viernes, 27 de julio de 2012

Public Space in Beirut

It is that time of the year when the heat is pretty intense in Lebanon, and the only thing we want is to go to the beach and enjoy the little breeze that comes from the sea.

One of the big challenges one faces is a) going to an awesome beach that happens to be a beach club, where you have to pay loads of money to enter, listen to techno music and be maybe the victim of discrimination (see St. George Beach Club story here)  or b) go to a public beach were you can face poor maintenance and very dirty water (according to a local newspaper 85% of household water ends up in the shore without any treatment). Add to this little regulation on how beach fronts get exploited  (or no respect for regulation as this article indicates) and you find yourself with a coastline that is increasingly privatized, "VIP" and exclusive.

Little options for the simple, non- Louis Vuitton, beach goer.

But the beach is not the only public place that is getting very private in Lebanon. I have recently heard accounts of people regarding Beirut's exclusive marina, Zeitunay Bay.

Photo credit: Lebanon Pictures

This place is very fancy, with a series of exclusive restaurants overlooking the water. Everyone who is anyone in Beirut can be seen here, sipping a cappuccino or having a meal with friends and family. If you want to know what the latest fashion trends are in the world, just come here to see the Lebanese ladies display their best outfits.

This is all good. The downside is that there are LOADS of things that you cannot do in Zeitunay Bay (including not speaking loudly), as the guards around it and the signs gently (and not so gently) continiously remind you.

Photo credit: author's own

Two friends of mine have recently gone to Zeitunay Bay with a book and a sandwich to seat down and spend a quiet moment while enjoying the view. In both cases they have been told that they cannot eat  seating on the benches. You can sit there, you can drink a to-go Mocha, but you cannot eat. In other words, if you can't afford the restaurants, you don't eat in Zeitunay Bay.

And I guess that would be somehow OK if this was a private space as the sign point out, but let me clarify that this is a very public space. Yes, you pay to park your boat here, yes you pay to eat at the restaurant, but the access to the deck is open to the public, since it is, afterall, directly connected to the street. A friend of mine, which is not one to be shy to argue when she sees an injustice, sat down with the guard and then the manager asking them to tell her exactly where it is written that she cannot have a sandwich in that place. Besides an "it is our policy", they were not able to produce anything more substantive. And they could also do nothing to prevent her from continuing to eat. She was, afterall, doing nothing illegal.

Which brings me to my last point: public and private space in Beirut. I recently talked with a Lebanese friend who happens to be an anthropologist, specialized in Lebanon. She was telling me that one fascinating thing about the Lebanese is that the concept of public space doesn't really exist. It is more of an inside/outside phenomenon, where inside (my home, my relatives' homes, my people's space) is to be protected, cherished, polished and cleaned (indeed, Lebanese houses are gorgeous, spotless and tastfully decorated... on the inside) and outside doesn't really matter. Outside is not mine, so why bother taking care of it?

No surprise then that streets are dirty, people litter, there are no parcs and the little open space left is privatized. If the sense of public is equated to "not mine" then it is also subject to be made "mine" by paying a bribe, building a fence around it and charging to get in. I am afterall letting you in "my" space now.

So my question is... What happened to "our" space?

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