Rajwa tells us more about how she looks for evidence that exposes the very foundations of the system she is battling against, where collective memory of recent conflict is used to build a dominant discourse for those who see profits in the chaos, in both Beirut and Tripoli.
Rajwa tells us more about how she digs down to find hard evidence that exposes the very foundations of the system she is battling against, where collective memory of recent conflict is used to build a dominant discourse for those who see profits in the chaos, in both Beirut and Tripoli.
Did the data reshape your perception of the situation you describe?
The group started becoming more data and research orientated, because we felt that we needed to understand much better how the system functions... what is the recipe that allows these things to exist? How are they able to do something on such a scale, that’s so big, and yet clearly illegal? We know the laws, they are there, they didn't change, but actually people were able to break them by making 'exceptions to the law' and nobody stops them. More and more we understood that there is no state, and that the entire country is at the mercy of people who have power, money and interests.
In Lebanon when you tell people this, everybody says - “yeah but of course, this is Lebanon!” For them, I'm not saying anything ground-breaking. But when you look into the data, you start understanding how this system functions on the ground. Does the political system really work in a bipolar way, for example? Or do powerful people actually work hand in hand – working together, sharing the money, and only pretending to be enemies as a political front? This is what we were trying to understand. Do they actually work together, do they own companies together, do they share things together? And the answer is: yes, they do. We are currently working on getting proof that is how it works.
The idea is to show this other image of how the system works to the public, to demonstrate that when there is money involved, and that when we are talking about property interests, the people in supposedly opposed parties are not against each other. They just choose very broad, general topics to talk about, such as - “the weapons of Hezbollah! Why is Hezbollah armed? Let’s fight about this and then let’s take sides!” So some people will say - “we are against the Israeli project, Israel is our enemy, so we are for the weapons!", and the others say - "we are against having a party armed in Lebanon, the army should be the only one armed, so we are against them!” And this creates polarisation. But actually if you think about it, they are both right! So why is there no consent on this topic? Why is it not solved? Because it's important to keep the polarisation and maintain the alliances to maintain the tension. Also in practice when it comes to public spaces, land, and many other issues that I'm involved in, it's the same pattern and practice that we find with all parties, without exception.
The point for us became to show what
Listen (in Arabic) to Lebanese and architect Assem Salam on public spaces in Lebanon, those illegally making money out of them, and the work of Mashaa.
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public space means for us as a cause and as a subject. It means an absence of the state, of this state that can be hijacked by the powerful, a state that does not belong to the people, that does not care to protect and provide assistance or access to public land.
We started researching the big names (the 'big occupiers', as we call them). We published a series of articles in a newspaper. We wanted to find out the relationships and the links between people, to understand how getting a building permit works, how do you get a law re-written and voted in, when do you do that etc. Our starting point was Solidere, which is a big example of this kind of corruption, because it is so large-scale and it's been going for twenty years, so we have some insight on how it was engineered. That helped us to understand the prototype for these sorts of . But there are a lot of similar projects that follow the same pattern. Recently we’ve been fighting against a huge project of one million square metres in Tripoli, which is also a landfill project that's supposed to be built in the sea. Tripoli is known to be the poorest city in Lebanon - 73 per cent of its people live below the poverty line, which means they live on about five dollars a day. There is a famous on-going conflict between two areas of Tripoli, a sectarian armed battle that breaks out every few months. It's a very insecure place, it would be bizarre to invest there to build a huge resort with hotels, a yacht club, a marina.... When you try to understand how this works, you realise that people go to Tripoli, organise conferences and talks with the locals, and say - “look, you're going to get 10,000 people into work.” And Tripoli needs jobs. They promote their building projects like this.
But we have the real numbers. Take the example of Solidere, who used the same argument - “we're going to create 100,000 new jobs for you”. It wasn’t true. What are they creating? They are creating low-level jobs in security, as waiters and as shopkeepers. That would have existed with any reconstruction anyway. In Tripoli, for example, these are exactly the jobs that they already have and that they don't want, because they have a very good education system and they don't want to end up doing unqualified work... so young graduates are forced to move to Beirut or elsewhere because they cannot find work to suit their qualifications in Tripoli.
Tell us more about your work in Tripoli.
We organised a public debate in Tripoli on the one-million-square-metre land deal, in order to discuss and inform people about the dangers of this kind of project. We talk to the locals and told them - “they are just using this as an argument”, which we found out about because we'd been working on Solidere case and they did the same thing. We were just saying - “be careful, it is only this particular kind of job that will be created for local people, and in any case it's not true, it will not be ten thousand jobs, it will be many fewer”.
