“[…] the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold.” - geographer and anthropologist David Harvey
How to approach a city like Beirut? By its history, its economic meaning, its art scene, its people? On the search for a city’s identity, many of its facets are revealed in certain places, namely the city’s public spaces.
Historically, public spaces in Beirut have been constructed with religious buildings surrounding it. This tradition has in many cases not been maintained in the course of recent development works. However, within the BCD Nejmeh Square is a still existing example for a public space with adjacent religious buildings. Both the St. George Cathedral and the St. Elie church can directly be accessed through the Square; but also the towering al-Omari Mosque is apparent to the square’s visitor. In near proximity to the Square the Emir-Assaf and al-Amine Mosque are situated, although these are not in direct range of sight from the square.
This paper sums up the results of a research practice conducted in 2012/2013 as a part of my studies of Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The research was centred on the question how young people perceive religious architecture on Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut. Throughout the time of the research I attended an internship with the Heinrich Boell Foundation whose inspirational work and cooperation with NGOs in Beirut has proven to be great support for my work.
Why does public space matter?
Right from the beginnings of Urban Anthropology in the 70s, the influence of space on the social structure of cities has constituted a focal point of research. Public spaces in cities can be associated with anonymity, diversity, with life quality and bien-être. They offer a platform for the unfurling and change of social practices. They are indispensable from a psychological perspective as they offer space for social interaction, or, as Danish architect Jan Gehl puts it, for “the informal web of civic relations that characterises our “life between buildings““. Squares as a form of public space are of high symbolic character and as such play a great role in the constitution of a city’s identity. Their meaning for a city’s population lies not only in their functional merit, e.g. as a passageway or a space for sporting activities. They are also cherished for their contemplative, aesthetic, relaxing and ecological value. People may use them to sit, walk, play, meet and escape everyday life. With Beirut being a city lacking public space as stated by researchers like Liliane Barakat, Henri Chamussy, Mona Fawaz and Racha El-Dirani Chebbo - to name but a few – the existing public spaces matter even more. This is why they deserve greater attention in research.
Religious architecture constitutes merely an aspect of public squares. It forms a starting point for this practice research as some researchers have stated the unique structure composed by 18 different religious sects accounts for the “rip“ in Lebanese society. In an initial assumption, it could be expected religion therefore is very present to visitors to Nejmeh Square which is surrounded by two churches and three mosques.
How was the practice research conducted?
Various methods have been made use of in the course of this research. The main focus was set on interviewing youths on their perception of Nejmeh Square, how they feel connected to Beirut, their leisure time customs and their wishes for the future of public space in Beirut. All interviews were conducted in English with young people aged 17 to 26 years, who were born in Beirut. Additionally, maps and sketches of the BCD area were used in order to assert which preconclusions could be made on the architectural relation of religious buildings on Nejmeh Square. Furthermore, a rough statistic was generated through systematic observation on the square revealing what kind of people generally visit the square and how they use this public space in the time span from 9.30 am and 19.30 pm during the week and on weekends. The statistic serves merely as an example for this time span as to ensure the research’s feasibility the data was collected over the course of several randomly chosen days. Essentially, the statistic depicts a hypothetical weekend and week day rather than the numbers of one specific day.
What the architecture reveals
When entering the square certain features draw the visitor’s attention to them: the underlying concept of the area follows the eponymous design of a star with the square’s centre being made up by a towering clock donated in the 1930s. Concerning the architectural style, the square’s buildings, with the exception of the religious buildings, have been reconstructed according to the pre-war neoclassical style. Five towering trees have been planted behind the clock to the side of the parliament building. The impression of the square “opening up“ to the opposite Eastern side is evoked as this is the side that does not accommodate one of the multi-storey buildings. Instead it gives room to the lower Christian churches. At a distance the grand al-Omari mosque is visible behind the churches and a large excavated area. For this reason some visitors have been heard having the impression of the mosque “dwarfing“ the other religious building. In front of the churches benches have been installed inviting visitors to rest and watch the goings-on on the square. This contributes to the livelier and more open nature of the Eastern side of Nejmeh Square.
