CITY SPOTLIGHT: Beirut, A City’s Scarred Face

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This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

The below post comes from CNU member Wajdi Ghoussoub, who shares his thoughts on his former hometown of Beirut. 

A City’s Scarred Face

What war, a weak state and the lack of planning can do to a once beautiful and flourishing city

“We injured you and made you tired/ We burnt you and made you cry/ We burdened you oh Beirut with our sins…Rise, rise, rise, rise from under the rubble” – Beirut, a song by Majida Al Roumi

I remember vividly the days when, as a child, I used to roam the streets of Hamra and have a quick bite along with a fruit cocktail after a basketball game at one of Bliss Street’s flashy snacks, or buy cassettes of 80s music (remember them cassettes?) at the nearby music store, or hurriedly and unwisely spend the money my father gave me on jeans at one of the abundant fashion stores. My parents entrusted this singular neighborhood of Beirut with my life and gave me the freedom to wander around at a very young age; to me, the universe revolved around the place and all that it had to offer. Today, rarely do I ever visit Lebanon without touring Hamra and, now that I’m "of age,” I often also stop at one of the pubs on Makdissi street for a drink or two with some friends. However, something has changed and I cannot quite pinpoint what it is.

It could well be just me who has changed: have I grown accustomed to the highways of Dubai where I currently reside? Or perhaps I prefer the freezing temperatures of Canada where I lived before? Or was I too lured by the lights of Singapore which I recently visited? I’ve grown and it may just be that the merry cream ice cream from Bliss House simply doesn’t install in me the same simple pleasure any more. Maybe I am focused on what’s making my "smart" phone blink instead of what the surroundings showcase as I tread those same streets.

More convincing, however, is the fact that the neighborhood itself has changed. Beirut has changed. Many stores closed down and others opened up. Even the owner of the around the corner dikkan (convenience store) is not the same. Unsafe and cracking buildings or houses, many of which feature the vanishing traditional architecture, were given no hope of restoration. Instead, they were pulverized, giving way to new listless high rises that now define the new Beirut. A couple of such high rises now block the iconic but unseemly Manara tower - the lighthouse whose rotating beam kept my room lit in the darkest and scariest of winter hours, but which is now turned off forever (a new tower was then built by the water).

Today, it is piles of concrete that win over beautiful architecture; stand-alone and often frightful structures that win over harmonious city blocks; jammed parking lots that win over green space; snappish and unforgiving drivers that win over order and calm; polluted air that wins over the refreshing Mediterranean breeze; and strident and boundless traffic that wins over the ease of pedestrian and stone-paved streets. Was this always the way things were and I was just too naïve to realize? Or is Beirut truly transforming so rapidly by the day? Are we to blame Beirut, ourselves, our politicians or all of the above? I do not think we can blame Beirut for the city was an angel kindly bequeathed to us by our predecessors. I was not around to see Beirut of the 1800s and early 1900s (especially the 1950s and 1960s), but I have seen pictures and heard stories of the city it once was. It was Beirut the red-tile-roofed, Beirut the spacious, Beirut the rich with generous orange fields; Beirut the pioneering city in the region when it comes to public transport (oh good old tram!); Beirut the safe keeper of civilization’s treasures – which, by the way, we now squander with no shame (and the list goes on and on).

Luckily, certain essentials haven’t changed. Hamra, for example, remains a diverse community and in it, the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut has endured. The revamped corniche still allows Beirut residents to take a lovely stroll by the water. Despite years of war and destruction, the city has to a large extent been rebuilt again and again and continues to survive as the country’s main urban and economic hub. Located on a peninsula, it has even expanded south and north on the mainland, though often without careful planning. The city and Lebanon in general still attract tourists from all over the world and the nightlife remains second to none in the region.

A friend once compared the land of Lebanon to the “body of a beautiful but vulnerable woman, grappled on all sides by the groping fingers of greedy aggressors”; what is frightening is that those aggressors are not foreign ones. We are ruining this now rueful land with our own fingers. In the Arabian Gulf, they are making the desert bloom and in Lebanon we seem to be earnestly going in the opposite direction. Why and how have we become so careless and ungrateful? Why do we overburden Beirut when the rest of Lebanon is hungry for attention? People living outside the country now often say: “we are traveling to Beirut.” Is this truly so?  You are not travelling to Lebanon? If Beirut is all we see and all we care about, why do we continue to scar its face?

In our house, still hung is a big picture of "Place des Canons" – modern day Martyr Square - of I’d say the early 1900s. In it, one can see the Kahwat el ‘zez (café), the notorious seller of kaak, the old Azarieh church amongst other sights. If I am to take the same picture again today, there would be none of those; instead: a beautiful yet gigantic mosque of Turkish architecture that dominates all around it in the place of the cafe, a line of cars and construction sites giving no space for even a kaak seller and a monstrous center, the namesake of the old church that once stood in the same spot. And this is just one snapshot of what is supposed to be the “heart” of Beirut.

Picture source:



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