After explosion, Lebanese say ‘Beirut is not for sale’ to corrupt developers

Two men sit on the destroyed balcony of a building facing the site of last week's massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP)

In Lebanon, property developers have spotted an investment opportunity after the deadly explosion at the Beirut port, and some have harassed tenants to move out or have lied to tenants, telling them property was unsafe to live in.

The “Beirut is not for sale” campaign has emerged as a way to save Beirut’s heritage sites and push back against these shady operations, some of which are said to be linked to politicians.

Antoine Atallah, the president of Save Beirut Heritage, an NGO devoted to protecting Beirut’s architectural and urban heritage, was in Greece when he heard about the Beirut explosion.

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Days later, he was on a plane back to his home country.

In three decades of destruction and reconstruction, 32-year-old Atallah has never seen anything like the mass mobilization to save the city’s heritage following the Beirut blast earlier this month.

Previous attempts to save Beirut’s architecture from war and real estate tycoons have had mixed success.

Workers remove debris from a damaged restaurant a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (File photo: AP)

Workers remove debris from a damaged restaurant a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (File photo: AP)

“In the 1990s there was lots of mobilization [to preserve heritage], especially around the downtown. There were movements, but unfortunately they were largely unsuccessful. After the war, people didn’t have the peace of mind to think about heritage,” he told Al Arabiya English.

The real estate sector boomed in the 2000s, piquing public interest in sites of architectural importance – but it wasn’t enough to stop developers building over ancient archaeological sites.

Now Atallah is noticing a different kind of urgency and public interest in saving Beirut’s heritage.

“All the other demolitions happened bit by bit. But people need to go back to a city they still recognize. It is part of the healing process for them to go back to places that represent them,” he said.

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Besides the shock of the trauma, the geographical damage is also raising the profile of restoration efforts.

Much of the recent destruction took place in central East Beirut’s historically significant neighborhoods that were left relatively untouched by previous waves of war and urban renewal.

The hip Gemmeyze and Mar Mkhael neighborhoods, known for their trendy restaurants, bars and cafes, in East Beirut were hit particularly hard.

The Sursock Museum was damaged in the Beirut port explosion. Here it is shown with its windows blown out following the blast. (Rowina Bou Harb)

The Sursock Museum was damaged in the Beirut port explosion. Here it is shown with its windows blown out following the blast. (Rowina Bou Harb)

“They escaped most of [the previous] damage. Plus they are areas very present in the minds of people. [People] identify with these places, not just a single house,” he continued.

This all means that public discourse around restoration is changing, Atallah explained.

“For the first time, everyone is talking about heritage in a different way… that heritage is not just about the building but also the social fabric that lives in the material fabric.”

For Atallah and his colleagues, successful preservation of these important sites doesn’t just mean protecting buildings. It also means making sure that people continue to live and work in them.

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That is no easy task. Many home owners and renters living in heritage buildings are keen to cut their losses and sell up for modest returns. In some cases, property developers have spotted an investment opportunity, harassing tenants to move out fast for little compensation.

Naji Raji, founder of Save Beirut Heritage, helps tenants avoid this trap. He recalls several cases where landlords have falsely claimed that a building is no longer fit for use – sometimes sending teams of so-called experts who produce sham reports declaring structural unsoundness.

“The aim is to kick them out as soon as possible, so the landlord can demolish the building and sell the land to developers,” he explained. In some cases, owners have been approached by companies or individuals with links to political organizations and security apparatus, Raji added.

A man uses his phone to take a picture of the site of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020.  (AP)

A man uses his phone to take a picture of the site of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020. (AP)

To eliminate any doubt, an official engineering report must be established and sent to the Directorate General of Antiquities. In most cases, the families are able to move back in after some simple renovation. If the building is more damaged, funds and relevant heritage expertise will be needed to carry out more significant restoration.

But Raji is aware that many tenants and home owners are still moving out or selling to make way for large scale development. Often, the residents simply can’t afford to keep living there – and so they sell up quietly.

“The people who are thinking of selling will not talk to us. This is a problem, because we never hear about these things from a direct source.”

Atallah has a brighter outlook. He is thankful that the media campaign “Beirut is not for Sale” galvanized public opinion against property vultures so quickly.

“I think we have averted most of the danger [from exploitative development]. Everyone started talking about it, it gained speed very quickly.”

As Beirut continues to rebuild itself, popular support for restoration remains crucial, Atallah said.

“Today we have it. However, we are faced with two timeframes: The first is making sure that people can live in their houses and work in their spaces. The second is the restoration of heritage structures. We need to find the right formula.”

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Last Update: Sunday, 23 August 2020 KSA 14:18 - GMT 11:18
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