How and by whom Nejmeh Square is used
When consulting the results summed up in a statistic record, a great difference in the visitor constellation is apparent between the weekend and weekdays. A constant is that the largest user group is constituted by single men with 53 % during the week and 25 % on weekends. Far less single women could be seen on the square with respectively 16 % and 11 %. Further larger visitor groups were male pairs with 8 %, mixed pairs with 7 % and female pairs with only 5 %. Generally, more people visited the square in pairs, with male, female and mixed pair constellations adding up to 30 %, and 14 % of people visiting in groups on weekends. Also on weekends the number of pairs with children rose up to 10 %. Further constellations which were less often visible were single people with children and children on their own.
Pertaining to age groups of visitors people who visibly seemed about 20 years old or younger constituted only 8 % of all visitors during the week, but as much as 27 % on weekends. Concerning the question how Nejmeh square is being used, both on weekends and during the week the majority with 81 % used the square merely as a passageway. The rest stayed longer and used the space in order to take pictures, sight see, sit on benches or at the clock, play and “stand“ whereby actions like making conversations, talking on the phone, waiting for someone, praying, reading a map etc. are referred to. Observed interactions included visitors speaking to soldiers or waiters and waitresses. Most interactions took place between people who obviously were familiar to each other. A much smaller number spoke to people they obviously did not know e.g. to ask someone to take a picture or to ask for directions.
In relation to the research question, what matters most is that the group focussed upon predominantly makes use of Nejmeh Square on weekends rather than on week days. Although not recorded statistically, youths are the group that stood out as they were often observed not consuming at the cafés and restaurants surrounding the square like other visitor groups, but merely making use of the benches and going for walks within the square. Generally more men than women visited Nejmeh Square.
Young people’s perception of Nejmeh Square
Analysing and comparing all the interviews, some motives and experiences seem to recur. To enable a comprehensive understanding of the perception of Beirut and its public space it is vital to understand the interviewee’s relationship to their city and their country. Besides that aspect the area of knowledge is of importance, in this context predominantly historic knowledge interviewees had acquired played a role. Furthermore, important aspects of everyday life found a place in all interviews. These can be divided in following categories: environment, security, politics, economy, leisure time, religion. Together all these single aspects add up to a “mosaic“ of life in Beirut which constitutes the individual as well as the collective perception of the city. In the following, key statements made in the interviews shall be subsumed in these categories, the tesserae, and shall then be examined as a basis for generalized statements. In the end, this will lead to a comprehensive overall image of the interviewee’s perception of Beirut and Nejmeh Square as an example for its public spaces (see fig. 1)
The first core area in interviews lay in young people‘s connection to Lebanon and its capital. All interviewees were born in Beirut and see the city as their home. They connect it with their personal relationships, more precisely with their family ties, friends and neighbours for example. One of the interviewees does currently not live in Lebanon herself, but claims she seeks to maintain the connection to her homeland. In connection with her academic background in Urban Design she therefore has launched various websites concerned with public space in Beirut. One of the interviewees describes his bond with Beirut like this:
“I'm from Beirut. I've lived here all my lifetime. [...] Was born here, in Beirut. So, I love Beirut a lot. It's in my blood. Really!”
Another aspect raised in interviews was that of the awareness and perception of Lebanese history. Most of the interviewed young people were well aware of the city’s roots in antiquity and the historic meaning of the region. This became apparent through euphemistic statements, such as
“Beirut, it used to be the city of knowledge, if you know what I mean? At the era of the Roman Empire, Beirut was this very important city. There was the first university of law here in the Roman era, the first university in the Middle East. So, yeah, we have our history. It's a long and beautiful history.“
The second historic phase all interviewees were aware of was that of war time experience in recent decades. Given the interviewees’ ages lay between 17 and 26 years, in most cases they only had blurred memories from the period up to 1990. When issues of recent clashes in Tripoli and Saida taking place at the point in time of the interviews arose, many interviewees expressed their regret and incomprehension for the happenings.
