Public Spaces in Beirut

I have recently read a couple of articles on usage of public space in Beirut. One I read for pleasure (thanks, Dad), and the other for work-related research.

Rachel Doyle (2/17/12) wrote the first one: "In Beirut, the Zaitunay Bay Promenade Opens" ( Reading it reminded me of my first (and sadly, still only) visit to Beirut. I spent as much time as possible during my 19 days there walking along the Med. (As a Jersey girl and sailor, I am most at home on or along the water. It turns out that I was "down the shore" in Beirut!) For an idea of the location of the Beirut Marina, where the Zaitunay Bay Promenade is, look at . When I thanked Dad for forwarding the link to the NYT article, I ragged a bit about the latest of Beirut's post-civil war construction efforts as being elitist. Although an upper middle income country (, Lebanon's ratio of government debt to gross domestic product is one of the world's highest, at around 130%, because of the weak central government (see, e.g., This means there is less public financing available for free and low-cost services, like spaces for civic and cultural events, parks, and playgrounds. Civil society organizations and the private sector help keep the country going, and the private sector needs to make a profit to do so.

For a Lebanese perspective on Zaitunay Bay, I went to the Beirut-based Daily Star ( There is reference to the need for public play spaces for kids and more fast-food and less expensive dining venues, but I don't think the average Lebanese could muster $35 for a modestly priced French dinner. I hope that the public and private sectors of Lebanon will continue the (slow but hopefully steady) trend exemplified by the developers of Zaitunay Bay Promenade to open up safe public spaces accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. In my brief internet search, I didn't see any signs of one, but I hope there is a no-fee playground/space for kids in the new area. If not, is there a Lebanese performer who could do a benefit on Zaitunay Bay Promenade to raise money for one? You know, someone with rock-star quality and a big Bruce Springsteen ;-)

The second piece is "Spatial Transformations in the Lebanese 'Independence Intifada'" by Sune Haugbolle [The Arab Studies Journal, vol. 14, no. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 60-77.] (This intifadah, or uprising, is known in the West as the Cedar Revolution.) The author shows how the redeveloped downtown area of Beirut was transformed from February through April of 2005 into a vibrant area for free political expression. The activity was precipitated by the demand for withdrawal of Syrian government troops from Lebanon as well as the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (also the principal architect of the downtown development project). Although non-profit civil society organizations (from individual Lebanese, political parties, to scholars to non-profit media organizations) were the main participants/organizers, as with Zaitunay Bay/Beirut Marina, the private sector was involved.

The author provides examples of a cathartic spirit of national unity of over one million Lebanese who demonstrated in two rallies in March. The two rallies were organized by different political groups, the first on March 8th by Hizbullah, the Party of God (which is "pro-Syrian") and the second on March 14th, by the opposition (or mu'arada), which called for the Syrian withdrawal. The author writes that the opposition leaders tried to keep their followers from using harsh or violent rhetoric; unfortunately, the situation devolved over the course of the three-month uprising. It was a brief interval of national unity, though, with people of all backgrounds milling around, much speechifying, a wall for posting whatever graffiti or banners one wanted, a huge banner with a unity slogan in front of the National Museum, and an opening up of once strictly single-sect neighborhoods to mixed sectarian activity.

At the end of Independence Intifadah, Syrian troops retreated from Lebanon, but the spirit of "one Lebanon," to the extent that there was one, dissolved and is yet to be revived in as large a mobilization as one-quarter of the country's population. However, there are small pockets of unity-building that I have observed in civil society and government. I just try to remain hopeful that Lebanon will keep moving along, despite the current Syrian strife surrounding the country, other governments and outside groups with Lebanon-related political projects, internal conflict between the March 8th and 14th coalitions, the Palestinian refugee situation within Lebanon, and Israeli-Palestinian-Lebanese tension along the southern border.

Phew! Time for a walk in the park.