‘Name Me a Dreamer’: A Shattered Beirut Neighborhood Rebuilds

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BEIRUT, Lebanon – After the port explosion in August that disfigured much of Beirut, many compared the city to a phoenix that was about to rise again.

“We stay,” read some signs in the famous nightlife of Mar Mikhael, one of the worst hit areas. It was the same on Main Street in Gemmayzeh, another badly damaged area whose graceful old buildings housed famous families and newcomers from Beirut: residents vowed to return and banners on buildings promised to rebuild.

Two months later, some businesses have started reopening and teams of volunteer engineers and architects are working to salvage historic buildings. But even the cops say they don’t believe a full recovery is possible, which points to a lack of governance and resources combined with an imploding economy that has put even basic repairs on the wallets of many residents.

Although traditionally Christian neighborhoods, Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, and the surrounding areas attracted young Lebanese from diverse religious backgrounds, as well as foreigners and tourists, to their bars, cafes, and art galleries. Gays, lesbians and transgender felt safe. Entrepreneurs and designers moved in. Dusty hardware stores were a few doors away from trendy coffee shops.

The explosion threatened this unique social fabric, locals say.

And not all are ready to return. It would feel like erasing what happened, some said – like walking merrily over a grave.

On the outskirts of Gemmayzeh, between a church and an antique shop, a narrow street shoots up the hill at strange angles. Locals call it Thieves’ Lane, long ago when it was a quick escape route from the authorities.

Over the past year anti-government protesters dodging tear gas have often sprinted in the same way, ducking into Demo, a bar with pleasantly worn wooden benches and experimental music booming from the DJ booth.

Its owner, Tarek Mourad, 38, opened the demo with a partner a decade ago and has become a classic in Beirut. The bar’s glass frontage was shattered in the explosion and Mr. Mourad reached out to GoFundMe to replace it.

“When you spend years planting something,” he said, “and suddenly there is something that cuts the plant, hope the roots are there.”

But he wasn’t sure if everything that Demo made would return to what it had been – the little shops and bakeries nearby that gave life to street life, neighbors stopping by for a coffee or a beer.

“Everyone who works at Demo or lives near it needs to go back and get their lives back,” he said. “But it’s not just a demo, it’s a whole neighborhood. For years I walked through Gemmayzeh every day. It’s not there now. I don’t know what it will look like. “

The von Fadlo Dagher family began building their light blue villa on the main street of Gemmayzeh in 1820. For him, the houses in the neighborhood – and throughout Beirut – represent the tolerant, diverse, and refined country that Lebanon should be.

“This is the image of openness,” he said, “the image of a cosmopolitan culture.”

The houses – generally wide, several stories tall apartments with red tile roofs and tall triple-arched windows overlooking the street leading to a central hall – appeared in Beirut in the mid-19th century after the city grew into a commercial hub was between Damascus, Syria and the Mediterranean.

The style mixed architectural ideas from Iran, Venice and Istanbul. While the walls of the new houses were made of Lebanese sandstone, their marble floors and pillars were imported from Italy, roof tiles from Marseille, France, and cedar wood from Turkey.

Despite war, neglect and high-rise fashion of the 20th century, many of the old houses in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael remained untouched until the explosion, which severely damaged around 360 buildings erected between 1860 and 1930.

Giving up, said Mr Dagher, would be throwing off one of the few common legacies of a continually broken country.

“I would like to imagine that what is happening here, this diversity, this mixed city, that it still exists, that it might flourish again,” he said. “Is mission impossible? I dont know. But OK call me a dreamer That’s how I want it to be. “

Habib Abdel Massih, his wife and son were in the little corner shop in Gemmayzeh when the neighborhood broke up and injured all three. He’s lived in the neighborhood all his life, watching it transform from a quiet residential area to a cultural destination.

“Suddenly everything changed,” he said. “Most of the people I used to know have left.”

He feared that the reconstruction would prove too expensive, that neither the original residents nor the newcomers would return.

A few weeks after the explosion, 55-year-old Abdel Massih was preparing to reopen his shop. A plaster cast covered his foot. He said he sold water and coffee. Otherwise not much.

Sursock is the name of the neighborhood up the hill from Gemmayzeh. It is also the name of the main street in the area, the museum on this street, the palace a few doors down and the family who live in this palace. All are now damaged.

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane grew up in the palace that was built by her ancestors in the mid-19th century. She spent decades protecting it – first from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (by staying there) and then from overdevelopment (by buying up neighboring properties). She was injured in the August 4th explosion while sitting on her patio with debris falling into a neat rim around her chair. She died on August 31 at the age of 98.

Her last look at the house showed this: roof partially collapsed; Ceiling frescoes more holes than plaster; Marble statues broken; Furniture from the Ottoman era splintered; antique tapestries torn; lavishly blown barred windows.

Her son and daughter-in-law Roderick and Mary Cochrane are rebuilding. You don’t know the price yet, only that it will be astronomical.

“You restore things because it’s part of history,” said Ms. Cochrane, an American. She was hospitalized after the explosion but recovered. “We care about future generations.”

Mr. Cochrane added, “Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh should remain a place for Lebanese, for small designers, small shops, small business owners. Without this there would be no Beirut. We would be a city like Dubai. “

In the immediate vicinity of the main street of Mar Mikhael – where laughter, clinking glasses and pounding car radios floated from the pubs to the balconies almost every evening – there are Butcher’s BBQ and nearby a cocktail bar, Tenno. The main street is dark and quiet now; Many houses remain uninhabitable.

But Tenno is open.

Bashir Wardini and his partners raised approximately $ 15,000 through GoFundMe. In mid-September they were able to dispel their doubts and reopen them to host a friend’s birthday drink. They hadn’t been sure the customers were ready to return. They weren’t sure they were ready either.

“A lot of us and our customers said, ‘No, you have to reopen, you have to move on because the road has to feel a kind of life again,” said Wardini.

Tenno looks back at each other, but the rest of the neighborhood feels wrong. Mr. Wardini still said he avoided going there unless he had to.

“It takes a few too many drinks to forget your surroundings,” he said.

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