By Alex Ray
December 18, 2017
For every civilisation that has occupied modern-day Beirut, one asset has been central – its port. Nowadays the port district (Al Marfa in Arabic) has an air of neglect. It remains vital to the economic life of modern Beirut but is barely visible to most inhabitants of today’s sprawling, chaotic city.
On a late summer afternoon the Mediterranean reflects sunlight uphill from the docks towards a small restaurant. Inside, Bangladeshi UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) peace keepers linger at tables overlooking their docked ship.
A young soldier, Parag, is enjoying his time off. Dressed in blue jeans with suspenders, a bright-green chequered shirt and Texan cowboy hat, he sits before a cold Almaza beer and lists his favourite Australian cricketers: Langer, Gilchrist and Ponting.
Parag’s commanding officer interrupts to tell him not to talk to me, a stranger, but he continues anyway. It seems the commander’s responsibilities go beyond peace keeping and monitoring his unit: he also negotiates with taxi drivers and shop owners to supply prostitutes. They argue about the price of a taxi but not the price of the “Lebanese” women – $100 per hour.
Situated east of Beirut’s famed and similarly sized Corniche, the port’s constant turnover of ships, people and cargo – mixed with impending departures – concentrates interactions and events into their essence. Businesses run at odd hours to serve incoming ships and their passengers, cultures meet, stories are swapped, time off is cherished.
Al Marfa has witnessed centuries of these encounters. It has exported treasures such as the Murex sea snail – whose rich purple die coloured the robes of ancient nobility – and some of the world’s most sought-after timber, the cedars of Lebanon – prized since the pharaohs. It was from Beirut’s port that Kim Philby, the Cold War’s most famous double agent escaped on a Soviet freighter in 1963. In 1982, the same site hosted an armoured cavalcade that farewelled Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat following the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
More recently, the ongoing war in neighbouring Syria has seen cargo volumes increase through Beirut, at a rate profitable enough to have warranted several expansions since 2011. The port still operates beyond capacity, handling more than 1.2 million 20-foot container equivalents in 2015.
At a footpath table outside the hillside restaurant, Hafiz*, a retired ships’ captain regales me and his shoe-shining Syrian friend Hassan*, with travel stories. He laments the desecration of Beirut’s coastline, which he says was “as beautiful as Sydney Harbour. Hippies and artists used to come here to draw it in the 60s … now the rats that feed off the rubbish are big enough to scare the cats.”
Squeezed between high-rise construction sites, highways and the Mediterranean Sea, Al Marfa still holds vestiges of Hafiz’s “glory days.” Century-old buildings glimpse the sea from the nearby suburbs of Gemmayzeh, Achrafieh and Mar Mikhayel.
These increasingly gentrified districts are cut-off from the port by the always-flowing Charles Helou highway. Where heritage buildings have succumbed to neglect, modern skyscrapers mushroom, filling the streets with the rattle of jackhammers.
Al Marfa’s half-dozen streets are lined with freight and logistics businesses, car garages, metalworking shops and even a sailing-themed boutique clothes store. Snaking through them all – and adding to the cacophony – are exits and on-ramps to the highway.
Abu Samir’s manaqeesh bakery is bustling at 11am; his young assistant Ibrahim bakes, oblivious to the summer heat and open gas oven while his customers – mostly young labourers – debate football and the futures of the regimes of Iran and Syria.
Closer to the main gates of the docks and container terminal sits the long-neglected Charles Helou Bus Station. A rubbish bin billows smoke from burning plastic and the echoing shouts of bus drivers compete with traffic on the eponymous highway above. The station was once a transit point for overland journeys as far as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Kiosks continue to stock the essentials for long-haul trips – deodorant, toothbrushes, cigarettes, sim cards and money changers.
Buses and taxis can still take you as far as Raqqa and Hassakeh – with the right permissions – but operate on reduced timetables. Ticket salesman Abu Ali, who has worked at the station for 12 years, says there is only one bus per day to Damascus now, as opposed to at least one every hour up until 2013.