K: “We don't need war in this country. We've had a lot of wars. All the history talks about wars in this country.“
S: “ There is fighting in Tripoli now, actually.“
K: “We don't need wars anymore here - no - enough of wars“
Asked about their first memory of Nejmeh Square, many stated having visited the square as a child of about ten years for the first time. In all cases the awareness of the square’s destruction during the war and it’s only recent reconstruction was closely linked to this memory.
“Nejmeh Square isn't that old really. They rebuilt it. They reconstructed the downtown 'cause we had a civil war. Everything was destroyed. They rebuilt it, I think, ten years ago.“
One area that seemed to mean a lot to interviewees was that of environmental issues. Many claimed they felt bothered by the mass of cars and criticized weak and corrupt government work in this area. They felt the government failed to appropriately confine and regulate traffic in Beirut. However, not only cars contribute to the high pollution in the city. Statistics reveal the negative impact of generators used to compensate daily electricity cuts on the environment. Additionally, interviewees stated they thought many Lebanese lacked awareness for their environment as inconsiderate littering was visible all over the city. With all these environmental issues, public spaces like Nejmeh Square were conceived as “escapes” by some young people.
“It's so social, many people. You know, when you see a lot of people, you love the place. You want to go to the place to see the people. People are happy in this place. Maybe they escape from other places where people are sad, poor… something like this. We come here for more… happiness.“
I: “Well, what do you like most, is it a place to sit, or just that you see people?.”
K: “This road” (points out of the window) “is a clean road.”
S: “Even the lights are clean!” (pointing to street lights outside)
When asked for his ideal in public space, one of the interviewees declared he thought New York was the best role model he personally knew, as:
“…the people there aim to change to other methods of energy, to clean methods, you know, to get rid of oil and relying on things that pollute the environment“
When the aspect of security arose in interviews, traffic again was mentioned. Young people felt endangered in unregulated traffic. Furthermore, they felt a sense of insecurity walking through the public realm of the city’s streets due to damaged, too narrow or non-existent sidewalks and pavements misused as parking spaces. Nearly forming a counter piece to this insecure part of public space is Nejmeh Square. Not all, but some interviewees felt security precautions taken on the square were overwhelming. Civil vehicles are prohibited from entering the square and visitors may only enter one by one while being observed by military positioned at the entrance points. Additionally, military is present on the square itself. Some interviewees mentioned security measures not only on Nejmeh Square but also in other public spaces were too high. One other example mentioned twice was the case of Horch Beirut, to which full access is being denied to a large majority of Lebanese.
“Yes, well, there isn't a lot of true public space. Like even here it doesn't feel public 'cause you've got private security all around.”
“Just sidewalks in general, continuous safe sidewalks I think is… Because I feel like people have developed this sense that the street doesn't belong to us. Like, we always say, "The squares are public space, the parks are public space." But the first public space truly is the street and if you can't be safe walking on the streets or crossing the streets… Just sidewalks and crossings and things like that just make it easier for pedestrians to walk around. I think that would be very important, at least to me it is.”
“It's a struggle! I'm young and I have full mobility and I still struggle on sidewalks. If you had a stroller... It's important too because now they take their car to just go around the corner. And I think if they could walk safely and comfortably, maybe they wouldn't.“
A great majority of interviewees testified their dissatisfaction with Lebanese politics. More accurately, they related their discontent with corruption, the sectarian electoral system and the exclusion of under 21 year olds from elections. One of the youths stated he saw politics as a starting point for development in many other areas, with public space merely being an example.
“I don't think we are a society, like, we are divided into sectors and stuff. We should build this society, this country. We're not a country. We are divided, this country. And I don't believe in a country that is ruled by many different leaders like in the Civil War“
Moving to the aspect of economy, all of the interviewees agreed upon the matter that earning a sufficient salary poses a difficulty for young people in Lebanon. Three of them stated they felt pushed to leave Lebanon as the prospect of more jobs and higher salaries were better abroad. In fact officially 606,812 Lebanese have left their homeland, predominantly for North America, the West of Europe and other Arab countries, in the years from 1975 until the beginning of the new millennium.
“Actually every person is telling us to travel because Lebanon is… They are telling us that there is no work here. You can't work. So we should travel abroad, for work.”
