For those of you who live in Beirut, you know that this city is not what you would call "green". Parks are not particularly common, especially since taking care of them is expensive. Near my house there is actually a park called "Sioufi Gardens" that is so run down that it is almost depressing to walk around it.
So you can only imagine our surprise when one day my husband and I found Horsh Beirut, this amazingly beautiful park in the middle of Beirut.
This park has been there forever, and was completely burned during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. From a pine forest of over 1,250,000 m2 in 1696 to a park of over 800,000 m2 in 1967 (≈ 5% of Municipal Beirut), today Horsh Beirut is only a park of 255,000 m2. But still, it is huge!
After the war Horsh Beirut was restored and opened to the public.
However, some said that the crowds were starting to do some real damage to it, while others were afraid that sectarian fights would erupt in its grounds, so the municipality closed it. Today it is this beautiful green space surrounded my closed gates, between the Muslim side and the Christian side of town that can only be seen when you pass it while driving.
Yup, this magical place is actually closed to the public. And most Beirutis have never entered the park.
We felt like little kids who were been given a candy, and had to give it back after the first bite. "What do you mean we can't go in?", we asked the guard.
So this weekend we beat the system and spent actually a whole morning in the park... How did we do that??
Well, with a group of 32 friends we took on helping Zahra, a lovely Lebanese woman in her late 40s who takes care of the "Greenhouse", a garden located in the heart of Horsh Beirut.
As you might imagine, the gigantic greenhouse was a bit run down too, and Zahra does not receive any funds from the municipality to buy new tools. "We work with what we have" she says, while showing me broken shovels, twisted scissors and old buckets.
With the help on an incredibly generous person, we were able to buy Zahra new tools. Our friends were totally on board to spend a Saturday morning getting dirty and enjoying the fresh air, the flowers and plants and the tremendously calming effect of working in a garden.
Zahra walked us around the park and showed us the trees and the medicinal plants that you can find in it: remedies for a tummy ache, leaves to kill feet fungi, trees that absorb bacteria and clean the air... We all felt healthier, more knowledgeable and connected to one another.
Zahra told us stories of reconciliation, personal growth and atonment. She recalled how she was afraid of the "others" after the war, and that through receiving little kids from different groups in the park, she has been able to embrace human beings, no matter what religious background they have. She has also brought together people who wouldn't normally come together, to have fun while working in the gardens.
I think these stories left us all full of hope and with a renewed optimism. Spending time in the park was healing for all of us. And the only thing it took was offering a couple of hours of our Saturday morning.
So whoever is reading this post and lives in Beirut: the park is NOT closed to volunteers. Just go to Horsh Beirut on a Saturday morning and ask to speak to Zahra from the greenhouse, or send her an e-mail toShe will welcome you with open arms.