Abu Ali and a few drivers agree that strict General Security rules on cross-border travel have choked business at the station more than Syria’s war. Beirut’s traffic also means that people now prefer to be picked up from home rather than transiting through the station.
Sheltered from wind and rain, the station’s empty two-level car park has become a toilet and rest spot for drivers and their over-exploited taxis. Mohannad, a dishevelled 30-year-old Syrian driver studied law at the University of Damascus but has never worked in the profession. He is about to explain how he crosses back to Syria to sleep every night, when we are hauled aside by Internal Security officers who want to know why I’m taking pictures. Mohannad leaves without finishing his story.
Flowering hibiscus, bougainvillea and tropical weeds struggle from the shadows and corners of the bus station and highway. At the northern end of Al Marfa, a three-story mural by local artist Hadi Beydoun depicts a young blonde in a white top and red skirt, watering the rebellious foliage while swinging from the point where the highway converges into its six churning lanes.
This neglected pocket of Beirut survives in stark contrast to the flashy post-war rebuild of “Downtown” and “Beirut Souks,” which occupy the opposite side of Martyr’s square, the centre of Beirut and part of the front line during the 1975-90 civil war. They don’t impress Hafiz.
“This is not ‘downtown,’ it is just a name” he says, embarking on a story of his first visit to the newly-rebuilt shopping hub which saw him spend a month’s wages on a lasagne and a few beers. “‘Downtown’ is a product of history and people … a nucleus of interactions.” Before the war it was the site of Beirut’s real souks, alive with traders and shoppers from all social classes.
Now, as researcher Hadi Makarem writes it is “an exclusive space for ‘appropriate’ people only … the new souks … resemble American malls rather than Arab popular markets and sell foreign luxury goods rather than locally made products.”
Al Marfa too may be destined for a “makeover.” The giant regional engineering consultancy Dar al-Handasah, was contracted in early 2017 to design a total overhaul of the docks and cargo area, looking to make Beirut a “Mediterranean cruise capital.” The plans boast of creating a “community-orientated” waterfront with cultural and entertainment zones.
It is unclear what the Dar Al Handaseh design envisages for the Al Marfa community, which would certainly be affected by such large-scale development. However, local business owners seem unfussed at the news. “They say that, but we will see if it happens,” says classic car mechanic Khalid from beside a half-built 1964 Oldsmobile ’F85.
“The politicians these days just take a salary, a cut, and make announcements, they don’t actually get anything done.” 57-year-old Khalid runs a garage established by his father but work has died off in recent years. He says that few in Beirut’s trend-obsessed culture share his enthusiasm for classic cars.
Drivers at the bus station also seem apathetic about the proposed redevelopment. “I have been working here 21 years, there is no business now, but the expansion won’t change anything,” says Mohammad. “The station is owned by the municipality, not the port, so they can’t do anything here,” he claims.
Ironically Charles Helou may preserve Al Marfa. The centrality of the highway – which traverses almost the entire northern coastline of Lebanon – means that any interference with traffic flows here would only worsen the congestion.
The bus station’s testament to the relentless concreting of Lebanon, came up in one of Hafiz’s tales. Abe, a Canadian tourist visiting in the mid 1990s, wanted to see the aftermath of Lebanon’s devastating civil war and what remained of its old-world charm. Catching the phrase ‘what Lebanon had become,’ Abe’s exuberant taxi driver promised to show him the exemplary development and initiative of the Lebanese.
Their tour of Beirut’s urban infrastructure projects included footbridges, tunnels, bypasses, overpasses and yes, bus stations – each passed with a glowing “look what we have here in Lebanon! Do you have this in Canada?” In his paralysing western politeness, Abe was unable to point out that yes, they had concrete, footbridges and tunnels in Canada too.
* Names withheld by request.