We did face some resentment of course, some people were arguing that we cannot judge before the project study becomes public and clear, and that landfilling is not necessarily a bad idea. In any case we managed to achieve what we had in mind, we created a “Mashaa Tripoli” made up of Tripoli-based citizens and activists that would take over the fight to protect their commons.
Our town meeting was then followed by another one, this time organised by those who were trying to grab the land, which was clearly a response to what we had done. They sent two representatives from the investors board: a deputy of Tripoli who also owns 2 of the biggest malls in Beirut, and of course who happens to be the main investor in this landfill project; and another man who seemed to be his lawyer or consultant. First we listened to him defending his project and then had a heated debate with him. The people from the “Mashaa Tripoli” group were present as well as newcomers, mainly old people from Tripoli, the ones who are very attached to the city and who know it very well. There were also some experts and students concerned about the ecological impact of the project, and of course young activists from Tripoli. They were really very strong in their defence of the city, saying - “what is being planned is not useful, you don't really know what people need in Tripoli”. We were wondering - what if people really want that? Do they believe them? So we were very happy to realise that the citizens of Tripoli were very aware of what was happening, and were strongly against the project, which was great because we were not there to raise awareness, we just wanted to open the battle and support them by all means possible.
The investors were actually claiming and trying to convince people that their project is a non-profit project, which aims to make Tripoli a much more productive area. They try to sell it as if it was for the good of the people, and for the good of the city, claiming it will bring tourism, job opportunities and a better life! But when you have people shooting at each other, I don't know what kind of tourism you can attract, and when you have 73 % of people under poverty line.
We are trying to understand the role played by one particular element that is recurrent in these land-grab projects - the surrounding violence. We noticed when we checked dates that a lot of these deals, and the laws that made them possible, were signed or enacted at a time of conflict or crisis. You would think that these times are not right for investment - why would anyone go build a marina and resources for tourists when one kilometre away there are people shooting at each other? It's not logical. But actually these are the best times to pass such laws, because people are worried about car bombs, people are dying, they're seeing this stuff on television. They're not really in a state of mind that would allow them to focus on some deal that is being done. So these deals are made, the laws are passed, and then it’s done, it's in place. Then when you come to apply the laws and start building the situation has already changed, because it takes a lot of time to build, to find money and partners for the project. You first define your territory and then you let it sit for a while. This is known as speculation.
Speculators create new land that has value. Everything is changing around them - the geography, the physical space, but also the demography. They’ve drawn a line, with a rich area on one side, and, behind the line, the poor area. Prices rise and the more the speculator just lets the land sit there, the more it increases in value, so waiting for the conflict to be over actually provides a very good period in which the land can sit, with nothing happening on it, and increase in value. Speculators let it sit, they wait. And when the conflict is over, people are going to come back to those areas, so the speculators start building, and this is how land speculation functions.
How did your understanding of the system emerge from your activist work?
We got a picture of the way the whole system works, which emerged from our research. In fact the information is generally available, but most people don't make the right connections to try to understand how this system really functions. Solidere was built after fifteen years of civil war, which means that the site was totally ravaged and destroyed. Evidently someone needed to rebuild the place - if it's not each person rebuilding his or her own house or shop, and it's not the government, then it's one big company that gets the right to rebuild everything. And obviously this has to be a company that specialises in construction and has a lot of capital. There is a whole system around this. It is important to know that when there is a conflict or a war, there is somebody who comes and rebuilds what has been destroyed.
We saw those deals being settled between Solidere and members of the government – Ministers or members of the Beirut municipal government. They are people who work for the state, but they also own those companies, and they are making investments and direct personal profits through the companies. This could be one of the standard ways of doing things - wherever there is a war, or clashes or insecurity or an unstable situation, all eyes are turned toward that place. I wonder about Syria, for instance. With all the destruction we're witnessing, who is going to rebuild it all? Is it really going to be the state rebuilding, or is it going to be private investment that will come and make a lot of money out of it?
What new questions arose once you had understood this system?
We started wondering... when you want to rebuild something, who supplies the materials? Where do they come from? How much, for example, do stones or rubble cost and who gets the money? Because these materials cost a lot of money.
In the case of Solidere, it was very clear how they did this. Instead of fixing the historical houses, which experts say was viable, they chose to knock down all what was left of downtown Beirut, because by destroying these houses and buildings they managed to create a lot of rubble that they will use to extend their territory and build their landfill in the sea. Everything seems to have been calculated and planned from the beginning. It was relatively easy just to move the rubble from one spot and put it in another. It’s not far away, and so would not cost the company much, and it would eventually become the new waterfront and the
most expensive piece of land in Beirut.
