Lebanese take back history in street protests

For many Lebanese, entering historical but derelict sites in central Beirut will be first time they have been inside

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At the height of the near week-long street protests in Beirut, the entrances to some of the capital’s most famous buildings were forced open and people entered – some for the first time.

Many of the historical sites have been closed since the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990.

While the rest of the capital was rebuilt, these stood abandoned and empty, surrounded by large fences.

There is “The Egg”, a half-built, horseshoe-shaped domed cinema designed by Joseph Philippe Karam, one of the country’s leading modernist architects from the mid-20th century.

The site was never completed because of the fighting and there has been talk of pulling it down or finishing it, but nothing has been done and it sits today, empty and crumbling.

Then there is the Grand Theatre. After the civil war, the building’s facade was repaired but the interior remained empty.

This week, the sites have been full of people. Many have shared photos from inside, with comments asking why nothing was ever done to the buildings.

Mona Harb, an associate professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut, said that for unknown reasons Solidaire, the development company that led much of the reconstruction after 1990, neglected the cultural side.

“These are buildings where cultural life used to happen prior to the civil war and was not restored by Solidaire," Ms Harb said.

"For a variety of reasons that are not very clear, I think the culture layer and downtown Beirut was not invested in by the company.

"But the fact that the activists chose to enter these spaces, discover them, sit in them, use them as viewed points and claim them back is very telling."

She said the company's redevelopment of downtown Beirut has been widely criticised by observers because it was not done with the people in mind.

Instead it gave priority “to private real estate development at the expense of shared spaces", Ms Harb said.

The lack of public space has been the cause of campaigns and protests over the years and extends to areas such as the seafront, which over the past three decades has become increasingly built up.

“We also saw a takeover of a private new building, one of these high-end new buildings by the edge of Martyr Square, where activists climbed up and used the balconies to sit and watch the scene," Ms Harb said.

"So that was also an interesting claim on private space, housing that is not affordable to the majority of the population.

"It was also an interesting symbolic act by people in many ways that can be read as a rejection of these spaces as they have been denied of them."

On Tuesday, authorities moved in to replace hoarding boards around the Grand Theatre and The Egg, closing off these spaces once again.