BEIRUT’S MAKE OVER – The meaning of ‘Solidere’ 15 years later

When in Lebanon, it does not take long for one to encounter one of Beirut’s more controversial topics: Solidere. At first sight, the downtown area seems to have a soothing effect as you drive out of the areas that still clearly show the scars of war with bullet holes in their walls, serving as a permanent reminder of the recent Civil War (1975 – 1990). However, it takes only a few discussions with the native Lebanese communities to sense the hatred some people feel toward the new ‘downtown’ area of Beirut. Articles published some 15 years ago show fear and negative expectations about the post-war reconstruction plan proposed by Solidere; nowadays, the Lebanese attitude seems to confirm this negativity.

Solidere is the French acronym for the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. It was incorporated as a Lebanese joint-stock company in May 1994, its reconstruction plan in line with the traditional line of Beirut’s historical focus of ‘business, finance, culture and leisure’.i As Saree Makdisi explains, however, Solidere ‘presents itself as a healing agency, designed to help central Beirut recover from its afflictions’.ii iii Using Solidere as a private holding company, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri ‘advanced reconstruction in Beirut through legislation’, much of it personally financed by Hariri himself.iv

The new downtown area improved the communication network and infrastructure, as well as eliminating the war-torn sights of central Beirut. However, American critic Saree Makdisi asserts that with the start of Solidere‘s project in 1994, fear rose among many Lebanese concerning the future face of the city. Various reasons have been identified for objecting to the building project.

Problems

Firstly, citizens of the city saw more of their city being demolished than built. The project inspired quarrels concerning conflicting property rights, further complicated by the war. The feeling of a ‘foreign invasion’ in Lebanon emerged; many Lebanese were troubled that the reconstruction of their capital city had largely fallen into the hands of Hariri, a Saudi billionaire. Although Hariri had been born in Lebanon, the amount time he spent in Saudi Arabia during his adult life nonetheless, caused many Lebanese to consider their former Prime Minister as a Saudi rather than Lebanese.v

The construction plan aimed to broaden the foreign presence in Beirut on an economic level; while shares in the company were first restricted to Lebanese only, most of them were soon sold to foreign companies. This heightened the sentiment felt by Lebanese that ‘the reconstruction of Beirut was performed without consultation with the community’.vi Whilst the reconstruction plan focused on the international business community, it failed to address the needs of the poor. Indeed, Whittington noted that

‘Much of the current housing is far out of the reach of the poor. An estimated 30,000 premium apartments, with prices above $300,000, were empty at the end of 1994. With available real estate skewed toward expensive properties, many of Lebanon’s residents, especially those in southern Lebanon, where unemployment is high and the average income is below $150 month, are never likely to become property owners’.vii

Taste is indisputable, but, regardless of sect, political affiliation or religion, fears have risen about the price of the houses in the area. The foreign ‘invasion’ of Western companies, and especially companies and tourists from the Gulf countries in particular, also led to much negativity directed at downtown buildings. Hariri himself remains branded as a ‘foreign power’.

Christian youths in particular talk of ‘corrupted’ money that was used for the reconstruction; they were displeased that it was their tax money used for the reconstruction, whilst claiming Christians in the area were often forced to move out for far less payment than would have been fair. Nowadays, the prices of the houses have risen to such a high price it is impossible to move back.

Another main argument raised by demonstrators is the issue of continuity.viii The post-war generation considers Lebanon as an unstable country left in crisis. The on -the-ground ruins are among the last reminders to the historic and almost memorial glorious value Lebanon once had, expressed in slogans such as ‘Lebanon used to be the Switzerland of the Middle East’. They serve as reminders of what Lebanon was, could have been and could possibly be again. This does not only include ruins in Beirut, but also the ruins that still remain in the Bekaa valley. Demonstrators therefore denounce the cutting of continuity of history that serves, in a way, as a symbol of hope.

For example, Makdisi raised the example of the ‘Beirut Souks’ – why call it a souk, rather than a mall? The Beirut ‘souk’ does not represent in any way a traditional Levantine Souk, with the exception of one historic looking wall. As Makdisi predicted, Lebanese youth do not consider it to be a ‘souk’ as such, but rather a fancy mall.ix

Protest

Rather than merely complaining about their displeasure with the new build, Lebanese youths have developed a resistance group on Facebook. Aware of the historic importance of the city, groups continue to demonstrate against the destruction of their cultural heritage.

