the option of running along the new Solidere Corniche, a cement promenade just north of the new Beirut Souqs that extends beyond the rubbish lands, property owned by Solidere and probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Solidere, a cooperative post-war reconstruction agency, remains a controversial entity in Lebanon. One of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s pet projects—his family remains a principle shareholder—Solidere is largely perceived to benefit the rich. Indeed the Solidere Souqs is nothing but an outdoor mall that is home to elite designer shops beyond the reach of the vast majority of Lebanese. During the day this new Cornish is garish, much like everything else that Solidere has constructed, with a horrible cement frieze of dolphins jumping into the sea. But at night this area is a dark and desolated haven, offering fresh air, crashing waves, a view of Jounieh that is breathtaking, and yet no lights, no cars, not even any pedestrians.

Last night the atmosphere was especially remarkable, with an enormous full moon rising over the mountains northeast of Beirut. Running towards the direction of Jounieh at dusk is always extraordinary because of the way the new Corniche borders the sea. After the sun sets the fence at the northeastern end of the promenade melts into the darkness and you almost feel as if you are about to descend into the sea. But tonight the sky was clear so the mountains sparkled in the distance and the moon’s light danced into the sea as an illuminated path. As I raced towards this horizon I was struck by an overwhelming sense of awe, of possibility. As T.S. Eliot once wrote “La lune ne garde aucune rancune”.

But when I reached the fence and turned around to run in the other direction, towards the old Corniche, I was soon struck by another sense of awe, only this time the feeling was horrifying. Towering buildings now dominated the horizon, ugly elite apartment buildings and hotels that were fully lighted even though they are mostly unoccupied. Indeed I was now running into the horizon of an electric graveyard of concrete kitsch. The glaring lights in front of me made me feel ashamed for this city. The amount of electricity required to power these monstrous structures under the watch of that glorious moon—apartments most likely owned by millionaires from the Gulf who purchase properties as financial investments and not as homes—would probably maintain the daily needs of all the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which on a good day see only 12 hours of electricity. One evening last summer I was in Shatila refugee camp and watched while teenaged Palestinians were volunteering to teach children by candlelight.

This is the legacy of Rafiq Hariri.

After two laps along the new Corniche I reluctantly started running back home, through the posh downtown area where shops sell clothes that it would take the average earner in Lebanon several months of pay to purchase. I continued past Martyr’s Square and the makeshift tomb of Rafiq Hariri. Over the last month or so I have frequently seen buses parked in the square, which must be transporting the most ardent supporters of March 14 to the site of the movement’s birth. Usually there are only two or three buses, but last night there were about five. I stopped running and walked past. A van from Future Television or another network loyal to March 14 was also perched outside the tomb. Next door there was some kind of gathering. I peered inside and saw dozens of people seated in rows with many chairs empty. A man was at a podium in the front, angrily speaking into a microphone. Occasionally the people cheered. I could not help but feel sorry for this pathetic display of solidarity and rage. Even when bussing supporters into Beirut they could not pack a full house.

But this performance, as well as Saad Hariri’s latest fiery speech, illustrates how the stalwart of March 14 appear determined to fight on despite losing the democratic competition. As somebody who has lost my own father, I can begin to sympathize with the son’s pain. Indeed I do not envy the position that Saad Hariri has been placed in. But however much he privately loves his father he must also recognize his public legacy, the terrible spectacle towering over the old Corniche. Solidere is monopolizing Lebanon’s energy, property and air for the privileged few. Today most Lebanese cannot afford to live in their own capital city. Others can no longer even afford basic comforts anywhere in the country. Inequality and uneven development are rampant. March 14 say that they are fighting for justice and it is understandable that they want to know who killed their leaders. But how can they continue to ignore the horrible injustices that their leaders are leaving behind?

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