Beirut’s Dalieh: A Temporal Space of Refuge

two women
Photo by Haya Mortada.

Written by Nora B. Nora is a graduate student of Anthropology at the American University of Beirut. You can follow her on Twitter @nora_amb

Under the overwhelmingly busy sights and sounds of Ras Beirut lies the quiet plain of Dalieh, just under the walkway of Raouche, overlooking the ocean and the Pigeon Rock. In the context of the rapid shrinkage of public spaces in Beirut and the increasing demand for shoreline real estate, Dalieh remains as one of the few natural places that the public can access – for now.

Since 2014, numerous events have pointed to a possible takeover of Dalieh by real estate development: the eviction of fishermen’s stalls and restaurants, the placement of accropodes (large concrete structured designed to be placed in the ocean to block the action of waves) on its land, the conduction of impact studies in the area for potential real estate projects, the changing building and zoning regulations that have made it possible to build on most of Dalieh, and a suspicious process of concentrated privatization of the area by two companies owned by the same high-profile politician. Campaigns such as The Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche fight to preserve Dalieh, and envision it as a space to be enjoyed by all. The campaign narrates the richness of Dalieh: its special heritage, unique flora, and its economic resources that have historically sustained the livelihoods of Beirut’s fishermen.

feature image
Photo by Haya Mortada

However, as a student of anthropology, I was interested in the ways in which this space is being used today and what population it serves. I had the chance to do some ethnographic fieldwork there as part of my coursework with classmates, in which we produced a mini-ethnography by way of conducting fieldwork, participant observation, and interviews. We found that if Dalieh is lost, then not only would that mean an economic loss for the fishermen who depend on it, or an ecological loss because of its unique flora, or simply a loss of public space. It would also be the loss of a space of refuge.

One thing that emerged very clearly and quickly over my several visits to the area (on weekends, weekdays, evenings, and mornings) was that there weren’t many Lebanese people that went to Dalieh. Most of the people we interacted with, heard, or observed were Syrians, Palestinians, Kurds, South Asian or Southeast Asian. There were children selling roses, couples of all ages, families including very old and very young people, men swimming and fishing. We observed many people sitting alone, smoking arguileh, or simply contemplating while listening to the sounds of the ocean as they crashed into the rocks of Dalieh. Azad*, a 21 year old Kurdish man from Syria that I interviewed, said “I usually come with friends for taghyeer jaw (to change one’s surroundings/atmosphere), but sometimes I come alone especially when I’m feeling down. I love to sing. Yes, I sing in Dalieh!”

Fisherman in Dalieh. Photo by Haya Mortada.

Dalieh is a space of refuge for many of these people who are members of marginalized communities in Lebanon. It is a place where one does not need to spend money, be exposed to the countless election posters they cannot participate in, adhere to opening and closing hours, or be subjected to security apparatus. But at the same time, this same lack of municipal presence or management also means that it is a place with no public bathrooms, no trashcans, and no benches.

There are reminders everywhere of the dual nature of Dalieh as a place that could disappear at any given moment, but also as a space of refuge. I especially felt it as I walked through the collection of accropodes. I wrote in my fieldnotes:

Before I knew that these concrete structures were designed to block waves once placed in the ocean, they looked absurd and surreal to me. It was not clear what their purpose was and why they were sitting on land in Dalieh, although I suspect they may be there to prepare for future construction and there are plans to place them in the ocean soon. From the way they were stacked, it seemed like people liked to go in between the accropodes to have some privacy; or perhaps children liked to play hide and seek between them. When we got near them, the smell was foul, maybe of human urine (it is important to note that there are no bathrooms in Dalieh). There was a lot of trash there, between the accropodes: plastic bottles, paper coffee cups, plastic plates, candy wrappers, shoes, plastic bags filled with similar items, and the odd alcohol bottle. Many accropodes had amateur graffiti or scribbles on them, mostly people writing their names or initials (couples or friends) such as “Nagham + Omar,” in Arabic or Latin script. There was the odd line of romantic poetry in Arabic script, a scribble of a emoji-looking face, or political statement (such as “tala’at reehatkon!” in Arabic script). We spotted a man, woman, and a small baby nestled in between the accropodes, sitting on the ground. It seemed that the woman was breastfeeding her baby and went between the accropodes for some privacy.

The accropodes in Dalieh. Photo by Haya Mortada.

Mona El Hallak, Director of the AUB Neighborhood Initiative, tells me there is an anxiety amongst Dalieh’s users that it is only a matter of time before it gets taken over by real estate projects, just like Downtown Beirut was; although they have become more hopeful after the campaign. She stresses that a community effort is needed to preserve it: “activists still hope that they will be able to stop any project on Dalieh, no matter how powerful the developers are, as it is really the last hope for a natural open public park in Beirut,” she tells me. “But we need the people with us: People should stand up for their right to free access to the sea.”

Her words made me recall how the people of Turkey came together to protect Gezi Park, one of the last remaining public spaces in Istanbul, from demolition in 2013. Like Beirut, Istanbul is a city in which privatization has been encroaching slowly over the few remaining public spaces; and the announcements that the Gezi Park was to be demolished was the last straw for the Turkish people — inspiring protests of 2 million people across Turkey.

In “The Work of a Few Trees: Gezi, Politics and Space,” Sinan Erensü and Ozan Karaman explore how the fight to preserve Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 created a new kind of political consciousness and spirit. The park became the cause as well as the stage for expressing diverse and general objections against the government, and a space for imagining different political futures. After the protests, the “Gezi spirit” continues to be talked about in Turkey today. The plan to demolish Gezi rendered visible the neoliberal urban transformation agenda in a highly concentrated manner, and the protests also literally put a temporary halt to the machinery of the AKP party. In this way, Gezi Park opened space not just physically, but also politically and conceptually; creating this “Gezi spirit.”

In Istanbul, activists and protestors succeeded in halting the demolition of the park.

But what will happen if Dalieh is eventually faced with a similar scenario? Who are the people who can protect it, when most of its users are from marginalized groups who cannot vote or risk being visible by protesting? Can we imagine mobilizing many bodies, like at the Gezi Park protests, to occupy the territory and ward off construction; or even use it to open up a certain kind of political and conceptual space when most of the people it means something to are not Lebanese? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if this kind of solidarity between so many different groups can be cultivated in order to save Dalieh, not to mention a variety of other problems in Lebanon. Dalieh could be lost forever, and along with it the space of refuge it provided to the many who don’t have the means to protect it.

When asked about what he knows about the status of Dalieh, Azad said he heard some things about a possible construction that was going to happen, and that the land was being sold in preparation for that. He also heard about campaigns to save it. He was against the construction plans, and described it as a relaxing place that the poor and disadvantaged can enjoy without money. “But I don’t feel like I can really make any demands. I’m not a Lebanese citizen. I don’t feel that it’s my fight.”

*names have been changed.

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