The muzzein’s call to prayer from the loudspeakers of distant mosques is the only thing that breaks the silence in Beirut’s only sizable green space in this drab, concrete city. It’s an unseasonably warm Sunday in January, yet the paths winding through the fields and pine trees of the 75-acre Horsh Beirut are nearly abandoned. A few soldiers resting with their automatic rifles leaning up against their legs and a handful of elderly men in tracksuits walking for exercise are the only others here.
This is because the only real green space in Beirut is, in effect, closed to the public.
The guards at the gate turn a blind eye to foreigners (like myself) who can pass themselves off as tourists. Local visitors, on the other hand, must be over 35 years old and apply for a difficult-to-obtain pass from the municipality to enter the park – or, as things go in Lebanon, be well-connected and powerful.
For many in Beirut, the restrictive entrance policy has erased the park from memory.
“We didn’t know that Horsh Beirut existed,” says Mohammad Ayoub, the head of Nahnoo, an NGO that has been lobbying for public space in Beirut since 2005. “And then we were Googling and we found this huge area.”
The park, which accounts for 72 percent of all green space in Beirut, started off as a pine forest planted by Emir Fakhr al-Din II in the 17th century. Over the years, the forest shrunk as the city grew, and what was left was turned into a park in modern times. But during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon during the country’s 15-year-long civil war, the park was heavily damaged, with many of its trees burned and destroyed.
Following the war, as Beirut tried to pull itself back together, a plan was made to restore the park and reopen it. But rather than move fully grown trees into the park, saplings were planted. The municipality argued that these could easily be damaged if the public was allowed in, so much of the park was shuttered. That was over two decades ago.
Today, a small amount of space on the edge of the park remains open, though it’s separated from the lush interior by fences. Here, hard-top playgrounds, soccer fields and tennis courts are often packed with visitors.
A more sensitive issue behind the park’s closing is its precarious location directly between Sunni, Shia and Christian neighborhoods known as flashpoints for sectarian conflict.
“You avoid conflict or you decide to deal with it,” says Ayoub, who began pushing for the park to be opened shortly after he discovered it. “We want to push the government to deal with it.”
When Ayoub began lobbying the municipality to open the park, he saw little cooperation, so he moved to more confrontational tactics. “We found that it’s not owned by the municipality. It’s a public space, which means that closing the area is illegal.”
A view of Horsh Beirut through the fence that keeps the public out.
Across the city, members of Nahnoo (which means “we”) stenciled, “We and Horsh Beirut are neighbors,” a play on the line, “We and the moon are neighbors” from a song by Fairuz, Lebanon’s most respected bard.
On another occasion, Nahnoo called on its supporters to hold a picnic in the closed park. When the picnickers gathered outside the gate, the guards asked Ayoub if they had permission to enter. He assured the guards they did, and suggested they be allowed inside while he ran to his car to retrieve the nonexistent paperwork. By the time the guards figured out the ploy, it was too late. For one day, the park was open.
After years of pestering the city government and building up grass-roots support for the park to be opened, the municipality has finally promised to grant the public access to the space later this year.
“I’m 90 percent optimistic that they will open it this time,” says Ayoub.
But even if Horsh Beirut opens to the public, there is still the challenge of creating additional green and public space in this cramped city where the higher estimates say there is only 0.8 square meters of green space per person. Activists say green space, beyond being aesthetically pleasing, is necessary to improve the public health of the city and could help tackle some of Beirut’s longstanding social problems.
“We discovered that all the problems, all the violence, all the conflict in Beirut – the reason for it is that we have no public life in Beirut,” says Ayoub. “Lebanon used to be called the Green Lebanon, and now in Beirut, its capital, there are no green spaces.”
In recent years, a number of civil society actors have proposed solutions to the green-space issue. Some seem overambitious and unimplementable due to their cost and breadth in this city where few projects that benefit the public ever get off the ground. One, for instance, called for the roofs of buildings across the city to be turned into gardens. Another called for the city’s shallow, sludge-like river to be transformed into a botanical paradise.
But there are other, more modest ideas that have a better chance of leaving the drawing board. Ayoub estimates that Beirut could create six or seven more sizable green spaces on unused land owned by the city. The city’s train stations, for example, have been abandoned since the civil war destroyed the country’s rail network. With no plans in motion to revive the rail system, its infrastructure is simply taking up space.
Turning such spaces into parks, of course, would require the cooperation of the government, which hasn’t displayed any interest in public space in a very long time.
“Green spaces have never been planned, except during Ottoman times,” said Fadi Shayya, a Lebanese urban planner who wrote a book about Horsh Beirut. “Here people think that public space is more of an entertainment thing. They don’t look at it as part of daily life, so there is a cultural difference in using public space.”
In the meantime, some groups are looking to work with what Beirut already has. Beirut Green Project, an initiative founded last year, is trying to promote the small, sometimes hard-to-find public gardens that dot Beirut while thinking of other ways to green the city. Earlier this year they released an interactive map of the city’s green spots. And in the past, Nahnoo has moved grass into squares for a day, creating small, temporary parks for people to enjoy.
“Public space provides you with a space to meet and talk, discuss – it’s the first place for democracy, it helps you make social cohesion,” says Ayoub. “It’s like the salon of the house… Imagine you don’t have a salon, just your private rooms.”