Recently protests were sparked after the destruction of Beirut’s hippodrome and a Phoenician port In order to start a new million-dollar real-estate project. The port was destroyed at the end of June 2012 and ultimately resulted in upheaval, demonstrations and a potential law suit.x The destruction, authorised by Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, caused turmoil given that the archaeological site had been listed by the former Minister, Salim Warde, as a Phoenician port at the conclusion of an investigation headed by the archaeologist Hisham Sayegh. Layoun claims, however, that he believes Sayegh and the experts from Warde’s committee were incorrect; “If it were a Phoenician port, I would have preserved it, of course, but since it is proven that it is a stone quarry of little worth, there is no point”, he said.xi

The Phoenician focus of the port is particularly important, given Lebanon’s prizing of its historical links with the Phoenicians. Whilst this is not to say they do not feel ‘Arab’, it emphasises the sentiment of Lebanese as viewing themselves as a people in itself. This is also connected to the specificity of Lebanese national history, as opposed to a Pan-Arab identity primarily associated with the wider Middle East.

In response, Facebook groups erupted and demonstrations were held. Protestors called to prevent what happened to ‘Zeituna Bay’, an exclusive yacht port said to be built on top of Phoenician ruins fallen prey to reconstruction; a comparison that underlines the historical awareness of the location. Other Facebook activities were posted.

However, confusion was evident in some posters that called to stop the destruction of such archaeological sites, including the particular case of the ‘Phoenician port’. The call asked people to stop Solidere, despite the company in charge of the building being separate from Solidere (though it remains unclear whether they are a shareholder).

Likewise, near Zeituna Bay and in front of a statue of the assassinated Rafiq Hariri, a large banner is placed on the wall of a building exhorting passer-bys to ‘Stop Solidere‘. However, Solidere has almost finalised its main projects, such as the reconstruction of Martyr Square, Square d’Etoille and the Beirut Souks. Other building plans are mostly carried out by separate companies, such as Wadi Hills, Noor and Wadi Mansion. Solidere has hence transcended its role as a private construction company, and has come to symbolise all construction and de-construction work in the Beirut area.

As Makdisi pointed out, postcards featuring old photographs of Beirut, mostly taken around the year 1950, remain very popular in tourist stores. Makdisi suggests these postcards represent a nostalgic view to a ‘forgotten’ past.xii Currently these postcards have become a popular internet image, with the subtitle ’50 years ago we were more developed’ (a slogan often repeated on the streets as well). The images of the old city of Beirut focus, instead of on a historical awareness, on the city itself and have come to represent nostalgia towards an economically and politically stable country. Solidere and the other construction projects which followed it symbolise the opposite: the current and constant instability Lebanon faces.

Solidere, despite its benefits, realised much of what people feared when the project began in 1994. Yet, despite its alteration of the city into a modern construction site and its erasure of the traces of Lebanese history, historical awareness has, in fact, taken a stronghold. Solidere has become, furthermore, an overarching symbol for the destruction of the national history through construction.

My mother, however, simply noted the ‘beautiful architecture’ of the pictures that I sent home.

NOTES

Shane Farrell, Behind the destruction of Beirut’s heritage July 4, 2012, NOW Lebanon( http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=415856#ixzz20uOxE3RT)

Elias Khoury, The Memory of the City, No. 71, Danger (Spring, 2003), Jean Stein.

i Solidere Website http://www.Solidere.com/Solidere.html return to main text
ii Saree Makdisi, Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 3, (Spring, 1997A), pp. 660-705, The University of Chicago Press. return to main text
iii Ibid., p. 675 return to main text
iv Dona J. Stewart, Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut, Geographical Review, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 487-504, American Geographical Society. return to main text
v Ibid. p. 498. return to main text
vi Ibid. p. 498. return to main text
vii Whittington 1994, as cited in Stewart, 500 -501. return to main text
viii This has also been noted by Makdisi, Steward and Elias Khoury. return to main text
ix Saree Makdisi, Reconstructing History in Central Beirut, Middle East Report, No. 203, Lebanon and Syria: The Geopolitics of Change (Spring,1997B), pp. 23 25+30, Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). return to main text
x Shane Farrell, Behind the destruction of Beirut’s heritage July 4, 2012, NOW Lebanon http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=415856#ixzz20uOxE3RT return to main text
xi Ibid. return to main text
xii Makdisi, Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere. return to main text

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