After the Beirut Explosion, the Hardships of the Most Precarious City Residents



In the weeks that follow the deadly and massively destructive explosion in the port of Beirut, Public Works Studio has investigated the spatial politics of the reconstruction, in particular in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, where financial predation was already at work before the tragedy. Article translated from Arabic by Fawwaz Abu Ghazaleh.

Public Works Funambulist (1)
Map by Public Works
Studio of the transfer of land ownership in the areas of Mar Mkhael and Badawi, based on research conducted in 2015.

Since the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020, hundreds of buildings in the neighborhoods surrounding the port have been evacuated. Old and young, born there or recently resettled, tenants and owners, Lebanese and immigrants, residents and shopkeepers alike were forced to leave due to the damage and trauma. This mass flight poses an imminent threat to the possibility of reclaiming a viable city and lively neighborhood. The fear that rapid transition will turn into permanent displacement is justified. With the absence of disaster management plans, very few can afford the luxury of waiting for a government scheme to materialize or a compensation mechanism to take effect, especially when no one is taken to be responsible for the explosion. In addition, there is the risk of landowners selling their properties to investors who have coveted these areas since before the explosion. 

Of course, fears of permanent displacement are fueled by previous catastrophic reconstruction scenarios and the compensation policies that accompanied them. Beirut and its suburbs have been previously destroyed, indeed, several times over. As we witness the destruction of other Lebanese cities, villages, and refugee camps, we understand that they were reconstructed so as to reproduce the root causes that originally led to their destruction. One example of such a root cause is class oppression, which finds its grounds for spatial division in order to serve specific interests. This has contributed to the additional displacement of marginalized people, the destruction of the local economy, and the creation of a large gap between the past and the present. 

Today, more than two months after the explosion, the government is still mired in its reluctance, recklessness, and inability to develop a policy to rehabilitate the stricken neighborhoods. It is in a quagmire — amidst endless surveys and unreliable relief operations, consequently wasting funds, in addition to making ambiguous the fate of donations. 

Mar Mikhael is one of the area’s residential neighborhoods where workers have historically found residence that is close to their workplaces around the port and the railway. Carpenters, shoemakers, and craftsmen have also resided there since the 1920s. During the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood became residential par excellence. The rate of rental housing grew, as homeowners added floors above their houses with the aim of renting them out to successive generations of newcomers moving to the city. Today, the percentage of tenants in old Mar Mikhael is about 55%. Since 2006, the neighborhood’s low rent has been attracting investors. Appreciating its unique urban and social style, restaurants and bars began to pop up, replacing the old, small-scale industries. In 2014, about 50 new designer stores and artist shops were surveyed in the neighborhood, in addition to over 70 art galleries, bars, and restaurants. At night, the aforementioned spaces would be filled with patrons of the new cafes and bars. As a result of this economic transformation, between 2007 and 2015, apartment prices in Mar Mikhael rose from 2,100 USD per square meter to 4,000 USD. This increase in land and property prices have had a significant impact on housing affordability, resulting in many evictions of residents and old businesses. 

This precarity was exacerbated as a result of the blast. Walking in the alleyways one day, we see socializing spaces, stairs and common areas completely empty, except for the rare presence of civilian or military volunteers, busy with surveying the damages. When we stepped into a red-colored building, we saw water leaking from tanks onto the entrance. The walls had collapsed in a ground-floor apartment where Syrian workers used to live. They had decided to leave, especially since they were injured, while tenants in the other apartments stayed. Sarah, Ababish, and Elsa are three of the five Ethiopian workers who continue to live in the same building. Their apartment walls did not collapse, however it was left with no windows or doors. Even after a month after the blast, the Ethiopian workers have not been able to fix the openings. They tried to fix the damages as much as possible using an amount of 50,000 liras donated to them. One of them managed to maintain her job, yet the others had lost theirs due to the country’s financial crisis. 