Many of the interviewees admitted their consumption in cafés and restaurants on Nejmeh Square was highly limited due to lacking financial means. This also played a role in transportation costs. None of the young people knew of an appropriate public space near to their home. This meant they needed to pay for transportation to places like Nejmeh Square, which added to financial pressures. Another point which arose in connection with the topic of economy was the fact that electricity did not go out on Nejmeh Square for example.
“The electricity goes out every time at home. We need electricity. This is the difference between here, and there. Same country, same city, but different places.“
When asked about their leisure time activities, interviewees named activities such as doing sports, meeting friends, going for walks, having a coffee or simply relaxing in nice places. The places they would usually use for these activities ranged from public sports grounds over Hamra Street, Beirut Souks, ABC Mall, Zaitunay Bay to Nejmeh Square with its various cafés. Especially visiting places like Starbucks for example was brought in connection with a “classy” and “European” image.
The final aspect of life in Beirut mentioned in the interviews was religion. Nearly all of the interview partners stated they wished for the conciliation of various sects. Apart from one interviewee, most of the interviewed youths did not seem to see religion playing an important role for them personally. When thinking of religion, some of the interviewees were aware of the symbolic power of public spaces like Nejmeh Square. Two of the interviewees interpreted the Square’s design as picturing the peaceful coexistence of Christian and Muslim sects. Only one interviewee mentioned seeing how the large al-Omari mosque can be seen towering over the other religious buildings.
Beirut – the big picture
All these single aspects add up to the complete “mosaic” of life in Beirut. The city means a lot to all young people interviewed. They connect their hometown with their life so far and the people they know best. They mention the beauty of their city and are keen to share their positive picture of Beirut, the city that “flows in their blood”.
“It’s obviously very emotional in a way and it's also a city that really embraces you in a way that the cities that I'm familiar with, outside of Lebanon, don't do. Like even the sensory aspect of things, how loud it is and the smells and I've always, I guess I've always had a thing for messy cities!“
In connection with the question pursued in this practice research, these are the problems directly linked with public space:
§ There is a lack of public space in Beirut. After the advanced construction work in downtown public spaces do exist in the area; however, the rest of Beirut mostly lacks public space or the available public space is in a bad state. Former public and open spaces are conceived as endangered as they frequently fall victim to development projects. This results in a perceived lack of places to escape to. One interviewee goes as far as to speak of “prison Beirut”. Speaking to the head of an NGO in Beirut, he makes the assumption that it is not even clear to many Beirutis what public space is and that they have a right to it:
“I don't think people know what public space is. People don't know what public space is. We did focussing groups in Tyre and Baalbeck and here - no, people don't know what public space is. Of course it's better than two years ago, because of the campaigns that took place. Now, if you ask “What's public space?”, they may say Horch Beirut for example. But they don't know what public space is. People are not aware of it because they were not educated about public spaces.“
Another interviewee states:
“I think there is so much to deal with in public space, not only in downtown, more importantly outside of downtown. [...] The more you study it, the more you talk to people, the more you realize that maybe this isn't where things are happening, as far as like public space goes.“
§ The public spaces in downtown often are too expensive for young adults in order for them to use them freely. As a result they may only seldom - if at all - visit places like Nejmeh Square. There are not many alternatives though. Merely places like Hamra Street, Zaitunay Bay or malls are seen as alternative possibilities. The emptiness of Nejmeh Square a lot of the time can be explained by the financial pressure of the place that cannot easily be dealt with by visitors, potential residents and businesses.
§ Streets in Beirut are perceived as insecure, Nejmeh Square in contrast is said to be too suffocating as far as security measures are concerned. Some youths would appreciate less military presence and if the square was accessible by car and more easily accessible on foot.
“I don't feel drawn to it [Nejmeh Square]. I don't find it particularly pleasing, it's blocked off, so it's, like, generally more empty than other areas. So if I wanted to be in downtown, that is actually the last place that I would go.“
§ However, the cleanliness of Nejmeh Square as well as its security in terms of traffic are being appreciated.
