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Demolishing Lebanese identity

Miscellaneous

The cars are parked in a line adjacent to Ottoman and French-style buildings in Beirut’s Martyrs Square. A tramway surrounds the square, and people walk along the wide sidewalk of Foch Avenue. This is how downtown Beirut looked in the first decades of the last century, now preserved only in old pictures.

This article was featured on the Now News’ website (now.mmedia.me) written by Nicolas Lupo on February the 11th, 2013.
“My grandfather suppresses a tear when passing by what used to be Martyrs Square and the adjacent souqs,” says Pascale Ingea, from the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH).
Lebanon’s post-war period has seen the destruction of most of the buildings that made Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. “This kills our identity,” she adds.
During the 1990s, the Ministry of Culture put together a list of historical landmarks in the country. The Direction Générale des Antiquités (DGA) included approximately 1,600 buildings in Beirut, most of them from the Ottoman period or the French mandate.
As of this year, 80 percent of the buildings on the list have been demolished, say representatives from both APLH and Save Beirut Heritage (SBH). There are many reasons for the mass destruction of heritage buildings, but the two associations cite the lack of enforcement of the heritage law by successive Lebanese governments out of corruption and lack of interest, as well as non-existent construction regulation. They also note that the DGA’s budget of around $3 million represents less than 0.02% of annual government spending.
Another problem is Lebanon’s old rent law of the early 1990s, which stipulates that people who signed a contract before the law was passed have their rents fixed at that rate. Landlords cannot increase rent or kick tenants out. “The old rent law doesn't allow the owners to reclaim what is theirs, as long as the tenant lives and brings family to live with them ad eternum, in return for revenue too meager to keep the house in good shape,” explains Pascale. Hammour says there have been cases of families renting an apartment for $300 per year, and the owner was forced to sell the house just to make money to live.
One consequence of the destruction of the country’s heritage buildings is that it affects one of the main economic resources of the Lebanese economy: tourism. “By losing our traditional neighborhoods in favor of malls, modern buildings, parking lots and shopping outlets, we are stripping Lebanon of its traditional and touristic cachet,” says Ingea. “This policy of urban development is economically beneficial to the promoter, but in both the short- and long-run, the Lebanese public is on the losing end.”
“We copied the wrong model, the one of the Gulf cities, while we should had reflected on the Mediterranean countries,” says Georges Zaioun, who worked for UN Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) for many years and helped to reestablish its headquarters in Lebanon.
Beirut still has old buildings that remind residents of what the city used to be. “Walking through my new city, I found little jewels like Sursok Palace,” says Joana Hammour, who moved to Lebanon four years ago. Hammour, 30, left the country for Paris with her family soon after she was born. “I used to hear how beautiful Beirut was, but when I moved, that didn't match the reality.”
If the heritage of Beirut has suffered because of its economic dynamism, other cities like Sidon and Byblos have taken advantage of their historical centers. The souq in Sidon and the port of Byblos are little oases on an overcrowded coast.
Tripoli is also struggling to conserve its historical buildings. The city has around 150 historical monuments on the DGA’s list. “Most of them are not maintained and are in danger of collapsing,” explains Elias Khlat, who developed the National Campaign to Preserve Tal Square, which works to conserve Tripoli’s historic square. Another 150 buildings that are not on the list, says Khlat, also urgently need protection. One recent example of a destroyed landmark was the famous Inja Theater, which was demolished after its owner, MP Mohammad Kabbara, received a permit to work on it.
The destruction of the archeological ruins of Minet el-Hosn in downtown Beirut shocked many Lebanese last June. Bulldozers erased any trace of the ruins after the Ministry of Culture granted a construction permit to Venus real estate company, which will build three luxury apartment towers. Hisham Sayegh, archeologist of the DGA, announced his resignation one day after the destruction, accusing Culture Minister Gaby Layoun of allowing it. In his resignation letter, Sayegh said he received payoff offers from Venus real estate.
In addition, in January, the house owned by renowned author Amin Maalouf was destroyed. Culture Minister Layoun said last year he would not allow the demolition of the house, but some months later he gave the owners permission to do so. Layoun himself accused Lebanese state of not being interested in the conservation of the country’s heritage after the Maalouf house’s demolition.
Yet the activists who work for the preservation of Lebanon’s historic buildings are not pessimistic. The mentality of the Lebanese people and their politicians can be changed “if we are determined and have united directions,” says Ingea. Apathy is an enemy to the preservation of historic houses, as well as greed. They encourage Lebanese to get involved in any way they can, in order to preserve the last vestiges of the Beiruti architectural style that was once prized so highly.
 

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URL now.mmedia.me
 

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