x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Slow mend for Beirut's lone green oasis

Why have the gates to Beirut's only forest been locked for a generation?

new takeaway for review section July 27th
Sarah Lazarovic for The National
new takeaway for review section July 27th Sarah Lazarovic for The National

At the intersection among Beirut's Christian, Sunni, Shia and Palestinian neighbourhoods lies an oasis of calm. The Horsh is the Lebanese capital's only forest. So why have the gates been locked for a generation?

A man in uniform sits outside his guard hut drinking tea. Although it's not open to the general public, if you submit an application form, passport photos and a copy of your ID card to Beirut's city hall, the authorities might let you in. But if you're under 35 or unmarried, you don't stand a chance. Only the privileged few can sunbathe on the manicured lawns or go for a walk amid the stately trees.

Beirut is one of the world's least green cities. The World Health Organisation says cities need at least 12 square metres of grass and trees per person. The Lebanese capital has just 0.8 square metres.

I head through the traffic chaos on the Damascus Road and up into the hills. In a building down a country lane in Baabda, I meet Nadim Abourizk, vice president of the Municipal Council of Beirut. His office overlooks rolling green hills and feels a world away. He blames his predecessors for dragging their feet over the rehabilitation of the forest. "Why didn't they execute the part that was their responsibility? I don't have an answer," he says. Abourizk claims it will be years, rather than months, before the work is complete.

"[The Horsh] isn't going to be ready tomorrow," he tells me. "If this takes a year or two, I think it's worth doing it the right way. I don't want to rush things and [let people in now] because they'll smash everything that has been done."

And what has been done is the near total rehabilitation of the forest. Inside the Horsh, at the entrance to a flower garden, a faded sign thanks L'Ile de France. A decade ago, the French capital region donated cash and technical help to get the Horsh back into working order. But Abourizk says a few finishing touches need to be made before the gates can re-open. He also wants to appoint a private contractor to operate the forest.

I meet Mohammad Ayoub, executive director of campaign group Nahnoo, under the shade of a tree on a hot morning. He believes there's a more nefarious reason for the extended closure. "There were companies that took the money [for the refurbishment work] but the park never re-opened," he says. "Now they're telling us they have to do the work all over again!"

While emphasising that he doesn't believe Abourizk was involved in any corrupt practises, Ayoub claims the Lebanese political class has been enriching itself at the expense of the people. "There's been corruption because most of the public spaces have been bought [by private firms]. Imagine, a citizen can't access a park, or go to the beach unless they pay," he says. He believes that could have bigger, political, consequences for the country. "People feel surrounded, they're living in enclosed areas," he says. "What's the cost of this, psychologically and socially?"

Beirut is a city that is still largely made up of ghettos. Walk out of the Horsh and turn right, and within a few minutes, you'll be in Furn Al-Chebak, a mainly Christian neighbourhood. Turn left and you'll be in Tariq El-Jdeideh, a Sunni suburb. Walk to the back of the forest, go past the scrap metal merchants, and you'll reach Shatilla, the city's largest Palestinian camp.

As a public space, Ayoub claims the Horsh would turn into a meeting place for people of all religions. "If [Beirutis] are aggressive it's because of the way the city is being designed, they don't feel like they belong to this city," says Ayoub. "The people need a park now. It's urgent."

* Sakhr Al-Makhadhi in Beirut