Beirut – Hundreds march in support of Beirut’s historic architecture

(The Daily Star, September 27, 2010)

“Beirut is not Dubai … We don’t need no Dubaification,” read placards held by angry Beirut residents who marched on Saturday to protest the continued destruction of the city’s cultural heritage.

Hundreds of people gathered for the demonstration which wove its way along the historic Gemmayzeh quarter, stopping at construction sites destined to become modern high-rise apartments, totally out of synch with the area’s unique blend of colonial and Ottoman architecture.

Holding candles to commemorate the demolished buildings, protestors cordoned off these “crime scenes” with police tape to signify the wrongdoing they feel is being done by developers and politicians, all too keen to make a quick profit at the expense of future generations.

“Don’t destroy the city just to make money,” said Pascale Ingea, a march organizer and part of the Save Beirut Heritage association leading the fight against mass development in historic areas. “We have a lot of problems in life but we cannot leave Beirut to be destroyed.”

Save Beirut Heritage, which was formed a year ago and according to administrators now boasts membership of around 12,000, is campaigning for the government to introduce tougher laws to protect the country’s remaining listed historical buildings and to incorporate others onto heritage lists.

Working alongside the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon, the conservation movement has made some impressive progress of late, successfully rescuing 20 old buildings from demolition in the last four months.

The scope of the problem, however, remains undeniably huge. According to officials, of the 1,200 old mansions and buildings inventoried in 1995 by the Culture Ministry, only around 400 are still standing.

While a hotline was recently established to report demolitions – which now also have to carry the signature of Culture Minister, Salim Warde – many politicians remain involved in the construction sector where accusations of mass bribery and corruption remain. The lack of political will makes it easy to bypass regulations and allows developers to disregard rules, protest organizers said.

“We have had enough. We don’t want to destroy the history of Beirut,” said organizer Georgio Guy Tarraf. “It’s a massive shame to lose our heritage – we must all come together to fight this and stop developers evicting any more people or tearing down any more of our history.”

Preserving the Beirut municipal stadium, which is currently scheduled for demolition, and Tripoli’s Anja Theater, which was partially knocked down this month after it was inexplicably taken off the protected list earlier this year, are presently the organization’s most high-profile conservation demands, but this is merely the beginning of its work.

Activists are also calling for the creation of more green in the city, to tackle the growing problem of pollution and overcrowding, and for archeological sites to be awarded a greater degree of protection.

“I want my children to be able to see the Beirut that I remember from my childhood and that my parents remember from theirs,” said protestor Mohammad Rai. “We lost much of the city during the war but the worst destruction has happened in the last few years.

“What is happening is a disgrace,” he said. “Who even lives in these apartments? So many of them are just sitting there empty, no Lebanese people can afford to live there.

“Young people in this country cannot afford to buy homes – it’s a real problem – and all the while these ugly sky scrapers are going up in areas where they do not belong,” Rai added. “The government has to do something.”