Adonis Diaries

Are sterile shopping malls proof enough of growing gap between rich and poor? Lebanon case

Posted on: March 10, 2015


Are sterile shopping malls proof enough of growing gap between rich and poor? Lebanon case

The destruction of cities in Syria and the terror tactics in Iraq are the focus of the world’s attention (at least publically).

In this context it might seem churlish to draw attention to the problems of another city in the Middle East such as Beirut, not currently in the midst of conflict.

The “soft” destruction of Beirut is something that many of its citizens – who have seen their fair share of civil war – are watching with horror.

The greed of Lebanon’s politicians and real estate developers is slowly but surely decomposing the city’s social fabric. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is now wider than ever.

The Souks shopping mall in Beirut

‘The Beirut souks were once a place where the scent of rare spices filled the air. Today, all you can smell in are cleaning detergents and what you hear is ambient music.’ Photograph: Mattia Sobieski/Alamy

To understand the nature of real estate development in Beirut, one needs simply visit the new city centre, which was rebuilt after the civil war (1975-90) by a company called Solidere.

The new centre boasts expensively restored French-era buildings which, apart from some shops and offices, remain eerily empty, “A movie set”, to quote a Canadian film professor.

As for the newly refurbished Beirut souks, they were once a place where merchants haggled and the scent of rare spices filled the air.

Today, all you can smell in this open-air shopping mall are cleaning detergents, and what you hear is ambient music. Hardly a word of Arabic can be heard – even emergency signs are in English. “This could well be Heathrow airport,” noted one British visitor.

The most unsettling thing about the city centre is its “exclusive” aspect.

Although its shops are not necessarily aimed at wealthy visitors (as is often claimed), it is a good Lebanese example of what some have called “hostile architecture”.

Run like a private property, its streets are lined with surveillance cameras and security guards, some with watchdogs. Try to photograph the synagogue or stop in awe in front of an old church and prepare to be swarmed by paranoid guards.

This “hostile architecture” has set a trend across the country, especially among politicians and the ruling class.

While some old aristocratic families, such as the Sursock-Cochranes, have maintained a certain tradition of hospitality and kept their gardens open to the general public, members of the current elite have turned their Beirut residences into veritable fortresses inside the city, squatting public space.

Stories abound about unwitting passers-by being harassed by the private security guards who surround these residences.

While men in power take hold of entire districts, other parts of the city are being gentrified. These include the district of Mar Mikhael, with its charming traditional houses.

A century ago, survivors of the Armenian genocide and their children took refuge here and made their livelihoods from craftsmanship.

For four years, trendy bars and art galleries have been sprouting up next to garages and repair shops, attracting a more affluent, differently educated population. Real estate predators soon followed, destroying some of the traditional houses in favour of oversized luxury towers.

Out of fear of being completely driven away, to the outskirts of the city, the more modestly earning Armenians crossed out the name of the main street in Mar Mikhael and re-named it “Armenia Street”.

The great canyon separating the social classes in Lebanon can be seen in no more spectacular manner than in Mar Mikhael.

On my visit to a trendy art bookstore there, I found a glossy publication in which was gathered articles and work by the glitterati of the Beirut “conceptual art” scene. One feature displayed objects gleaned in a poor Beirut suburb, such as a matchbox and other everyday utensils, as if they were exotic finds in a faraway land of savages.

This could well have been the catalogue of a colonial exhibition in 19th-century Europe.

While trendy districts and luxury projects are beneficial to the economy, could they not be designed to be more inclusive? As the rich and powerful Lebanese barricade themselves in squatted land and gated communities, the poorer population is being confined to the margins and inside refugee camps.

As for the public space in between, it is either slowly disappearing or turned into shopping malls and parking lots. A paradox to be pondered, in a time when new technologies are meant to bring people together.

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March 2015

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