Last night I attended a conference held by the French Consulate in association with the Governate of Beirut and a couple of well-known Lebanese architects, Bernard Khoury and Youssef Tohmé. The subject of discussion was public spaces in Beirut, an increasingly pressing issue in that private development has been steroidal the last few years here and public spaces are limited, unappealing and increasingly encroached upon.
First, I think Tohmé’s definition of public space, as “the space where the individual and society encounter each other,” is both accurate and useful. A corollary of that is that public space is where the individual and society assert their respective natures; define the rules for interaction and borders between their domains. In a concrete way, in most places, it is the state that represents “society” most of the time and the individual who represents himself. Tohmé pointed out that what we see increasingly in the West is that public spaces have become more and more rigid in the rules of their use and individuals have, therefore, less and less space to express themselves. In Lebanon, it is quite the contrary. One notices that individuals express themselves to such an extent that they start to dominate the public space and the almost total absence of the state, authority of any kind and even agreed upon rules means that public spaces become the scenes for negotiations between various sets of users. That can be interesting but ultimately it leads to chaos.
In the same way, the increasing oppression of individual expression in some places and countries ultimately leads to chaos as well as, past a certain point, the lines that authorities are trying to hold break and mass expression, demonstrations and the like come into being.
As with most things in life it is about balance.
Another point Tohmé raised was the importance of the individual seeing himself and his values represented in the public spaces. This point triggered an interesting string of thoughts for me.
A couple of weekends ago, I walked along the white sand beach of Ramlet-al-Bayda near the southern edge of Beirut. From a small distance, the beach looks beautiful and enticing, but actually walking on it, one realizes that the crowds have disposed of their day’s garbage literally at their feet. Sukleen, the local sanitation company, cleans the beach regularly, so it is fairly clear that these people are not just sitting on a dirty beach, not are they simply littering (which in my mind is disposing of trash in a way that disrespects others), they are happily living in their own garbage. No, I do not see myself in these public spaces, but clearly many Lebanese do-the place was jam packed with people.
I started thinking that it was a shame that so many people were so uneducated and filthy as to be content to spend a day rolling around in their own waste. I wished for the power to force them to clean it up. And then it occurred to me, this public space does not only look like them, it looks like the elite Lebanese too, those who hold the reins of power.
When one considers the big land owning families that have, for several generations, presided over the destruction of the natural environment of the country and the uglification of the built environment, it becomes clear that those elites also don’t mind living surrounded by garbage. Of course they have armies of servants who clean up their immediate surroundings. Of course they would not deign to set foot on the public beaches surrounded by the hoi-polloi and its accumulated filth, but they don’t mind spending the day at a private beach, swimming in the sewage that drifts up the coast from any number of cities that do nothing to treat it. They don’t mind building over the last little bit of green, even if it is the last little bit of green in their own town, neighborhood or street. In a very simple way, they are also happy to live in their own garbage, their own shit (literally, they are swimming and water skiing in sewage from their own houses) and none of this seems to strike a false note for them.
Tohmé’s intellectual structure has given me the tool I needed to clarify one of the major problems facing this nation. It is that from top to bottom these people have not learned that basic piece American aphorism which contains a universal truth necessary for survival-don’t shit where you eat.