Saturday, June 10, 2006

Public Space

One of the biggest clichés in Lebanon (and I suppose, the rest of the Middle East), is the following: "the streets may look and feel terrible; the sidewalks and parks may not exist; the buildings may look filthy, old and decrepit; but step inside the apartment, and you'll be taken by the beauty, cleanliness, luxury and hospitality."

Another saying says that "wherever you see smoke, there must be a fire." In this particular case, I prescribe to that saying. Lebanese homes are probably some of the most extravagant in this world (relative to income, of course). The private domain is rich, cultured, usually spotless and sparkling. Enter most homes, and you'll be amazed at the contrast between what you saw outside, and what you experience when you are actually on the other side of the door.

The question that nags at me is the following: could this particular phenomenon actually be a problem? A follow-up question would be: why is the private domain so overwhelmingly dominant in importance compared to the public? Could one infer social conclusions from this reality? Is it reflective of an inherently selfish social order, where people only care for themselves and those closest to them, but could not care less about strangers who, nevertheless, are compatriots, or worse, anonymous neighbors who deserve assistance.

On the other hand, could an aesthetically pleasing and functional public space point to a healthy public domain in an abstract political sense? One in which people are too invested to simply ignore or not care about.

The following pictures were taken during the same trek in which the pictures of the previous entry were taken. They focus on Beirut's visible public infrastructure. Or, rather, the state of some of the "goods" that the public offers itself through taxation - irrespective of income or identity.

This first picture is of Hamra Main Street. It serves as a model to other neighborhoods in Beirut. Notice how the street is not paved, but rather made of cobble stone. Also notice how the side walk, trees, and street lights appear to be part of a master plan - as opposed to being placed haphazardly (as is usually the case in Beirut).

This street appears to be a little less planned, friendly, or aesthetically pleasing. However, I took this picture because of the trees. Beirut is a concrete jungle. Trees are rare. These particular trees are especially noteworthy because of their beautiful blossoms. I am afraid this picture may not do them justice.

Could these two pictures signify the beginning of a new movement in Beirut? The conversion of the city's public spaces into areas that all residents can appreciate and enjoy? Or are Lebanon's rapidly deteriorating beaches and mountains going to continue to be the only sanctuaries from a dysfunctional city subject to abuse from individuals and entities who (or that) care for nothing but the private domain?

P.S. I have a lot more pictures, but uploading them is hellish because of the slow internet connection. I will try to post them with time.


Anonymous said...

actually for hamra, the model was monnot ...

anyway wlc in beirut where the connections sucks (and actually i dont think it ll change for the moment)

wanna ask u:
is beirut different now since u left?

Anonymous said...

Raja, it is true that many Lebanese are not satisfied with their neglected public space, but it may still be more an issue of hiding ugliness than a consideration for other people.

I personally don't think that there is such a great difference between the average tidiness of interior and exterior. Many Lebanese are very poor and live in shabby homes.

Ofcourse you are right in saying that we need a public space. Unfortunately, until recently the typical debate that went on is "You want clean streets to whiten our face with tourists while you hide the poor people in their filthy neighborhoods and miserable homes." and on the other hand "But do you want to walk around amid rubbish and cars parked everywhere and water flooding the street the second it starts to rain..." Ofcourse we should have a "public space" policy but it should be done with the inhabitants in mind. Not the tourists.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Maybe this reflects Lebanese in general in that we are much more nicer inside than we appear to be. Much more kind, much more tolerant, much more tasteful and, much much more wanting a peaceful and orderly life than our surroundings allow us to have, wether politically, geographically and even culturally speaking.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this insight into Lebanese culture. As an American, I think the "nice homes inside" might reflect the fact that the ME is still such a family-based culture. Perhaps people have found that their efforts to open up and make the outside as nice as the inside have not been valued or rewarded.

Give everybody a break, is my thought. Lebanon has been through so very much for so very long, and is still going through it. I admire every attempt, failed or not. of the Lebanese people to hold onto and improve their country.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:35am

Thanks for your comment. I totally agree!

One other point that I'd like to make to Raja.
I know that there is always a certain amount of money that is dedicated to each municipality. Now what these guys decide to do with this money is a different story. There are many municipalities that have taken very good care of their streets and downtowns. Beirut still needs a lot more work on it. But it is happening.

Anonymous said...

If I may intrude here, I think “this particular phenomenon” is indeed a “problem” in Lebanon and it’s obvious by how its citizens act in public and how they treat or rather mistreat public places. A very good example of that would be the notorious throwing waste out of the car. And they don’t even shy away from leaving garbage at the beach and their own historic sites (so what does that say about us as lebanese?)

I do believe that “an aesthetically pleasing and functional public space point to a healthy public domain in an abstract political sense.” Once we establish mutual respect for our compatriots and for our communal space, I think this will also point to a healthy and vibrant society.

