An opportunity to imagine a bright, green, and tolerant Lebanon
For this post, you will have to play along with me. It’s the first of April, and it’s a great time to be Lebanese.
I’ll be in Beirut just in time for the Erasure Festival, held every year to officially inaugurate all the public spaces that were opened the year prior. The festival started after the Council for Urban Development decided to prohibit the flattening of historic buildings, and demolish new buildings instead – buildings that don’t comply with formal and functional qualities that contribute to a good life in a good city. If you’ve been in Beirut in the early 2000s, you would know which buildings I’m talking about.
In place of every demolished building, a new garden, park, or public facility is erected to cater to our cherished communal well-being. Somewhere along the line of a series of tragic urban development strategies, we realized that a nation with a tree on its flag couldn’t neglect its environmental strategy. Better yet, we decided that a green strategy should be our guiding light, a template for our different development plans. It’s been great for us ever since.
A lot of work has been done to improve the way we inhabit our beautiful country, commute and move in and out of it. I am around ten minutes south of Naqoura, and the train is quiet enough to write on. I can write for a living now. I can even pay rent, buy food, and travel every now and then. The man sitting next to me still cries every time he crosses the border in or out of Palestine from Lebanon. Palestine is free now, and I’m almost used to it. My uncles live in Nablus, and I visit quite often. I always make sure to have extra room in my luggage to pack some cheese and knefeh to compete with those back home in Tripoli. My mother hates it when I do that, “Ours are better,” she always says. I just find the similarities between both cities very interesting. They taste the same, “No they don’t.”
After years of conflict on the northern border of Tripoli, dating back to the seventies, the city is now flourishing again. The army has ended battles that were wounding the city, drifting it into exponential economic meltdown for more than thirty consecutive years. The International Fair grounds designed by internationally renowned Brazilian architect – and one of the fathers of Modernist architecture – Oscar Niemeyer is finally being renovated. It’s planned to open in the beginning of 2015 in parallel to a rehabilitation project for the port of Tripoli that has also been pending for quite some time.
In the past, areas outside Beirut were not on the agenda of national development, but it’s interesting that the we’re moving away from being Beirut-centric. Different cities such as Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre are getting their fair share of investments. Now, instead of solving traffic congestion into Beirut with eccentric proposals such as a water taxi, we just dissolve the reason for traffic. No one really wants to leave his or her home to work eighty kilometers away anyways. The Lebanese government has been working hard to provide job opportunities in every part of the country and the results until now are humbling.
Eight out of ten of my friends walk to work. Five out of ten don’t have cars, not because they can’t afford them, but because there is no need anymore. Erasure festivals have been sprouting in every neighborhood and people actually love walking in their cities. My grandmother is going out again, and swears the city is as beautiful as it was during the golden age she was always nostalgic about.
Besides the apparent improvements on an urban level, the political landscape is exciting again. I’m definitely going to vote this year. The presidential elections are in a few months time, and it’s the first time the Lebanese people will get to choose their president. Heck, for the first time, I could have run for president. We voted against the sectarian quotas mandated by the Taif Accord last month, and now the presidential chair is not bound by any religious affiliations.
Love is exciting again. The government actually released its most charming decree yet, “Love whomever you want – formally and/or informally: It’s none of our business.” Freedom is one of the things that sounded impossible a few years back. It might take a little bit of time for everyone to bask in the safety it begets, and the responsibility it demands, but we’re definitely onto something.
You know we’re onto something when you can stumble upon narratives in the city that are powerful enough to inspire you, and change they way you think about things. I was walking towards the old city center in Sidon a few nights ago on my way to take the train to Nablus, and I stumbled on a mosque that was once home to one of the most notorious sheikhs in the country. The mosque was closed for a while after some security issues, but it seems to have reopened. I stopped by its entrance and peaked inside. A young Imam was getting ready to recite his Khutba before prayers. Khutbas generally scare me. As I prejudicially thought of how everyone inside was on the verge of getting brainwashed, the young Imam spoke.