Downtown Beirut and the bitter taste of a “reconstructed” supposed-to-be-centrality
Saree Makdisi, 1997, “Laying claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere”, in Critical Inquiry.
Pre-war Beirut used to be the apparent centre of the Middle East: highly specialised economy, advanced tourist services, great cultural manifestations, and a beautiful strategic geographical situation. Unfortunately this is no more the case: Beirut, in spite of the reconstruction plan, has not been able to reclaim its lost supposed-to-be-centrality. One can go far and argue that Beirut was never a “real” centre, that is, where decision is made and where real power abides.
Saree Makdisi echoes this bitter taste of Beirut’s “lost” centrality. It was written when the Solidere Project bulldozers were demolishing the rest of the Dowtown in order to “reconstruct” it… But this is not the only reason why Makdisi is furious about the new project.
Today’s Beirut (and 1997’s) is not the old one, the “real” one. It is on the same geographical area, but is the result of a different Zeitgeist: I have heard it of many (I did not know the old Beiruti Centre-Ville), of my close family and friends. The reconstructed plan is said to be a “replication” of the Beirut of good old days, but this supposition is apparently invalid. Old Beirut was not reproduced but was “changed” by a new one, much less original and much more pretentious. It is of a formally beautiful shape, yet it is considered “empty”, “dead” and even “scary” by many who knew the old Centre-Ville.
“The centre of Beirut is a wasteland”, thus begins the article. Can a centre be a wasteland? If it is a wasteland can it be a “real” centre, that is, a place where decision is processed, finalised, declared and diffused?! The article dates from 1996, but the problem exposed by Makdisi is still there: the Downtown is not a place to decide, the “places of power” in it have no “real” power and the appointment of a state minister may need the approval of a dozen of capitals around the world! Is it centrality?!
Another point critically analysed by Makdisi: the discourse of “reconstruction” and all what is “re”: redemption, recuperation, reinvention, remembrance of good old days. The author believes that it is rather an invention from scratch than “rebuilding” what was there before. It can also be a cheap version of a “global city” model which has nothing to do with the old authentic Centre-Ville. Many Beirutis agree! Plus: security measures and the presence of army forces make many tourists and Beirutis feel insecure…
A third important critique: the author sees privatisation in everything. The new Downtown is privatised à outrance, no exception. But can a supposed political and economic centre be owned by companies and but companies?
So, according to this article the centre is not a centre: its physical shape is beautiful, but this fact is not sufficient to form a real centrality. Result, Downtown Beirut is a formal “centre without centrality”. Beirut becomes its own frontier and limit, its “centrality”, being cut from its hinterland, is nothing but a formal non-functional one.
In order to sound more optimistic I would say the new Downtown is a “sleeping beauty” which is still waiting for a charming prince to wake it up!
Saree Makdisi is a professor at the UCLA, for further information please see the following sites:
His personal site, URL: http://sareemakdisi.net/
His UCLA page, URL: http://www.english.ucla.edu/all-faculty/231-makdisi-saree