In January, Beirut journalist Habib Battah wrote a much-needed reminder of central Beirut’s post-war legacy after two decades of ‘reconstruction.’ Much of his piece, published in the Al Jazeera Digital Magazine, revolves around criticisms of Solidere, the Société Foncière that was handed a sweeping mandate over the central district in December 1991. These criticisms are now familiar to many people, as critical voices have protested the project from the very beginning. Even before the law that established Solidere was passed, there were intense debates about the direction that post-war reconstruction should take, as summarized by Marie-Claude Bittar in a piece in Les Cahiers de L’Orient №24 titled, “Quelle Politique de Reconstruction?”

In this article, Minister Marwan Hamade is quoted as saying that: “At a time when the world is evolving towards less state and more market, there’s a double-necessity to restore the state and revive the market economy at the same time: reconciling ‘the plan’ and freedom, rebuilding infrastructure and intervening just enough to restore the conditions of laissez-faire.” (Bittar, 1991, p. 93, translated from French)

(An old postcard shows what Martyrs' Square looked like before the civil war.)

Lebanon very quickly took a different direction, as we now know, leaning more heavily on the side of market ‘freedom.’ By 1998, Assem Salam had already declared in Projecting Beirut that “the town center has become a dead city, an empty field open to the speculative ambitions of developers” (p. 132).

What’s most interesting about Habib’s article, however, are the glimpses he offers of a city center that many of us never knew. At the end of his piece, he writes: “It was 1976. The civil war had gone on for about a year but there was a lull in the fighting. The militias had withdrawn and the barricades were removed. Crowds of shopkeepers and residents had returned to check on their properties. There was a large impromptu gathering at Martyrs square. Even strangers embraced, asking about friends and families.”

There’s something amazing and heartbreaking about this image, this large, joyous gathering at the square that most of us now associate with the ‘Cedar Revolution,’ happening all the way back in 1976. It’s so sad to think that little did those people know that they still had 14 years of war still ahead of them...

(Photo via wikipedia)

As is now well documented, protests against the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon converged at Martyrs’ Square in 2005 precisely because it was a highly symbolic and emotive place, imbued with historical meaning. But those of us caught up in the craziness of those long months after the assassination of Rafik Hariri will remember that this symbolism was actually two-fold: Sahet al-Shuhada became the launching pad of an anti-Syrian intifada -- or Western conspiracy, depending on whom you asked -- because Sahet Riad al-Solh had become a symbol of continued Syrian dominance -- or national resistance -- and vice versa.

The symbolism of one fed the symbolism of the other.

So much has happened in Beirut since those days of hope and rage, making the significance of that polarization seem a little cheap and contrived now. And yet, looking further back into history, we can see that the two squares have been the ying to the other’s yang for a long time. In another chapter in Projecting Beirut, Jens Hanssen writes about Riad al-Solh Square when it was still called Sahet al-Sur, and when Martyrs’ Square was officially called Sahet el-Hamidiyye but more popularly referred to as Sahet al-Burj.

After comparing the two, Jens concludes by saying that:“...Sahat al-Burj never really represented the specifically local character in the way that Sahat al-Sur maintained it. While the latter successfully resisted the imposition of larger, external rhythms, the former became an agent of external change, whether as the French-dominated of Place des Canons…[the Sultan’s] Sahat al-Hamidiyye. Indeed, by the turn of the century, Sahat al-Burj had become the showpiece of Ottomanized Beirut, just as it was to become the symbol of French rule during the mandate period.” (p. 64)

I’m not sure if anyone picked up on this backstory during those heady days of square versus square, March versus March, but looking back at the ‘larger, external rhythms’ that have taken over Martyrs’ Square or Sahet al-Burj since the 1990s, I wonder if the city center is a “showpiece” of anything today, and if so, whose “rule” does it symbolize?

Saying “Solidere’s rule, of course!” is too easy. Al-Burj’s slow death has a much longer history than that. In the same chapter, Jens Hanssen describes how a garden that used to be in the heart of the square was fenced in the 1880s, with an entrance fee imposed. He goes on to quote from an article published in Lisan al-Hal in 1913:

“The municipality had built some small huts on the edge of [the garden’s] fences and today large shops made of stone and lime are built for revenue, in the knowledge that in Beirut there are a number of very rich people who hope to buy them for no less than 150,000 lira. But if the municipality sells this garden, it is like somebody selling his eyes to buy glasses. It is easy for every Beiruti to witness the beautification of this square in how it is surrounded by stores and shops. What is the need for a garden if it inside a wall? It is upon us to remove these constructions [around the gardens] and open its gates to everyone who wishes to enter them. For the park which represents for us the fabric of the previous century is not worthy of an enclosed area.” (p. 63)

One hundred and one years later, the tarboush may have changed heads, but the same mentality of “a number of very rich people” still rules, keeping this particular Beiruti heritage of “selling eyes to buy glasses” alive and well, it seems.

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