How to ruin Beirut in one easy step

I was going to write something long and windy on the allegations and burden of proof of chemical weapons use – from both sides of the morass – in Syria.

But I can’t not say anything on this monstrosity, detailing plans to put up a super highway across east Beirut, which will destroy some of the Lebanese capital’s few remaining (and totally lovely) old buildings.

Here’s what the area where the highway will go – through Ashrafieh, Mar Mikhael and Getawi (note the nice old red topped buildings) that will be torn down):

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Now, as heartbreaking as this might be, local authorities tearing down buildings (especially old, valuable ones) is nothing new in Beirut or indeed the rest of Lebanon, hence the formation of vital lobby groups such as Save Beirut Heritage.

But the logic of this project is extremely daft. It will ruin one of Beirut’s few remaining old (some would use the horrid word authentic) neighbourhoods in favour of another avenue for traffic jams. It will further encourage car use in a city already choking from fumes and journey delays. It will further reduce the already artificially circumscribed areas that attract tourists which, for a country as heavily dependent on tourist dollars as Lebanon, can be ill afforded. And, as much as anything else, the plans cut through neighbourhoods where a lot of the press lives. So at least we can hopefully cause a stink.

There is cause for optimism and negativity. Optimism, because there is no government, nor is there likely to be one, nor are governments or local council groups ever particularly proactive and effective when they do exist. Similarly, while private industrial or commercial property projects mushroom across the town, Beirut is hardly a proactive place when it comes to investment and delivery of infrastructure, which I guess this awful project purports to be. For example, the bridges around Emile Lahoud and Jisr l Wati were only meant to last a few years. They are temporary structures that successive governments just never got around to making permanent (or safe).

Negativity, because recent history has shown us that civic interest lies at the very bottom of governmental or municipal priority. The irony in all this is that this road/bridge structure couldn’t even be argued to be necessary were it not for the intervention in the Rafik Hariri years of one Mr Ghazal, who put a stop to a big highway linking Sagesse to the sea road because his impressively tall tower stood right on its route.

He must have “lobbied” hard enough and got his wish, landing the regenerating captial with its retrospectively charming “Bridge to Nowhere”. So the biggest bars to this project remain regrettably out of public control; it’s more likely to not be built due to incompetence/nepotism than it is due to civil society. Not that that means we shouldn’t raise hell about this.

Lebanon: Salafis hit the slopes, find route blocked

All Lebanon’s infamous Salafist Sheikh Assir and 500 of his comrades wanted to do was feel the mountain wind through their beards and hit the country’s legendary ski slopes. Things didn’t go so well…
  1. Why did #Assir head to #Faraya today? Aren’t you supposed to be praying at your mosque or something?
  2. A picture of Sheikh al #Assir skiing would be priceless. But seriously, #shame on the people of #Faraya for blocking the roads #Lebanon
  3. Lebanese are so territorial and sectarian. why r we surprised that our leaders behave the same way? #Assir in #Faraya
  4. “@HajjJulien: Al Assir, Now, Live from Faraya HAHAHA #Just_received_this http://pic.twitter.com/iNjw7tD9” Having fun is not haram ;) #Enjoy babe :P
  5. #Assir & 500 partisans to Kferdibian slopes! Isnt it too much 500?
    Did anyone checked if they are armed..with skis & things like that ;)
  6. RT @patrickgaley: Oh. My. God. Sheikh Assir is going skiing. For all that is sacred, someone get those photos lbcgroup.tv/news/70841/shei… #Lebanon

A shortage of competance in the public sector

I read today that Lebanon’s beleaguered Energy Minister Gibran Bassil had been upset that parliament had passed a draft law entitling part time EdL workers to full-time contracts. This led to a walkout and a boycott of a parliamentary session by Christian MPs the following day, and a boycott of a Cabient session by Aoun’s ministers who were apparently dismayed that parliament’s decision would lead to a shortage of Christians in public sector positions.

I know what you’re thinking, but please, allow me.

Some observations:

  • Perhaps parliament might be more willing to pass a draft law prepared by the Cabinet, had the Cabinet not shown itself time and time again to consist of cantankerous elderly gentlemen without the slightest willingness or aptitude to even pretend to address the country’s myriad problems.
  • EdL workers need paying. Lebanon’s political cartel might not have to pay for their electricity, or anything else safe the requisite security entourage one acquires when one is such a thoroughly dislikeable bastard, but we all do. So please, stop f***ing around. If paying these people means less strikes and more power, then do it.
  • We don’t need more Christians in the public sector, just as we don’t need any more Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Jews, Zoroastrians, Rastafarians or Scientologists. We need engineers. I don’t care if they’re Christian, Muslim or made of Swiss cheese – neither does anyone else except for some MPs – as long as they can help alleviate a problem you’ve saddled your country with.

 

For Jeita Grotto, I vote no-confidence in MPs

Jeita Grotto, Lebanon (courtesy of new7wonders.com)

A senior minister is about to embark on a tour of Latin America, paid for by the state, with the aim of getting Lebanese expatriates there to vote. Given that we are roughly 18 months before Lebanon’s 2013 parliamentary elections, and given that expat voting is one of the major issues featured on the latest draft voting law, it makes sense to educate those living outside the country on how they may be able to vote.

Not so fast. Yes, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud is going to garner support from voters. For Jeita Grotto.

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Beirut Green River Project Photos

After a lunchtime interview with the ebullient Phillipe Skaff, head of Lebanon’s Green Party (his lunch consisted of two Montecristos) I was handed images of the exciting ‘Green River Project’.

The idea that Beirut has lacked green spaces as much as it still lacks centralized planning and development strategies is nothing new, but Mr Skaff has decided enough is enough.

