Lebanese activists decry Beirut’s lost heritage

Sunday 02/04/2017
Indiscriminate destruction. A 2015 picture shows an excavator demolishing an old building in Beirut. (AFP)

Beirut - Saving Beirut’s waning heritage is a constant bat­tle that activists fighting against well-connected and powerful develop­ers fear they cannot win. Activists blame the indiscriminate razing of hundreds of historically valuable buildings throughout the city on the lack of enforcement of a weak heritage law, corruption and lack of interest and political will.
“The problem with preserving Beirut heritage is not only in the law but with the authorities who facilitate the work of banks, inves­tors and politicians,” said Naji Raji, founder of Save Beirut Heritage, which he established in 2010 to pre­serve the city’s traditional houses.
“Beirut has been losing its face and special character quickly in the last few years… In Lebanon, every development project is somehow linked to politicians. We call such developments mistakes, while they call them business successes,” Raji said.
While 15 years of civil war caused extensive damage to the city, a development and reconstruction spree has turned out to be more detrimental.
Raji, an interior architect, said Save Beirut Heritage has been lob­bying for stricter conservation laws and put forward more than one proposition for new legislation without success.
“The draft is still rotting in the drawers of the government,” Raji said. “They will never look at it because of the politicians who are affiliated with building and con­struction companies. Such a law would affect their businesses and what they do is business.”
The proposed law provides for municipal support to owners of old buildings to help them with main­tenance work to preserve the prop­erties. It would also impose costly fines on violators.
The only official document that can theoretically protect Beirut’s endangered buildings is a survey from the 1990s that counted 1,600 historic buildings in Greater Beirut. However, Save Beirut Heritage said, only about 250 of those designated buildings have survived the post-war reconstruction era.
Activism by Save Beirut Herit­age, which started as a group on Facebook, attracted thousands of followers, who, through protests and demonstrations, halted the demolition of several old build­ings in traditional neighbourhoods such as Gemayze, Mar Mikhail and Ashrafieh.
They were the driving force be­hind a government decision to freeze the demolition of old houses for six months. During that period, architects evaluate the historic and architectural value of a building be­fore a demolition order is signed by the Culture minister. Demolition was previously green lighted by Beirut municipality.
The first building Raji saved was the one in which he was born and brought up. “Sometimes we suc­ceeded but many times we failed,” he said. “It is not always easy to pro­tect the heritage because of the in­vestment and big moneys involved and the fact that there are no laws that really protect heritage.”
The activist stressed the impor­tance of preserving the urban social fabric that comes with preserving traditional neighbourhoods and old buildings.
“Heritage is also about the social life, the spirit and the urban aspect of the city,” Raji said. “Streets and whole areas with traditional char­acter should be protected because the sense of a historic and tradi­tional environment comes from an area, not from one building.”
Nostalgia for old Beirut inspired Souheil Mneimne, a retired phar­macist, to start the Facebook page “Beirut Heritage” with the help of family and friends to document the vanishing landmarks of the city.
“We post old pictures, docu­ments and videos of Beirut that we have in our archives. The page is mainly addressed to the young gen­eration who know nothing about our heritage to tell them that they are living in a city with old tradi­tions,” Mneimne said.
The page, which has about 200,000 followers, displays poetry, traditional music and old food reci­pes. “I was really surprised by the popularity of the page. It indicates that there is an interest in preserv­ing our heritage. We even get com­ments from abroad such as: ‘You really have this or that in Beirut?’” Mneimne said.
After six years of an uneven bat­tle against developers, Raji said he was losing courage and motivation. “Sometimes I feel that I want to stop and this could be very near,” he said. “I’ve had many lawsuits filed against me and lots of prob­lems with the police. For three years I was not working, I was with­out money, dedicating all my time just to save Beirut heritage.”
Only a strong political will and a genuine popular awakening can guarantee the survival of the few remaining traditional houses of Beirut, Raji contended. “Heritage is important for identity but also for business, art, culture and tourism,” he said. “You go to Paris because of heritage. You don’t go to Paris to visit towers and high-rises.”