Friday, December 18, 1998
BEIRUT'S SEA FRONT
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Last June, I visited the Sanayeh public park to relive old memories. It was early on a weekday, and the place was serene, with multitudes of birds chattering in the huge trees. But I could imagine how crowded the place must get on the weekends.
Beirut has always had a shortage of public parks, and the few that exist were established long before the war; in the case of Sanayeh, long before independence. With its dense population and concrete jungle, Beirut has one of the worst ratios of square meters of park per capita in the world.
The prewar governments failed to set aside enough parks before land became too expensive. Fast-disappearing empty lots double as football "fields" for many children while those who have the privilege use the American University of Beirut campus as a de-facto park. The Corniche around the west tip of Beirut has essentially become one long, linear park where people have a (mostly) unobstructed view of the sea and clean air blowing in from the west, still uncontaminated by the pollution inland.
Fortunately, the government had the foresight to ban construction below the Corniche. There were a few exceptions where existing buildings expanded illegally, such as the former Nasr Restaurant (now Friday's), and the infamous Merryland (now the unfinished Meridian) which was approved during a wartime era of corruption, destroying a large chunk of the coast and Stone Age sites. Still, most of the land remains unbuilt. Near the famous Rawcheh Rocks is a large tongue of land sloping down and away from the Corniche; it is the western-most tip of Beirut's peninsula.
During the war, this area was hidden from view by the temporary shops that lined the sidewalk all along the Corniche (Souk el-Rawcheh). This allowed drug and arms running and other illegal activities to fester for many years. After the area was cleaned up, it became a de-facto park. People swim in the sea, and there are a couple of rustic ports and swimming establishments. However, there is very little control. Cars were, and still are, allowed to drive on any flat surface. What was once a green area with a couple of agricultural fields has become a barren area with eroding soil. Litter is everywhere; it covers the flat areas and spills down the cliffs which occasionally have to be cleaned up by dedicated rock climbers using ropes.
This area has the potential to become a world-class park. There are still extensive pockets on steeper terrain where the vegetation holds on. In the spring, yellow Crown Daisy ("baisoum") bushes create blankets of yellow flowers. Hollyhocks ("khatmieh") create a mosaic of shades of purple and white. "Matthiola crassifolia" (thick-leaved stock), endemic to Lebanon, cling to the steep cliffs, dappling them with white and purple flowers. On the north side, cliffs drop straight down to the sea and provide different views of the Rawcheh Rocks (Photo B-1, Photo B-3). On the west side, tongues of water and rock alternate in interesting formations. Underneath, the sea extends under the land in a pair of tunnel-like caves; a third, larger cave near the Sporting Club extends underneath the Corniche itself and used to provide shelter for Mediterranean Monk seals.
This area needs a plan to create a new outlet for the people of Ras Beirut as well as to preserve its rare vegetation and rock formations. Cars should be banned and the road going down from the Corniche needs to be closed. Most of the area needs to be revegetated with native plants (only). Trails with interpretive signs about the area would wind through the area. Benches would be placed to provide a place to relax and admire the view.
The Ministry of the Environment's web site has a listing of potential nature preserves. The Rawcheh Rocks is one of them. There are no details, but I hope the intention is to protect not just the two islands, but also the unbuilt area surrounding them.
Last but not least, it has become difficult to get an unobstructed view of the Rawcheh Rocks from the traditional angle from the promenade. This is due to the proliferation of cafes below the sidewalk. The government needs to assure that people can admire this view without having to become restaurant customers, if they so choose.
Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at http://members.aol.com/fdadlion/