Prices of potential buildable square metres in the waterfront area average around \$4,700 /sqm and in the central district around \$3,000 /sqm.
most expensive piece of land in Beirut..
Solidere also used a mountain of garbage, known as Normandy garbage, for this landfill. The garbage dates back to the war, when the city was split into East and West there was a lot of garbage. Beirut had only one garbage dump, in Quarantina, so a lot of garbage trucks were coming from the west side of Beirut towards the east side. At a certain point the various factions started putting bombs in the trucks, so they would go and explode on the other side of the city. As a result of this, the east side refused to let citizens from the west use their dump. Rafiq Hariri, who had bought land there, then said - “okay, I have this piece of land. You can use it for now, just dump the garbage there and then when the war is over, we'll decide what to do with it.” This resulted in a huge mountain of accumulated garbage, and even this rubbish was eventually used to fill in the sea. They compressed it, and made it into a huge piece of land, because they had to get rid of this mountain of garbage.
It was a good initiative to get rid of the rubbish mountain by using it to build a part of the landfill, instead of just dumping out at sea, but eventually they discovered that they can’t build anything on this landfill because if they dig there’s a risk of explosion and the release of toxic gases. So they decided to make it into a public garden, by adding a top layer that covers the surface and it will eventually go back to the state.
When you think about it, the garbage is ours. It was left by the people. When citizens throw away garbage, it's free; and believe it or not, even when it comes to garbage Solidere managed to get a monopoly deal with the government by creating a private company called Sukleen, that allows it to collect all garbage and use it for whatever they want. So you can see what they came up with!
I think it's clear that those in power, who have been elected by the people to represent them, are there to provide the people with what they need and to make sure that the people get what is important for them. For example in Tripoli there is this huge level of poverty and not enough jobs - I think those in power could change things there and help people in their daily lives. They have to choose, for example, between voting for a law that can give people social security and access to a health system (which does not exist in Lebanon) or voting for a law that will allow a company to build a waterfront costing millions of dollars, and much more than social security for all Lebanese people would cost.
I don’t think that when you're in power you should really be thinking about personal investment or how to make profit or gains for yourself and your companies. Instead you should be thinking about protecting public spaces, opening them up for people, creating more spaces where people can communicate and interact, without cost. In Lebanon we have seventeen different religions and there have always been sectarian conflicts. The Civil War lasted fifteen years - people think of it as a war between Christians and Muslims, but it was not really like that, because Christians were fighting against Christians and Muslims against Muslims. Those who have power need to think about ways to help people interact with each other, accept their differences and be more tolerant. Specifically, in Tripoli, they should also work on making the standard of living a bit higher, instead of creating a clash between the poor areas and the rich areas by building a marina filled with very expensive yachts in the middle of a poor city.
Are the investors engaging in propaganda?
The way these projects are promoted is mainly through 3D models of the whole city. There are a lot of pictures online, on billboards, or on TV that show you the slick lifestyle people would have in these places. They use mainly photo-shopped pictures and 3D designs for these promotions. There is a specific aesthetic to it. When they fence off a place, they always put up these billboards, with these images of 'sophisticated' living on the boardings surrounding the land. And they have slogans. One memorable one was - “where sexy has a new address”! Slogans like that give the viewer the impression of a luxurious, modern and comfortable lifestyle, which is clearly targeting a certain kind of people, who have a high standard of living.
There is also a certain way of using the collective memory: names that ring a bell and give you a feeling of nostalgia towards Old Beirut. For example instead of St George bay, Solidere changed the name of the bay to Zaitunay Bay. Actually the name Zaituneh (which means olive in arabic) originates in a different place, a parallel neighbourhood to the bay, which used to be the red light district of Beirut and a very popular area frequented by people coming from all kind of backgrounds and classes. But they’ve simply taken the name and transferred it to this bay, changing the sound of the word slightly to make it more western, and they promote it now with an logo of an olive tree. They also have an actual old olive tree planted at the entrance of the private bay, so that it has a different image to it, with some veneer of tradition. As if olive trees could really grow on the seashore! These things are very hard to see, people do not notice these things anymore.
The more you spread these artificial images on a constant basis, the more people forget the fact that they cannot actually see the real picture. They forget what it is that they are being fed. I would call it brainwashing. For example now downtown Beirut has a huge mosque – we call it Hariri mosque, and I don't know its real name. It's really, really big, and we don’t remember what was there before, but this mosque wasn’t there. Downtown Beirut was never like this in pictures. But now if we look at it, it's just become so normal for us, as if it had always been there. In our minds we have a mix between images that are from archives, or rooted in nostalgia, and the new life - “let's forget the war and rebuild”.