Around Beirut

Beirut City Center, the site of the Government House, or Serai, was most heavily damaged during Lebanon's civil war, 1975-1990. Since the end of the war, the City Center has been rebuilt more rapidly than any other part of Beirut, with plenty of office space, luxury residences, and beautiful shops and restaurants >>>

More than any individual, the renovation was the work of the late Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005, not far from the City Center. Huge posters of Mr Hariri can be seen on many of the high rise buildings around the City Center, and on the windows of small shops in tucked away corners in other areas of Beirut, testimony to his popularity. A UN investigation into Mr Hariri’s assassination has been completely overshadowed by the recent war.

Ten minutes drive away from the City Center, that was spared the Israeli bombardments, lie Beirut's southern suburbs, or Dhahiyah, inhabited mostly by Shia Moslems. In large areas of the Dhahiyah Israeli bombardments turned apartment blocks into piles of stones, bricks, concrete slabs and mangled iron rods, entombing the modest belongings of their former occupants.

The neighborhood of Be'r El-Abed, home to some Hezbollah leaders and offices, was among the worst hit. A narrow street, lined with shattered windows, torn awnings and posters of Hezbollhah fighters killed in the war, leads to one site of total devastation. Bulldozers are clearing the remains of what used to be houses, shops, and a library.

On the pavements, there are small piles of items retrieved from under the rubble: clothes, household items and books, in Arabic, including the Qora'n; Mohammedan Islam, by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed-Ali Khamenei, referred to by his  Lebanese followers as “Al-Imam Al-Khamenei”; TheSecrets of Haj, by a leading Iranian theologian, Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli; and Armored Weaponry, part of a series on the Israeli military.

Nearby, a mangy tree stands in the midst of the remains of several buildings and the stump of another in front of a pile of crushed construction material. The replacement of tree with buildings was one of Beirut's greatest losses before the latest war. Some are now hoping that the reconstruction of the previously tightly-packed Dhahiayh will allow for the re-creation of green spaces.

Before the war, strangers entering the Dhahiyah would arouse suspicion. After the ceasefire, there has been a stream of visitors to the area: aid worker, journalists, foreign officials, as well as some Lebanese to whom the area had been more foreign than cities in other countries. The locals would readily share accounts of their suffering with visitors and well-wishers, but most would not like to be photographed. There are, of course, always exceptions, such as a family sitting on a balcony, headed by a jolly, chubby gentleman who asks to be photographed.

Clearing the damage from the Dhahiyah is likely to take several months, to be followed by reconstruction. Hezbollah has been paying people who have lost their homes money for furniture and rent to see them through one year, an indication of the length of time it envisages for rebuilding. But this does not mean that life will be at a standstill that long. A banner on the remains of a building announces, in Arabic, that the “Rafik Younes Academy of Makeup and Beauty has been relocated to the building of the Arab Bank.”

Back in the City Center, a poster of an angry-looking US Secretary of State, Dr Condoleezza Rice, hangs from a building that was damaged in the Civil War and has not yet been repaired. Nearby, in the Martyrs' Square, there is an arts display about the 33-day war. A pyramid made of green netting represents a Christmas tree, “decorated” with recovered children's toys and surrounded by battered toys and household appliances, tied up with red ribbons as “presents”.

There are stands with pictures of child victims of the war, as well as works of art by children and adults. Some are impressions of the war. Others are openly political, including one that denounces the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the disarming of militias in Lebanon. Israel said one of its war aims in Lebanon had been to enforce the resolution and disarm Hezbollah.

The vast central part of the square has been turned into a symbolic graveyard for the 1,200 people killed in Lebanon.  The names of some have been printed on a second pyramid. A few “gravestones” bear the names and pictures of young men. Others are marked with hand-written names. Most remain blank, waiting for more names to be recorded.

The “graveyard” is divided into several segments, marking the rise in the number of Lebanese people killed as the adoption of a UN ceasefire resolution was being delayed: first by the “threat of veto by 'Lebanon's Friend' [the US envoy to the UN, John] Bolton”; then because of “the Arab foreign ministers' inability to stop the Israeli-American attack on Lebanon”; and then because of the “cover provided by the Group of 8 for the Israeli-American attack on Lebanon.”

The “graveyard” leads to one of the few bridges in Lebanon that were not destroyed by the Israeli air raids (another one is said to be 'The Almond Bridge', or Jisr El Laouzieh, mentioned in a song by the Lebanese singer, Fairouz). Over the bridge, on a high-rise building, hangs a poster of Mr Hariri, deep in thoughts. From the bridge hangs the poster of a man, crying while carrying a dead child through the rubble. The caption, in Arabic and English, reads: “Our Children are being slaughtered. We pray for the safety of the world's children.”

The symbolic “graveyard” is within site of the real graves, or rather the shrine, of Mr Hariri and some of the 22 people who were killed with him. Not far away from the shrine, behind the offices of Lebanon's leading paper, An-Nahar (The Day), there's a statue commemorating one of the paper's most popular writers, Samir Qassir, who was assassinated in June 2005. On the front of the An-Nahar building hangs a huge poster of the paper’s former editor, Gebran Tueini, who was killed in December 2005 – the last victim of a series of fourteen explosions in Lebanon in little more than a year. The stalled investigation into Mar Hariri's case was also due to look into the other assassinations.

A short walk from the Martyrs' Square, at the Sahat el-Nejmeh, or Star Square, near Lebanon's Parliament, the rebuilt clock tower is draped on all sides with posters of child victims of the war. Around the square, there are more pictures of mutilated children and banners protesting against the death and destruction in Lebanon. One banner, in English, quotes Secretary Rice as saying, “We fully understand the right of Israel to defend itself.” It then goes on to say: “2 Israeli soldiers abducted, hundreds of Lebanese children killed. Is it RIGHT?” >>>

Hossein Shahidi is Assistant Professor of Communication, American University of Beirut.


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