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Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues Vartivar Jaklian

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

During the 15 year of civil war, the Lebanese capital city Beirut was heavily bombed, effectively putting it out of use as a ‘city’. As a result, Beirut was no longer the political, social and economic centre of the country. Alternative satellite centres were born in various no-longer peripheries providing more or less similar function. How can we explore new peripheral centres and their role, during and after the rebuilding of Beirut city and its centre?

Beirut-Kaslik As an adolescent growing up in Beirut, I had never realized what it meant to live in a city. By then, central Beirut’s urban fabric was completely devastated; it was similar to a

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

fisherman’s net with most buildings full of holes as a result of all the shelling and street fighting. Beirut soon became a desert. With the exception of a few people living there, some dogs and the various fighters of different militias, life practically ceased in the centre of one of the most vibrant cities of the Middle East. No more, open shops, mobile vendors shouting out marketing their goods. Coffee and liquorice sellers walking the streets of this old city had left as well.

The Borj — as Lebanese of a certain generation still call this iconic square of Beirut centre — better known nowadays as Martyr’s square, soon became the famous green line

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

extending 9 KM south (see image XX), hence after almost three years from the beginning of the war, a no man’s land. This square had such significance to the Lebanese, as it was the symbol of the multi-ethnic society which forms the population. It was here where in 1918, Jamal Pasha ordered the arrest of six nationalists, Christians and Muslims, accused of treason and condemned them to death after being brutally tortured. Each year, on the 6th of May, Lebanon celebrates the memory of those “martyrs”.

Parallel to the Roman Cardo axis and just a few metres east, this square became the borderline between east and west Beirut. I used to live on the east side and rarely, would we

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

go and visit relatives on the west side. I still recall passing the “maabar” (Arabic for passage) as a serious issue. I remember how nervous we used to get, checkpoints on either sides of the divided city asking all sorts of questions, judgmental based on your confession (religion) which was denoted on the Lebanese IDs. It was quite a harsh atmosphere, knowing that on either ends, ‘katel al hawiieh’ — Arabic for “killing based on ID” — was a common practice. Beirut was in ruins back then; this was the only impression of my city I was left with until the restoration works started in the early nineties.

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

Like many Beirutees of my generation and unlike my father’s generation, we never lived and knew our city. We never hung out in the city’s theatres and cinemas, restaurants and the many bars of the city like they did in the late sixties and early seventies. Instead, we used to go to Kaslik, a satellite town developed during the war a few Kilometres North of Beirut and South West of Jounieh, a Christian maritime city which








International Airport would close; people would jump on the express hovercrafts which would take them to Cypress, from where they could fly out to their destinations. This is a simple example of how the port activity of Jounieh developed prominently. In the eighties and early nineties, Kaslik was

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

probably the hippest place in the country; a main boulevard full of retail and designer boutiques on either side — probably the first in Lebanon to set the shopping trend of the post war Lebanon. Alongside the shopping quarter, restaurants, discotheques and cinemas were the main attraction at night. Beach side hotels and residences also developed very fast and began to erode the coast towards the north of the capital.

Lebanon is an extremely small country with just over 10 thousand square kilometres. Beirut city centre was and still is in a way, the centre of the whole country. The population is just over 3 million inhabitants; the last census goes back

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

to 1932, and ever since, the succeeding governments never carried out another one in order not to interrupt the everexisting political and religious differences tormenting the country since independence from the French in 19431. The country is a melting pot of cultures and religions: it contains more than 20 sects or confessions, of which 17 are officially recognized and form part of the government. Lebanon’s urban zoning (see image XX) has always been based on religion or ethnic backgrounds even though there were quite a few districts of mixed groups living alongside without major issues. These were unfortunately changed permanently within late 1977 into becoming ethnically more homogenous


Lebanon was under French Mandate from 1922 until 1943

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

districts, each area featuring one religious majority and a leader of the same religion or sect commonly called “zaim” in Arabic.

Similar the urban zoning which is still based on confession or ethnic belonging, also the total number of seats at the parliament is divided between the various confessions or perhaps the “zuama”2. The number of seats each sect gets is based on the percentage of the population it constitutes, obviously basing it on the 1932 census with only minor tweaks that followed later on. The reason why all governments avoided a new census is down to the fact that

2 Zuama: plural of zaim, warlord.

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

after the war, the number of the Christians in the country had evidently decreased, meaning losing a number of seats at the parliament, resulting in destabilising an “equilibrium” forced by the French and much cared for by the West.

West Beirut’s majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. The “Chouf” area is of the Drouzes, Keserwen is of the Christian Maronites; and Southern suburbs are mostly Shiha Muslims. Most Armenians until the end of the War lived around Borj Hammoud area, an Armenian ghetto just north of the Beirut River. During the civil war, the religious zoning became also the geo-political zoning. Each zone had a militia with a different ideology to its neighbouring zone of probably the

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

same religion. Hence, members belonging to different militias could not move freely throughout the country. It was extremely risky for a member of the ‘Kawmi’3 party living and based in the mountainous areas of the Maten region to go to Jounieh for instance, where the dominating militia was the ‘Quwwat al lubnaniya’4; it could have cost their life. Similar treatment would have received an ‘Quwwat al lubnaniya’ member going to the other side. Such a distorted sociopolitical and geographical structure can only be understood after living throughout the civil war.

SSNP, Syrian Social Nationalist Party — more info at 4 The Lebanese Forces Party — more info at


Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

This situation in the periphery together with a non-existent Beirut city centre initiated the development of many new satellite cores — shifting centres — such as the abovementioned Kaslik. Almost twenty-two years (at the time of writing this) have passed since they started rebuilding Beirut. Some of these ‘shifted centres’ still exist and function today as they did during the war. Some are trying to reinvent themselves as they have their ‘infra-structure’ but have lost their war-time clientele.

This is an interesting phenomenon happening probably only in cities where conflicts last for quite some time. Another similar but different case was Berlin; its centre devastated

Shifting Centres: Beirut’s peripheral Issues

during the WWII, city divided, even losing its role as capital city. Reconstruction of Berlin started during the same years as Beirut sharing similar problems such as issues which arise during and after major interventions carried out mainly by private developers.

In a country where 20 years of post war probably did more damage to the urban fabric than the war itself, peripheries and secondary areas were then further neglected for the sake of reconstructing Beirut centre. To this day, only a few Lebanese feel they have their city back. Be it the restoration, be it politics, they still feel the city once more was hijacked, first by the war itself and then by modern capitalism.

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