“It's something pretty important, the fact that there are sidewalks and that it's pedestrian. And parents are pretty confident letting their kids ride their little tricycles and I think this is probably why this area is generally a good destination for families as well. But no one that I know necessarily. But it's the only place in Beirut where you can actually be comfortable as a pedestrian“
§ The outlook and wishes of interview partners centre on improvements in many areas, with the development of public space being only one example of many.
“It stays. The downtown is the town, people come here because they love to come here.“
K: ”We don't have it. We need it. We don't have it. We need to improve it. Beirut Souks… we need Beirut Souks in Tariq El Jdideh! “
S: “Tariq El Jdideh Souks!”
“It's a beautiful country, there are a lot of people who believe in this country and who love this country. And I think if we change, we can be one of the leading countries in the world, a very strong country in its economy, even in science. We should take advantage of this and build our country as we dream. The key of everything is to change, first to change these things, to change ourselves, inside and all these sectarian thoughts that we were raised on. We should change, we should improve, we should rely more on our brain to lead, not to be led. And then we will improve our country and build more sophisticated places and increase public space.”
The aim of this practice research lay in determining how young people perceive religious architecture on Nejmeh Square. Young people were chosen as a relevant group for this topic as their presence on and use of this public realm seemed to differ from other groups. Statistics confirmed the impression that this group mostly visited Nejmeh Square on weekends. They then mostly did not consume anything from the gastronomic facilities, but rather spent their time sitting, walking, meeting others, watching and talking.
Based on the information raised in the interviews with young Lebanese from Beirut it must be stated that religion may traditionally assume a great role in Lebanese society; however, religious architecture was not what these young people primarily connected Nejmeh Square with. When asked about it they did acknowledge there might be a symbolic message conveyed through the square’s architecture. For one part this message lay in the peaceful cohabitation of Christian and Muslim sects. One person mentioned the possibility of seeing a dominance of the Muslim al-Omari mosque over the other, smaller religious buildings. Other aspects seemed of greater importance though. Problems and issues directly or indirectly connected with Nejmeh Square were described above in many aspects of life in Beirut.
Some scholars and residents of Beirut have criticized the new design of the BCD developed by Solidere, e.g. for the lack of a Lebanese identity conveyed by it:
“Instead of you traveling, the city travels. Look at Beirut, transforming from the Switzerland of the East to Hong Kong, to Saigon, to Calcutta, to Sri Lanka. It’s as if we circled the world in ten or twenty years. We stayed where we were and the world circled around us. Everything around us changed, and we have changed.” - Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury
However, statements made in interviews throughout the research suggest that it is this design with its continuous safe paving, its “classy” and “European” cafés, the cleanliness and the availability of electricity which draws young people to Nejmeh Square, even though their economic position may not allow for them to actively take part in consumption on a regular basis. Despite the justified portrayal of Nejmeh Square and the reconstruction following the war in general as problematic, the existence of the developed BCD means that - without the alternative of a comparable public space near to their homes - young people can “escape” to the more pleasant surroundings of Nejmeh Square.
List of References
Barakat/Chamussy 2002: Les espaces publics à Beyrouth / Public spaces in Beirut. En: Géocarrefour. Vol. 77 nº3: 274.; Chebbo, Racha El-Dirani 2010: Généalogie et usages sociaux de quatre lieux urbains paysagers à Beyrouth. En: Projets de Paysage. URL: http://www.projetsdepaysage.fr/fr/genealogie_et_usages_sociaux_de_quatr… lieux_urbains_paysagers_a_beyrouth [16/02/13].
Berry, David 1976: Preservation of Open Space and the Concept of Value. In: American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 35 No. 2: 113 - 124.
Chebbo, Racha El-Dirani 2010: Généalogie et usages sociaux de quatre lieux urbains paysagers à Beyrouth. En: Projets de Paysage. URL: http://www.projetsdepaysage.fr/fr/genealogie_et_usages_sociaux_de_quatr… lieux_urbains_paysagers_a_beyrouth [16/02/13].
Dixon/Levine/McAuley 2006: Locating impropriety: Street Drinking, Moral Order, and the Ideological Dilemma of Public Space. In: Political Psychology. Vol. 27 No. 2: 187 - 206.
