October 30, 2006

Beirut is Mushrooming

When I first moved to Beirut, the garbage wouldn’t get picked up for weeks on end. You might think that would result in huge piles of garbage on the sidewalks, but somehow, that didn’t happen. That was because in those days (1990), Beirut was a city with high-rise buildings, separated by stretches of waste land. So in the middle of Beirut you’d have these blocks of green jungle (well, not in summer) where squatters would have set up a couple of shacks and such. Street dogs would gather there in the evenings. And garbage would be dumped there.
You could also park your car there. Wildlife was still abundant in these waste lands. I had a very crummy car in those days, and one morning, as I got in, a snake had decided to sleep on the seat next to me.
It gave Beirut a rather ‘village like’ atmosphere.

'An ode to the garbage man'.
I do not know who painted this picture on a wall in downtown Beirut, but it seems like an (well-deserved, in my opinion) ode to our 'Sokleen' guys. These are the garbage man (in the well-known green & red uniforms) that sweep Beirut's streets and empty the bins.

The first sign of change came when the government decided to get rid of the street dogs. They’d do this at night. You’d hear a shot, and then horrific yelping going though marrow and bone. And that was the end of the street dogs. We still have a few, but not nearly as many as in the early nineties.

The second change came when all these wastelands were turned into parking lots. There was a law for that one too. So wastelands and dilapidated buildings were bulldozered flat and fitted with a nice layer of tarmac. Now we had an abundance of parking lots. This created work for the so-called parking lot attendants, who’d charge you 1,000 for a spot. This has gone up to 1,500 (a dollar) these days, still not much, although some idiots downtown give you the impression they are going legal, and charge you sales tax, so you pay 1,750. (1,500 + 150 would add up to 1,650, so they steal you of 100 pounds every time you park).

And the third change was the building boom. The past two years, Beirut is mushrooming. Everybody keeps telling me the economy is in a slum, the national debt is over 40 billion dollars, and nobody is making any money anymore, but they sure as hell are building like mad. Little by little, I notice that all the familiar wastelands and parking lots around me are slowly clogging up. The famous French Club, with its pine trees, is a building site. And areas that I hadn’t noticed for years because of their inactivity or suddenly tac-tac-tac-tac-tac-taccing with pick hammers and bulldozers and dump trucks. The Israeli bombardments only momentarily halted the process.

Three building sites visible from my kitchen window only!

Beirut is mushrooming. It is becoming a vast boomtown. In my block alone (!) there are three new buildings being put up. Three! A fourth one was completed just this summer, and there is still space for another one.

Slowly but surely this city is becoming like any other metropolis. The charm of the spaces in between, the little waste lands, is slowly disappearing. Before you know it, we live in a ‘real’ city, and no longer in a village.

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