A Culture in Crisis
LEBANON - A Culture in Crisis
In June 2022, I journeyed from my office in the heritage town of Le Dorat, France, to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. While the country is strategically imprisoned between the political hot spots of Syria and Israel, Lebanon still holds a sincere conviction of national culture in its own right. After all, its ports were once a gateway to the Middle East, attracting maritime trade from the Mediterranean. Lebanon boasts an eclectic mix of Arabic, French and Mediterranean beauty, yet the same combination brings chaos that adds to this colorfully fascinating place. I admit; that Lebanon is far detached from my sense of normalcy, a challenge to all senses.
We drove the unlit motorway from the Airport to Rue de Badaro, a well-known neighborhood in central Beirut. This was to be my new home for the coming period of research and discovery. The city was in a total blackout, “the usual,” my friend Qasim noted’ “but you will need to get used to the frequent power cuts; welcome to modern Beirut.” The following day, my welcome to Badaro came in the form of a jolt, an electric shock from the socket where I charged my phone; “Oh, yes, sometimes the electricity is on”, said Qasim with an ironic chuckle. I soon realised that I may need a little more vigilance in Beirut than I had thought; it would take a little while for the rhythm of Beirut to sink in, and it did not function in any obviously transparent way for some time to come.
Beirut, a city known for its political divisions, corruption, bombs, bullets, Botox and Arabic beauty, is facing an undeniable identity crisis. The fuel, food, and water defectives that greet you upon arrival indicate the country's political, financial, social and geopolitical turmoil. The problem of heritage and gentrification in Beirut has been evident for decades; however, on August 4th, 2020, when an uncontrollable fire in an adjacent warehouse prompted an explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, the country was sent into dismay. This insecurity contains many dimensions that were in existence before the blast. The oil crisis that is leaking into nearly every corner of the world is causing massive problems for the country while food security, the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic mixed with the bang of the Beirut Port Explosions have left the country in no other than a growing security crisis.
One of the first things I needed to do in this new land was to exchange dollars for the local currency, Lebanese Lira. Tucked in a side street just off Badaro, was a currency exchange shop lit up with illicit red fluorescent lights. I exchanged $100 dollars and in return I received 2,965,000 LBP and an insight into Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis. The wad of cash I quickly hid away in my bag is a result of inflation reaching over 200% along with other factors such as mismanagement, financial mishaps and piling debt. Walking home, I discovered another layer of Lebanon’s crumbling cake, young Syrian children roam the streets begging for cash or else are using the power of a rose to capture your senses. More often or not the rose is not enough and the children who work from dusk till dawn return home with withering hope. The Refugee crisis in Lebanon sees nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees experiencing extreme economic vulnerability that is fuelling harmful informality and unacceptable forms of work, particularly for children.
The shattering explosion on August 4th was perhaps symbolic of the patriarchal political criminality, corruption and negligence that was hiding in clear sight. Now that the glass shards lay on the ground of the Lebanese society, the dysfunctionality of the government and its consequences become evident. Its political dysfunction, marked by corruption and polarisation along politico-sectarian fault lines, hold the country in a position where sustainable and long-term development solutions continuously become undone. On a scorching hot day, these divisions became clear when I was walking along ‘ein el remmaneh’, when suddenly everything changed. An uneasy feeling came over me and my sense of safety evaporated into the mirage ahead. I had unknowingly crossed over the old demarcation line between the Christian neighbourhood (Lebansese forces party) and Shiaa neighbourhood (Hezbollah) and one thing was certain, the fragmentation of the invisible demarcation line can be felt in the air of Beirut streets. The various demarcated territories add up to a very divided city, struggling to function as an urban entity. Divided interests ironically seem to be one of the few unifying factors of a population struggling to find freedom amidst the restriction, so with no unifying force to guide the upward momentum of society, it seems people are choosing to flee.
While I was ensured the party scene was alive and well in Beirut, techno can only go so far in aiding the Lebanese people in coping with their collective trauma; people can dance into the night but cannot walk freely into the day. Zero investment in public safety, green spaces and health means the people do not have the support they need to thrive in their environment. They share a common distrust for government functioning and are all heavily in a state of chaos, trying to process how to stay afloat a sinking ship. Some are choosing to stay, to fight by engaging in long-term political structural change. Some are Freezing, iced, and detached from the conflict of the past. While others are fawning, avoiding conflict where they can and consistently ignoring their own needs and values. For others, the ones who most often have been at the front line systematically or physically for years are Fleeing – to Canada, Berlin, and Australia, emigration rates increased by approximately 450% between 2020 and 2021.
One has to wonder what this all means for the Lebanese Identity, a city reborn out of neo-liberal real estate interests, rapid gentrification in cultural hotspots, and Heritage buildings being left to rot. The impact of the explosion itself and the blast reconstruction efforts have been altering the physical and social fabric of the city. At the same time, the vibrant youth who embody the Lebanese culture depart to foreign lands, leaving behind the Faktoush, Cats and sweet melody of Fairuz at sunrise. It is not hard to understand how Lebanese culture is under threat, since the end of the civil war Governmental negligence and twisted monetary interest that went under the façade of Solidare has been expropriating the Capital. While Solidere's main downfall was failing to understand the significance of architectural space in articulating an urban city and a sustainable political economy and cultural identity for the city.
In other words, it failed to include the Lebanese people within the socio-political context in which Beirut could ‘Build Back Better’. Today, again we see a similar trend in which displacement and rapid gentrification are spoiling the chances of a Lebanese cultural equilibrium within their Capital, Beirut. We need to understand that the shape of a building represents a socio-economic or political context that emanates from the activities of its residents and surroundings. The power of a place depends on the spirit of a people and so, safeguarding heritage should not be about safeguarding the building itself – we should not classify heritage buildings without their surrounding areas as the building by itself doesn't represent any significant cultural value. Beirut is a beguiling paradox, from Tyre to Tripoli its energy is intoxicating leaving you thirsty for the next adventure. The essence of the country is intact, yet remains hidden under the ashes of the atrocities that have defined its past. By capitalising on its unique cultural heritage aspects, Beirut can work to produce a cultural and political identity which has the potential to retain its population and ignite its sense of self. Only when we realise that heritage holds up development can we begin to build back better and fairer environments for generations and generations to come.