Dockery, Stephen 2012: Beirut generators as deadly as smoking: study. In: The Daily Star. URL: http://m.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Dec-18/198904- beirut-generators-as-deadly-as-smoking-study.ashx [16/02/13].
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Kokot, Waltraud 1991: Ethnologische Forschung in Städten: Gegenstände und Probleme. In: Kokot/Bommer (Hg.) 1991: Ethnologische Stadtforschung. Eine Einführung. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
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Wildner, Kathrin 2003: Zócalo – Die Mitte der Stadt Mexiko. Ethnographie eines Platzes. In: Kulturanalysen. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
 Harvey, David 2008: The Right to the City. In: The New Left Review. URL: http://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city [16/02/13]: 1.
 Legally, Nejmeh Square is not “public space”, as it is privately owned. Nevertheless, the square is suitable for this research as it to some extent may be used in a manner public squares are used. “Public square” here refers to the site in its definition of being “an outdoor space contained by walls, with doorways to enter and exit, and the sky as a ceiling” (translated from German: „Es ist ein Raum im Freien mit Wänden, die ihn eingrenzen, Türen zum Ein- und Austreten und dem Himmel als Decke“, architect Michael Webb. In: Wildner, Kathrin 2003: Zócalo – Die Mitte der Stadt Mexiko. Ethnographie eines Platzes. In: Kulturanalysen. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag: 22.).
 The square’s name is known in various languages: “Nejmeh Square”, “Place de l’Étoile”, or even “Star’s Square”. The most commonly used term in Beirut seems to be “Nejmeh Square” which is therefore being deployed in this paper.
 The original paper “Öffentlicher Raum in Beirut: Wie nehmen junge Erwachsene den Place de l’ Étoile im Zentrum Beiruts wahr?” was written in German and handed in to the University on February 18, 2013.
 Kokot, Waltraud 1991: Ethnologische Forschung in Städten: Gegenstände und Probleme. In: Kokot/Bommer (Hg.) 1991: Ethnologische Stadtforschung. Eine Einführung. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag: 1f..
 Chebbo, Racha El-Dirani 2010: Généalogie et usages sociaux de quatre lieux urbains paysagers à Beyrouth. En: Projets de Paysage. URL: http://www.projetsdepaysage.fr/fr/genealogie_et_usages_sociaux_de_quatr…
 Dixon/Levine/McAuley 2006: Locating impropriety: Street Drinking, Moral Order, and the Ideological Dilemma of Public Space. In: Political Psychology. Vol. 27 No. 2: 187.
 Wildner, Kathrin 2003: Zócalo – Die Mitte der Stadt Mexiko. Ethnographie eines Platzes. In: Kulturanalysen. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag: 179f..
 Berry, David 1976: Preservation of Open Space and the Concept of Value. In: American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 35 No. 2: 114, 116, 118.
 Barakat/Chamussy 2002: Les espaces publics à Beyrouth / Public spaces in Beirut. En: Géocarrefour. Vol. 77 nº3: 274.; Fawaz, Mona 2007: Beirut: The City as a Body Politic. In: ISIM Review Vol. 20: 23.; Chebbo, Racha El-Dirani 2010: Généalogie et usages sociaux de quatre lieux urbains paysagers à Beyrouth. En: Projets de Paysage. URL: http://www.projetsdepaysage.fr/fr/genealogie_et_usages_sociaux_de_quatr…
 Kneissl, Karin 2007: Libanon. In: Weiss, Walter (Hg.): Die Arabischen Staaten. Geschichte – Politik – Religion – Gesellschaft – Wirtschaft. Großburgwedel: Palmyra Verlag: 172.
 Dockery, Stephen 2012: Beirut generators as deadly as smoking: study. In: The Daily Star. URL: http://m.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Dec-18/198904-beirut-gen…
 Fargues, Philippe 2006: International migration in the Arab region: trends and policies. Beirut: United Nations: 8.
 Makdisi, Saree 1997: Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere. In: Critical Inquiry. Vol. 23 No. 3: 662.