Nearby, a 70 year old woman sits in her apartment amidst the destruction, in a building overlooking a primary road. She is a lonely widow who rented her apartment under an old lease agreement for 40 years. Before the blast, the owner of the building was travelling and had sold his building to a big company. When the latter demanded the tenants to leave, they refused and asked for a five years grace period. Today, the new owner is fixing only one of the empty apartments, leaving the tenants to live in debris. 

We cannot stay. It’s all sand, gravel and cockroaches that get inside. There is neither a window nor a door; there is nothing. I sweep three or four times a day, and the sand reappears as if I hadn’t done anything. This wall next you is quite scary. Three engineers came up and said: ‘Hurry up; the wall will collapse. You must support it and then replace it.’ But the repair process will take time. When will it be my turn? In a year, two years? And as far as we are concerned, we cannot afford to repair it ourselves. The landlady’s house also got destroyed and she moved out of the city, also because a woman in their building had passed away. How do you expect us to stay? 

With these words, Martine told us that she and her family have decided to leave their home for good — the house they had rented for over 40 years. On the other side of the cracked wall, is where Farah has lived for two years. She had rented the house without signing a written contract with the owner. We found her as well, carrying her remaining belongings and moving out from the neighborhood. The owner had told her, “Don’t return; I won’t be repairing the house.” Next door to them is a three-story building, where Zuzu and his family have lived since the 1990s. Zuzu was a security guard at a bank, but he recently lost his job with the financial crisis. As a result of the explosion, his son was injured in the head and needed 17 stitches. Unable to bear the costs for medical treatment, the family moved to their village, east of Saida. Alia, the girl who had lived on the third floor of that building for the past five years, has also left. 

“Nothing is mine” written on the wall of a damaged house. Photo by Public
Works (2020).

While some stories from the aftermath of the Beirut explosion may seem dissimilar or varied, there are still many whose story is similar to that of Martine’s. People living amongst destroyed buildings have expressed their huge disappointment in the failure of separate surveying efforts, as well as the immediate help provided to residents in desperate need. Evidently, the provision of aid has also become a form of humiliation to people in need. The state’s deliberate absence paved the way for multiple redundant surveys, unreliable relief operations, wasteful money spending, in addition to ambiguities in the fate of compensation funds. The residents have also witnessed the self-interested involvement of sectarian parties and religious bodies in the renovation efforts, contributing in the long run to re-imposing their control over urban space and feeding into clientelist relations at the expense of collective rights. 

Furthermore, residents are angry at the fact that they are being transformed into mere recipients of aid rather than active agents. During community focus groups that we held with them, residents described how: “some people have no other choice than to accept this aid. And some people are ashamed by this aid and remain silent about it.” These community focus groups are part of a wider effort jointly initiated by Public Works and various other organizations, departs first by recognizing that people generally, specifically inhabitants of damaged neighborhoods, have been made absent from discussions around reconstruction priorities, as well as being dealt with individually, not collectively. Our efforts begin with the aim of reinstating people’s voices, their collective concerns, and their role in determining common priorities — whether it is in ensuring housing, building reconstruction policies, or in the relation with donor organizations. Any opportunity for collective action and claim formation, in the absence of existing organizational structures or neighborhood committees, will be directly linked to the success of forming this representative framework with local communities. The years following the civil war (1975-1990) and its resultant neoliberal reconstruction policies have in fact dismantled the very notion of the “neighborhood” and disfigured relations between people and their city. Cities are made first and foremost of neighborhoods; of inhabitants living together in proximity, in spite of their familial or sectarian affiliations. Many share the same problems and require the same solutions, they use the same facilities and public utilities. Their experiences and their sufferings are identical. 

Our main objective is to reclaim the socio-economic livelihood of affected areas and enable a dignified return of residents to their homes. To guarantee a rehabilitation process that is people-centered, their role and voice must be reclaimed and centered. Indeed, forming neighborhood committees and a framework that represents all victims of the blast is the first stepping stone towards that. ■