Liberating Public Space in Beirut

By Michael Teague

At the Edge of the City: Reinhabiting Public Space Toward the Recovery of Beirut’s Horsh al-Sanawbar
Edited by Fadi Shayya
Discursive Formations, 2010

Beirut’s pine forest, the Horsh Al-Sanawbar, has been no less a victim of Lebanon’s social and political challenges than its citizens have.  Nominally public property since Ottoman times, the park has been shut down since the civil war. During the 1990s, its greenest and most attractive section was remodeled and replanted, and also completely sealed off from the general public by fences and razor wire.  Today, only a concrete plaza, a parking lot, and a few athletic courts remain open to the pubic. Only certain citizens are allowed to enjoy the park’s verdant interior; officially, one must be at least 35 years of age and of the proper pedigree to gain entry, or, alternatively, one must have connections with the Municipality of Beirut.  All the same, a contingent of the park’s visitors prefers to bypass these narrow official portals entirely, opting instead for holes in the fence.

“Space of Remembrance: A section through the submerged Beirut Park landscape where individuals may record memories and narratives of the war.” Image credit: Drawings courtesy of Rola Idris, 2008 as they appeared in “At the Edge of the City,” 2010.


The Municipality of Beirut offers several explanations for the closure of the park’s most sought after areas – the landscaping done during the ‘90s is still relatively new and needs more time to mature and grow before it can withstand use by large numbers of citizens, or if the park were opened to just anyone, young folks would use it to engage in “immoral behavior,” or the masses would not know how to respect the park and keep it clean, and so on.  Behind the official explanations and promises that the park will one day eventually be opened to all lies the fear that the physical features of such a space would provide an ideal forum for sectarian tensions to manifest.  The Horsh, after all, resides on the borders of Christian, Sunni, and Shiite neighborhoods.

A recent collection of essays titled “A Public Space: Reinhabiting Public Space Toward the Recovery of Beirut’s Horsh al-Sanawbar,” addresses the negative implications of the park’s closure for the citizens of Beirut, and offers many realistic and highly imaginative ways of using the Horsh as a vital space for interaction and civic life in a city whose accessible green area per-capita falls pitifully below norms established by the World Health Organization.  The book’s contributors hail from a wide variety of intellectual disciplines, but all are united in their call for the complete reopening of the park.  They dismiss the reasoning of the Municipality as exemplary of the elitist, patronizing stance adopted all too often by authorities at the local and state levels, a stance that is one of the greatest obstacles to the establishment of a sustainable civil society in Lebanon.

These writers must be doing something right, because the January 7 issue of the Los Angeles Times featured an article about the Horsh on its front page.  Though the article only mentions “At the Edge of the City” while avoiding any discussion of its contents, it does include a few snippets of conversation with Fadi Shayya, the architect who is also the editor of the book. Shayya has received several awards for studies he has done on the park since his first encounter with it in 2005, and has been a leading voice among civil society activists calling for the park’s rehabilitation.

“At the Edge of the City” does a painstaking job of laying out all the issues surrounding the current state of the Horsh.  Its writers are impressively dexterous in their combination of theoretical and poetic registers, and the book provides all manner of visual aids (charts, graphs, photos, maps, and even a DVD) to help the reader understand how the Horsh is one of Beirut’s most necessary public goods.  Naturally there is a good deal of criticism of the political system and its ineffective bureaucracies, (for example, the fact that the Municipality can hardly even provide for the security and upkeep of the minute portion of the park that is open to the public), though plans are currently underway for other parks in different, perhaps less “troublesome,” areas of the city. 

Yet, what makes this book so wonderful is its emphasis on the solution, not the problem. The authors spend far more time providing concrete and highly plausible scenarios for the park’s re-admittance into Beirut’s public life.  These include but are not limited to access across the major roads that otherwise put the park out of the reach of pedestrians, proposals for how the city could fund the maintenance and security of the park through various combinations of public and private initiatives, concerns about environmental issues, and, most significantly, how the park could be used as a space for Lebanese citizens to collectively purge, rather than anesthetize, the traumatic memories that have been accumulating since at least 1975.

An essay by architect Rola Idris offers one of the most moving ideas about how to accomplish this goal. Idris writes, “A deposit space, accessible from many different levels in the garden, is a pit allowing users to deposit any object they have kept from wartime – letters, radios, and other objects, yellow and dust-ridden with the passage of time.  Throwing away these objects in a shared pit signifies a cathartic process of letting go, forgetting and accepting that your objects have merged indistinctively with others’, including with those of your enemies.’”  This idea, and many others to be found in “At the Edge of the City,” stands in diametric opposition to the sort of collective amnesia solution that has been prescribed by the Lebanese state since the signing of the Taif accords.  The concrete result has thus far been reliance on the delicately ruthless neo-liberal formula of gentrification, long-familiar to inhabitants of great American cities like San Francisco and New York.  Unfortunately, not only has Beirut’s pre-war beauty not been restored, but the amnesia seems to not be holding up very well either, as evinced at the very least by recent events in the Lebanese capital.

All in all, “At the Edge of the City” is not a book for the casual reader, but should be very carefully read by every person interested in thinking through the problems that beset Lebanese society.  The authors present an inarguable case for strong civic institutions, and in so doing offer much valuable insight about how to begin to overcome the puzzle of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized sects.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

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