There isn’t much of a pedestrian culture in this city. Between the absence of sidewalks, cars blocking what few sidewalks exist, and a variety of traffic violations, it’s not always easy to walk through this urban obstacle course. Running counter to this reality are several walking tours on offer that guide tourists and locals alike around cultural sites, monuments, and a selection of scenic streets. It’s surprising how much you miss when you’re inside a car: Walking through Beirut is an eye-opening experience. One new tour has a distinctive approach, going off the beaten, touristy path to zoom in on the capital’s urban landscape, which isn’t always beautiful, and has been shaped by historical shifts and riddled with political intrigue.
Launched late last year, these walks are guided by Jana Nakhal, an urban designer expert, and activist. The free tours are held one Saturday a month and are given in Arabic—though Nakhal is willing to do tours in English and French for large groups upon request—as part of the artistic and cultural space Nadi Al Rowwad, which closed down during the civil war but has recently been revived to support alternative works of art and culture.
From the tour’s starting point in front of Downtown’s layers of archeological ruins, Nakhal takes us through historical and contemporary Beirut, telling stories about what it used to look like, who has lived here, and how the face and dynamics of the metropolis have changed. She relates historical accounts about the Romans, the Ottomans, and the French, which are widely documented in textbooks.
Like many of its Mediterranean counterparts, Beirut was once surrounded by a wall with several gates, one of which might sound familiar: Bab Idriss, now the name of a glitzy area close to the modern day Beirut Souks mall. That mall is named after a more humble marketplace that used to be surrounded by residential buildings according to Nakhal—quite different from today’s upscale real estate developments. In fact, she says the French colonial style currently prevalent in Downtown is only one of the many architectural varieties formerly found in Beirut. As we stroll past the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque and through Saifi Village, she points out some misleading heritage facades of restored buildings—like arcades added to the side of a building simply because the side now is facing a major street—and discusses other absurdities in the city, like the irony of naming the prim and polished seaside Zaitunay Bay project after what was once the city’s notorious red light district.
Next, on to Bachoura—which lies just west of the former demarcation line and is now home to the contemporary Beirut Digital District that hosts the city’s entrepreneurs and techies—where our tour becomes increasingly political. Nakhal points to empty, crumbling buildings that just a few years ago still housed residents, and talks of controversial, long-forgotten, or erased details about Solidere’s post-war development in Downtown. Many of her stories aren’t in textbooks: Schools do not teach Lebanese history beyond 1948, and there is no official account of the 15-year civil war, which had glaring effects on the city’s architecture and people. Some of her sources are residents of Bachoura, many of them refugees from south Lebanon who were displaced during the conflict. She says there are likely plans for more elite projects in the area: two shopping malls—according to rumor.
We walk further, into Khandaq al-Ghamiq, which resembles the Bachoura of a few years ago—run-down but still populated—and arrive at Beirut’s famous antique furniture district, Basta. Eventually the group piles into shared service-taxis and heads across town to Jisr al-Wati’s Souk el-Ahad, a weekend flea market that has been operating for close to 30 years. Inside the bustling, partly tented lot situated near a highway, visitors can discover various antiques and find bargain clothes, electronics, and more. It is there that the tour comes to an end, as we stand in the shadows of the massive, new, mostly empty residential towers mushrooming in the area—dubbed “Soho Beirut”—and listen to how Souk el-Ahad is, allegedly, at an increasing risk of getting shut down as the area is developed.
There’s little doubt most local developers are catering to the wealthy, driving poorer residents and their enterprises out of the city center and bulldozing its architectural heritage. More and more, Beirut residents can no longer afford the high costs of the city and are pushed further away from the center, as even the ever-expanding Greater Beirut area becomes increasingly expensive.
Nakhal criticizes controversial practices and urban-planning violations, and offers alternatives for preserving a city’s cultural heritage. For example, she believes that true preservation is renovating and restoring heritage buildings, not patting oneself on the back for letting age take the place of a wrecking ball. (A long-awaited draft law to protect heritage buildings may soon offer more incentive to preserving them—see story).
Whether you label it gentrification or justify it as the natural evolution of the market, the face of Beirut has changed, and continues to do so. Our guide presents a city that, throughout history, has been continuously pounded, resettled, and rebuilt—but this isn’t unique to Beirut. Cities evolve, but they also deserve to have their pasts remembered and preserved in a way that allows for evolution. There’s a clichéd phrase about Beirut having been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. In the face of this latest wave of reconstruction, the last remains of old Beirut merit a voice. Whether you agree on the preservation of the actual buildings, preserving their tales is arguably essential in order to reduce Lebanon’s collective amnesia about its own recent history. Rooted in hard facts, urban myths, or widely accepted anecdotes, these narratives make up the fabric of our history and culture. It’s fascinating to hear such a wealth of surprising, controversial, and little-heard accounts, especially for Beirut residents who drive through these streets daily. What has happened in Lebanon since the civil war has been largely ignored, oppressed, or denied—and risks being forgotten forever. Beirut’s stories need to be told, and this tour is giving them a rare voice.