Could these two pictures signify the beginning of a new movement in Beirut? The conversion of the city's public spaces into areas that all residents can appreciate and enjoy? Or are Lebanon's rapidly deteriorating beaches and…

I think your second guess is more close to reality then the first. It seems like public space is the least of anyone’s concern when designing or building anything.
I failed to see anything notable but the trees in the pictures. If that’s the model, then I don’t know what the future holds for Lebanon. How many benches do we have or bike lanes or how many simple sidewalks?

Anonymous said...

french eagle, your christian and east Beirut-centrism is absolutely appaling. You just couldn't let this one go without showering us with some of your wisdom about the "civilized" east beirut versus the savage western part that-at best- can do nothing better than copy your "civilized" areas. This reminds me of a comment of yours a couple of weeks ago about how west Beirut men watch LBC to see the exposed "christian women" skin. You are very sectarian deep down inside, and you're in denial. For that I think you're most probably a aouni.

For your information, a few years ago the (pro-Hariri) Beirut municipality came up with a master plan to restore certain important commercial/touristic streets in the city (at the same time), and AFAIK these were Barbour street, Hamra street and Monnot street. They all received pretty much the same treatement, with similar sidewalks, lamps and cobblestone paving. So at least for this one time, your knee-jerk sectarian reflexes were very wrong, and the inherently "savage" muslims didn't copy the civilized french-wannabees, but it was actually an initiative from a pro-sunni (FM) municipality.
Here's some food for thought btw, if Hariri is a wahhabi (as you and many of your aouni clones claim), why would he come up with the idea to rejuvinate Monnot street, and turn it into an even more friendly nightspot? Shouldn't he have turned its clubs and bars into madrasas??

Raja said...


thanks for the comments. I get the perception that we're on the same page.

As for your particular comment concerning the trees, I did not say that they were a model for anything. I put that picture up there because they were aesthetically pleasing trees that also acted as a shade that I could walk under (as opposed to an obstacle that I'd have to walk around - which is another annoying characteristic of Beirut's side walks).


you must be in Beirut (or Lebanon). The reason I say so is because your attitude is one that is so damn common over here! Lebanese have NO SENSE of ownership of their public spaces. When we upgrade our parks, and make our sidewalks a little more pedestrian friendly, it's wasting money on the tourists. Of course, the typical Lebanese attitude is: "give me the money so that I can buy a vase for my salon."

Why don't Lebanese understand that public spaces can be enjoyed by ALL, and have such important benefits!

If you're sick of sitting in your room, or your office, or wherever you happen to be, all you have to do is walk outside, sit on lush green grass, underneath a tree, look at the beautiful blue sky and escape from whatever it is you want to escape from.

I don't see any tourists in this picture. Do you?

Anonymous said...

dear anonimous/kais fan or even kais

in case u didnt know how to read like 2 years ago (which seems to be the case since many articles were published at that time in most of the lebanese newspapers, l orient , nahar etc...) , in 2004, Monnot street was restaured first and paved and served as model.Hamra's work began few monthes after the completion of monnot

the remaining of your post is just bullshit and i am not even going to reply to it
it seems you are definitly loosing your temper, as all bad loosers do

Anonymous said...

People have little respect for the public domain in Lebanon, "l'espace citoyen" as those leftist French say. There's no civic culture: people only care about their private property.

Anonymous said...

"For your information, a few years ago the (pro-Hariri) Beirut municipality came up with a master plan to restore certain important commercial/touristic streets in the city (at the same time), and AFAIK these were Barbour street, Hamra street and Monnot street."

I am not likely to forget that, being a Monot fan and having two of my best friends living in this neighbourhood. They excavated the whole Monot street and took more than one year to repair it (a lot people suspected that the government/municipality were trying to divert the tourists and night-clubbers from Monot&Hamra to downtown). But now the thing looks better than it was previously.

Anonymous said...

What does this have to do with me, French Eagle? Do you think anybody who criticizes what you "write" is called "Kais"? Do I give you a complex? And for the millionth time, my name is Abu Kais. At least get that right!!

Anonymous said...

Dude you really have comprehension issues. Khalas, as they say in Beiruti, "felij, la t3alij". Go read your little orange book now (I'm sure you're probably masturbating right now over the al-diyar article which proclaims aounism as the first real democratic party in the entire history of Lebanon).

Anonymous said...

kais i know u re using multiple nicknames to brainwash people

and also kais is the first nick u used (cf LBF blog)

maybe u know how to write but you dont know how to read, and especially how to read btw the lines, how to analyse, missing always the points, attacking or barging against details, not getting the mains points, as usual... just like that story about west beirut, as said FGA:
"Ignorant people dwell in the darkness, and you my friend are a "shab lamba". Not sure why they are focusing on the meaningless details of East and West Beirut rather than basking in the deep content of your statements that you discusted so eloquently. "

Anonymous said...


You're just pissed off because no one EVER knows what the hell you're trying to say.

And please don't accuse us ALL of being Abu Kais--PLEASE--believe it or not, there is more than one person who detests you.

Anonymous said...

again ang again

just bullshit

when you will use your real nickname, i would care to answer

till that day/time/second, you are just showing your low level of IQ and high level of stupidity