One Thousand and One Dalieh, Imagined Beirut (Tales of citizens’ resistance)

This presentation took place on the 24th of March 2016 in the context of an initiative recently launched by Beirut’s French Institute in the Near-East (IFPO), called “The Possibility of Beirut, Utopian Projections and Citizen Initiatives”. The rationale of this initiative, which aims at bringing together activists, researchers, artists, workers, and other partakers to the city, is to question counter-hegemonic urban models in a city marked by growing privatisation and destruction. There are, says Thierry Boissière who coordinates this initiative, a number of practices which define an alternative future for the city. These futures are proposed by long or short collectives who define urban models which compete with a dominant rationale of segmentation and privatisation to rely on notions of the common good of users, the right to the city, and the public, this seminar series will focus on these intiatives. They will highlight specific questions (like art, food, mobility, architecture, political action) and show how in Beirut some forms of utopias and heterotopias are conceived, marking the emergence of specific publics and urban models, even when those are short lived.*

The focus of the day was on the campaign to preserve one of the city’s landmarks, the Dalieh of Raoucheh. For those who lack knowledge of the city, the Dalieh consists in a rather tall chunk of land and rocks which marks a prolongation of the city into the sea, associated to the two big rocks some French people call “The Pidgeons’ Cave” [for reasons unknown to me, for I have never seen a single pidgeon in that area – AM]. Beside being a nice landscape, the Dalieh is mostly, as is discussed in the report, a rather important piece of public and unmanaged space in a city which lacks those. In addition to that the Dalieh is a green area. An important informal leisurely use of the place is permanent (people go there for picnics, walks, dives in the sea, and boat tours), as well as economic use (the place is used extensively by fishermen as well as small businesses which have developed around leisure, such as fava vendors, coffee shops, boat tours managers, and so forth). Therefore it is important, as a background information, to keep three key dimensions of the Dalieh as it is nowadays in mind: it is a 1. free, 2. public and 3. popular area, in a city which is deprived from such places.

The intervention consisted in four presentations. The first one was made by mr Ghassan Halawani, film-maker and activist with the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh (the campaign’s website is accessible here). The following three were made by architects who participated in a context to propose alternative models of urbanisation on the Dalieh. This summary will mostly focus on Mr Halawani’s presentation, because of my own lack of ability to coherently present architects’ plans (a very short summary will be made at the end of the post).

The Dalieh as a regulated landscape, The “Head of Beirut” as seen from the sky, c. Timos L

The Dalieh as a lived space: An informal cabin on the sea front. c. Alex Mahoudeau

The Dalieh as a lived space: An informal cabin on the sea front, c. Alex Mahoudeau

Ghassan Halawani, The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

The story began, for Halawani, with a disaster and the reminder by the owners of the site of the Dalieh that it is private. Indeed, if the site had been dispatched in a great number of different ownerships during the French Mandate to protect it, the war had reshuffled the cards and during the 1990s projects of development of this area started to be proposed. Very quickly a few users of the site, of various backgrounds and with various competences, as well as relations to the site (some people were leisurely users, others had a professional, or scientific, or political relation to it).

This diversity of approaches to the site provided what would be a great advantage for the movement, a diversity of approaches and knowledges of the landscape, which quickly provided with a variety of information on the site and its richness. This was visible in the first actions of the collective, which consisted in compiling these informations in a booklet, displaying maps, elements of law and legal precedent on this site, drawings of the site and its natural elements, identification of the various geological and archeological “layers” of the site, and so forth.

There were several stakes of this “disaster:”

  1. The Dalieh is the last natural, wild, public, site of the capital with an access to the sea, with the exception of Ramlet al-Baida, which is also concerned by urban assault by private investors. The activists’ feeling was that they had been during the post-war period physically “pushed out” of their city by ongoing privatisation of public space, to the point of having their back literaly to the sea. Were they to lose the Dalieh, it would be as if they were pushed into the sea, the Dalieh was presented and felt like a “last refuge” in a lost city.
  2. Second the loss of the Dalieh would have meant a change for the life of the users, and before all the workers, mostly the fishermen. Thos were “tolerated” by the former owners tu build cabins and work there. Nonetheless the project did put their livelihood at risk. The same went for the people using the place for leisure, mostly lower-class Beirutis, who also use it for popular encounters such as the Norouz festival.
  3. The main stake was to refuse entering into the other side’s argument about private property. From the start the topic for the campaign was to refuse to enter into this faraminous notion and to say this was not a question of private property but of a right to use public space. This point was associated by Halawani to “entering into shitty politics,” questions of votes and corruption, a realm in which the campaign stood little, if any, chance to win.
  4. Finally there was the question of institutions: some of the interveners were state institutions, in particular the municipality who played an ambiguous game by denying they had any relation to the site, but still posted some guards to protect the private ownership. Later on the activists managed to get the Ministry of Environment involved and even drafted a law proposal which got supported, but this led to the Ministry of Public Works to oppose it, and the hierarchies between ministries became obvious as Public Works blocked progress on the side of Environment. Besides, of course, the police was charged of regulating the area and therefore got involved as well.
The Dalieh as a landscape of popular leisure, c. Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

