Beirut, Reborn

Picture captured from inside the Egg.

The Egg has cracked..

The brutalist dome embedded in the heart of downtown Beirut is a vision never realized. Originally intended as a cinema, the structure was part of a mall complex designed by Joseph Philippe Karam as “Beirut City Center.” Construction came to a halt in 1975 with the onset of the Lebanese civil war. The property was then seized by Solidere, Lebanon’s private real-estate company responsible for post-war development. It remains frozen in time—a stone suspended above the streets of Beirut, precariously perched atop a grid of crumbling infrastructure.

Protesters gather on top of or around the Egg – Photo taken by Adam Rasmi.

The ‘Egg’ is engrained in public consciousness as a testament to post-war stagnation and the unfinished promise of reconstruction. Now, a new vision of Beirut emerges as the October 17 revolution occupies the city and reclaims public space. The Egg has transformed into a vital meeting point and host to sit-in lectures, art projects, impromptu skateboarding, hula hooping and the occasional rave, dubbed the ‘Egg-u-pation.’

The past 50 days of anti-government protests have transformed Lebanon, flooding cities with a unified national movement to demand the fall of the confessional regime that carves the country into 19 religious sects. For decades, politicians have stolen with impunity, left the country on the verge of economic collapse and denied people of their basic human rights. The recognition of shared experiences of oppression is awakening a collective Lebanese consciousness that transcends sectarian divisions. Meetings and protests are still taking place, although not at the same volume as the initial weeks. Momentum is sustained as the peaceful occupation of the city center is integrated into the rhythm of daily life. Lebanese people of all walks of life have found opportunities to come together and re-imagine the potential for Lebanon’s future.

Graffiti on the walls of the Egg.

The Egg’s bizarre structure inevitably begs the question, Chou hayda? (What is that?).   A spaceship? A fallen meteor? A prehistoric creature? An egg, perhaps. The peculiar aesthetic of its ambiguity opens the potential for interpretation and renders the space equally accessible to all. To enter, one simply ducks beneath an iron fence and skips across a cement yard to the ground floor, through trails of cigarettes, broken glass, piles of refuse and the overwhelming odor of urine. Community members have made a concerted effort to maintain the space through organized clean ups and safety precautions. Graffiti adorns the inner and outer walls, featuring slogans from the revolution. In the central amphitheater, light enters through a gaping, mouth-like opening where iron bars spring forth and pigeons take rest. Voices ricochet through the cave, echoing visitors’ comings and goings. Those brave enough to venture to the top of the dome must scale a wall, balancing with precise footwork on a series of metal bars and ascend a rickety staircase, secured by a pile of cinderblocks. The top of the Egg offers an unobstructed view of the iconic Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque and Saint George Cathedral in its immediate vicinity and the ocean in the distance.

In the streets below, the revolution carries on in its countless iterations.

There are those who lead the call, and those who chant in response. There are those who paint the walls and streets. There are those who arrive each morning to clean the debris of the night before. There are those who sell sandwiches, coffee and flags and the children weaving through the crowds, selling water or sometimes roses. There are those who bring hookahs and sit in silent observation of the passers-by. There are those who organize meetings to debate their hopes and fears. There are those who amplify their music and transform the streets into a national party. There are those who sit on the ground with their open palms outstretched. There are those who sit on their parents’ shoulders and send paper lanterns to the sky. There are those who bang pots and pans or shards of metal and stone. There are those who form the frontline facing a barricade of entangled barbed wire. There are those who occupy the streets, undeterred by rain and cold. There are those who set the streets on fire. There are those who cover their faces, emboldened in their anonymity. There are those who watch from their windows. There are those in uniform, stationed at the perimeter.

And there are those we do not see, hidden behind closed doors, fearful of the uprising

Each holds a vital role in the revolution and reflects the full spectrum of the Lebanese identity. People are calling out with one voice, singing one anthem and waving one flag. The reclamation of public space has made it possible for people from different communities to gather freely and encounter one another as fellow citizens.

Sectarian divisions remained deeply entrenched after the war ended in 1990 and the ensuing 30 years of animosity prevented wounds from healing. The Egg, like much of Beirut, still bears the scars of war. The bullet-riddled façade of the city is an inexorable reminder of its violent past. When juxtaposed with the glossy exterior of newly constructed high-rise apartment buildings and haute-couture fashion stores, the residual trauma is somehow more potent.

After the war, a combined public-private framework, Real-Estate Holding Company (REHCO) was chosen by the government to take on reconstruction and development projects. Its proponents maintained that the lack of a functional government would render the alignment of stakeholders under one vision nearly impossible. Critics challenged the REHCO approach which modeled downtown Beirut as a “Paris of the Middle East,” essentially creating an island for the rich, isolated from the rest of the city. Although some changes were considered, the public never approved the plan before it was presented to the government. Then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri had credibility as a businessman and held sway in the process of property expropriation that enabled Solidere to purchase the land at dubiously low property values. Solidere is the largest company in Lebanon, with assets totaling $10 billion, nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP. The Hariri family’s share in the company is a major point of contention in Lebanese politics and Solidere is generally disdained as an arm of the Hariri establishment.

The rejection of the political status quo is inherently a rejection of Solidere as a primary culprit in the regime that systematically caters to elite private interests at the expense of the overwhelming majority of Lebanese citizens. Solidere is implicated in the displacement of people from their homes and businesses and razing entire neighborhoods, like Zeitouni, Wadi Abou Jamil, Safi and the Souks to carve out places of excessive luxury, detached from the fabric of the rest of Beirut. They have claimed even the sea. At night on the marina, red neon letters illuminate the Saint George Hotel with the prophecy: “Solidere will end in 2019.” The hotel is the oldest in Beirut and was once an infamous yacht club, but since the owner, Fadi Al Khoury refused to sell the property to Solidere, he has repeatedly been denied work permits to rebuild. The revolution has similarly emboldened scores of protestors to resist Solidere by staging demonstrations in areas like Zeitouna Bay, a strip along the shoreline that is theoretically public, though rendered exclusive by a series of expensive restaurants and resorts. It is a testament to how the privatization of Beirut has held Lebanese people hostages in their own city, deprived of the agency to rebuild and heal. The faces of Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermès are a veneer, a gilded exterior concealing the memories of the past.

Protesters marching towards Eden Bay, an illegal resort built on the only beach left in Beirut, holding a sign that reads “Reclaiming stolen public property, retrieving the looted money.”

There are few places in Beirut that survived the war. Down the street from the Egg is the iconic bullet-riddled statue emerging from Martyr’s Square, commemorating cross-confessional patriots who opposed Ottoman rule in 1916. On the adjacent street lies the century-old Grand Théâtre des Mille et Une Nuits, also in the grips of Solidere. Uniquely situated as central axes between Riad El Solh and the Ring, these neglected pre-war monuments have been revived by the revolution.

Photo captured during a discussion held inside the Egg.

As Lebanese people claim these spaces as their own, they leave new marks upon the façades that time forgot. In hidden rooms and staircases leading to nowhere, curiosity and creativity reign free. The Egg has provided a place of refuge within the heart of Beirut where all are welcome. For children, it is a playground and for artists, a canvas. Graffiti is the discourse of the revolution made visible, and offers equal opportunity for all to observe and respond with any word or image or color, adding another layer to the canvas. The Egg has cracked; and Beirut has been reborn.

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