One of the park areas in the Beirut River Project

The 10-year plan to turn the 8.5km of Beirut’s ‘river’ into a conservation area containing parks, nature reserves, bike-paths, sports facilities, cafes and verdant boulevards is ambitious, but Mr Skaff believes all parties and peoples will benefit from better use of what is for most of the year a dumping ground.

Green space with the view of Emile Lahoud highway

Real estate space will be sold either side of the river’s length, allowing developers to build in an environmentally responsible way, as well as generating the initial capital to make this an entirely privately funded project.

Around 600,000 people live in the areas surrounding the river from Hazmieh to Qarantina, and Skaff hopes to build a high-speed electric train to take commuters along the project’s span.

I am not so naive as to suggest this project is close to becoming a reality. If nothing else, it spans seven municipalities, so getting each to agree to give up land which they themselves own might by tricky, to say the least.

The seven municipalities the project will span

Skaff has been lobbying lawmakers and plans to get people on the ground enthusiastic and passionate about the project, forcing real decision makers into a pincer movement of acceptance. Even if money talks in construction, they will find the privately funded project profitable. I can’t see any insurmountable objections to what could become a green haven in grey Beirut.

Seven months, seven photos

Today I am marking, as well as the end of an eventful 2009, seven months in Beirut. I have reported on many interesting and important issues, from Hashish clearing in the Bekaa Valley to interviewing trauma surgeons in Haifa Hospital, Burj al-Barajneh.

Here are seven photos, chosen more or less randomly, from those seven months. I hope for many more in Lebanon. Enjoy!

A boy receiving treatment in Haifa Hospital, Burj al-Barajneh, July

A mural of Jesus in St George's Cathedral, Downtown Beirut, August

UNIFIL mine-clearer, Tibnin, August

Women on a shopping trip, Downtown Beirut, September

The telepherique at Harissa, Jounieh Highway, October

A boy takes part in Ashurah, Nabatiyeh, December

A boy prepares for bloodletting, Nabatiyeh, December

Weathering the storm

A storm breaks offshore from Beirut PHOTO: Akhater http://www.flickr.com/photos/akhater/

“Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1

Firstly, apologies for a post about the weather – it is, as Wilde once quipped, “the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

But there can be no refuge for Lebanon’s hapless Minister of Transport and Public Works, who seems to blame everyone but himself for the country’s inability to deal with poor weather. It is the municipalities, Ghazi Aridi laments, who ought to deal with localized flooding and storm damage.

As schools and other public buildings are evacuated, power cuts more rampant than usual and roads turned unceremoniously into canals, Aridi has no one to blame but himself.

Minister of Transport and Public Works Ghazi Aridi

Firstly, is not the responsibility of individual municipalities to protect the safety of Lebanese citizens. That job falls to the ISF, under the tutelage of the ever-proactive Ziad Baroud. This is, ultimately, the primary concern during periods of adverse weather.

But Aridi’s idea of decentralized planning to deal with acts of nature misses the root cause of the problem: for too long Lebanon as been redeveloped in a manner that is haphazard and poorly coordinated.

Individual private sector firms build upon swaths of land, plastering porous soil in impermeable concrete. The reason why rainwater collects and destroys so rapidly in Lebanon is because most of the country is covered in tarmac.

Two weeks ago I was awoken by workers drilling through the asphalt on the street below to get to manhole and drain covers which had been thoughtlessly tarmaced over the last time the road was relayed. Annoying as this was, the incident epitomizes the make do and mend attitude of the public work’s ministry, unable to reign in local developmental malpractice.

A complete lack of centralized planning is the fault of central administration and the cause of so much damage whenever the heavens break above Beirut and other towns in Lebanon.

Aridi has repeatedly shown an inability to deal with a compartmentalized planning system. Unlike his diligent cohort in the fight against flooding, Aridi seems unwilling to shoulder responsibility.

Lebanon’s Minister of Public Works simply isn’t working.

From Cairo to Copenhagen: Arab stance on climate change

Lebanese environmental activists carry a banner calling on Arab countries to take action against climate change, as Arab participants enter the venue of the annual conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in BEIRUT, November 19, 2009. The forum highlights the impact of climate change on Arab countries. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

When Arab leaders arrived last week  in Beirut to discuss how to avert climate change, they did so – without exception – in elaborately large cars.

Attendees at the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) conference in Sin El Fil came with a swashbuckling desire to adapt to the proliferating damage being wrought by global warming. They came with high rhetoric and ambitious plans.

They also came with an hypocrisy which extended way beyond their deeply inappropriate transport.

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One-eyed dogs, farmers and fatwas

Everyone has their idea of a good dog.

Be it lumbering and covered in damp grass or small, fluffy and crammed into a handbag, there is a dog for every kind of person. My ideal dog (since you asked) is a sedate Labrador situated at the foot of my armchair, the kind who doesn’t require endless attention and doesn’t mind when you break wind and blame it on him.

There are many dogs in Lebanon, and not many people find them ideal. Some can be found loitering round the grimier backstreets of East Beirut, their owners fled from war or hardship. Others form packs in the southern villages surrounding Nabatieh. They are fed on raw meet and terrorize the locals, high on protein and the taste of blood.

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‘Too big to fail’ ensures the small can’t succeed

General Motors has the ultimate sales strategy. It churns out millions of gas-guzzlers every year, two lanes wide and each one emblazoned with a proud American badge – a motor from motown. If you’re American, they reason, what could be nicer than buying an automobile handcrafted by your fellow countrymen?

Even when this sales pitch doesn’t bear fruit – as has been the case as thousands of Americans have opted for more reliable and cost-effective imports from Asia – they win. The US government announced last night that the American taxpayer is to take a majority shareholding in the stricken motor giant.

GM’s advertising campaign may as well state:

GM: Either buy our cars or buy us out.

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