The Dalieh as a landscape of popular leisure, c. Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

For Halawani this appropriation of public space was rendered possible by the emergence in the context of the post-war of a certain type of “superman”, which combined state power and important private interests, making him above the law and capable of adapting it to his own personal interest: “We had to find a small mouse hole in which to crawl in order to answer to him juridically”. This “crawling” required the modification of the scale of the conflict, by showing how the same phenomenon applied to other sites in Lebanon such as the ruins of Jbail (Byblos), and a general destruction of the very foundations of the country, through a discourse of “creative destruction” according which getting rid of old crafts and professions would benefit all by increasing employment in the country.

This economic aspect transpired in the narrative according which former fisherman, cedars planters, and boat makers would find employment in the new tourism industry. Yet these professions, says Halawani, are more than mere employments, and represent and important part of the national culture. This was effectively a proposal to replace people’s meaningful lives and works by meaningless employment as parking valets, security agents, or dishwashers in luxury hotels, for a cheap wage.

What is more, the campaign insisted on showing that the existence of such popular public places participated to the conception of a general “good spirit” or “good mood” of the city and its inhabitants. The notion of preserving this “mood” was essential in the definition of the methods of action of the campaign, which organised mostly festive events and venues instead of demonstrations. Displaying the “good mood” of the place was a way of criticising the “bad mood” of the state’s projects which relied on three main urban flux, deposession and abstraction.

Indeed, the general situation in Lebanon is that the sea front has been taken from the inhabitants and replaced with an abstract discourse on what the experience of the sea should be. Where there once were beaches and cliffs now are placards installed by private owners explaining to people how they should consider the sea, mostly as an object of consumption: “At first there was a beach, then there was [a shop],” says once of these placards which entirely blocks any actual sight of the sea. This discourse of privatisation of the sea front as a “normal” phenomenon explains how the first answer to the campaign was “It is private property,” even from Lebanese people themselves. In that context, the question of how to answer passed by representing another form of normality, relying on party and celebration, but also on “crashing” the state’s and private owners’ parties. On that account the campaign decided to invite itself to festivities on the Rock or on TV shows about private urban developers, displaying slogans defending a right to the city to sensitise the Lebanese users to that question.

A final strategy was to stop the very quick answers of the developers to the campaign. To do so, shifting scales from the Lebanese to the international was an interesting strategy, which was successful to the extent that it allowed putting the Dalieh on the list of the World Monument Fund, and therefore allow it to be protected. Nonetheless this does not mark the end of the struggle, the private owners still having projects with architects – including international companies to whom the campaign has sent open letters to discourage them of working on that project – and placed concrete blocks to “mark” the territory.

To conclude and return to the topic of the seminar, Halawani asks if another Beirut is possible. What appears from this campaign and its achievements is that there is a certain hope to hamper such projects and defend a more diverse society, and to change things to a certain extent. The next step of this project was to go beyond knowing what the activists did not want, and to tackle the question of what they wanted. Hence the campaign participated to a contest in order to define alternative development projects for the Dalieh.

The Dalieh as a landscape of struggle, c. Campaign to Protect Dalieh

The Dalieh as a landscape of struggle, c. Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

The projects

[Because the three presented projects were exceptionally dense and complex for me, I choose to present here loosely whatever I managed to keep from the three presentations. – AM]

The three presentations were realised by architects who had participated either individually or collectively to the definition of alternative proposals for the development of the Dalieh. All the proposals relied on the valorisation rather than destruction of the previous uses of the site. The main axes of the projects were the use by the public, the protection of the fishermen’s livelihood, and the preservation or reintroduction of the environment (the Dalieh has an important flora, but is also visited by seals and used to have colonies of sea urchins). The diverse devices proposed to do so were a reamenagement of the pathways, an inclusion to the nearby corniche promenade, the development of a centre which would associate researchers, fishermen, and visitors in expositions and research, the installation of housing or shops in a part of the former concrete blocks used to discourage people to go to the Dalieh, and the installation of a public market (among other things). It is to be noted that some projects – not presented here – simply proposed to leave the Dalieh as is, and merely clean and improve it marginally. Once of the projects had proposed, and realised, a “branding” around the campaign for sensitisation purposes (such as t-shirts taking slogans of the campaign), and developed a social media campaign for the same goals.

The main point of interest of these projects was that their creators knew they stood no chance of being actually realised. The aim was to conceive them almost as a part of the campaign and a proof that other, more interesting, projects were feasible for the site. As such, they seem to participate of the campaign’s strategy to propose alternative frameworks for the urbanisation of Beirut.

*This initiative could on the long term lead to a collective publication, I will give more information on this blog when the time comes.

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