On Beirut Souks and demolishing the city spirit

Two days ago I went to the newly opened Beirut Souks, Beirut’s new largest shopping area, which was rebuilt by Solidere according to the original grid plan and location of the old souks that were destructed during the civil war while maintaining the landmarks and street names.

To my disappointment, the new Beirut Souks look nothing similar to the image I have in my mind for the old Beirut, and I’m pretty sure the new image defies the memories that old people who knew the old souks have in their mind.

Souk El Tawili (yabeyrouth.com)

Souk El Tawileh (via yabeyrouth.com)

In my opinion Solidere did a horrible job at preserving our heritage there as the new souks no longer reflect the real identity of Beirut, in fact the new souks have no identity at all! Nothing inside that big mall makes you feel like you’re in Beirut except for the “decorative” street plates of course. Be the judge yourself by looking at the photos I took below, it can be Dubai, Paris, or whatever other city!

Add to that the fact that the old souks were a destination to almost all society classes prior to the civil, while right now Beirut Souks is another destination for the snobbish people in Lebanon, I really cannot imagine a low income individual being able to spend a day there. Once again, Solidere probably had the Arab tourists in mind when they designed this place! Just like what they did when they were rebuilding the other parts of the central district.

To me, the Hamra street is a much more authentic Beiruti street than the new Souks of Beirut, though it is full of new restaurants and outlet stores but it has at least maintained its spirit throughout the years.

Beirut souks Beirut souks 4 Beirut souks 1

Beirut souks 5

Beirut souks 6

Beirut souks 7

At the end, I will leave you with this comparative video between the old souks of Beirut and the new ones.

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32 Responses to On Beirut Souks and demolishing the city spirit

  1. Maya January 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! I totally agree with what you said. I rarely go to Downtown, and when I do, I feel like a tourist in my own country. The vid & pics confirm how I feel and I’m happy I’m not the only one. Hamra on the other hand, or Gemmayze, or Byblos or Jounieh, have kept their true identity over the years.

  2. Hatem January 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Rami, I’m still not sure why you’re against modern change
    you’re over-exaggerating the issue my good friend : )

  3. Rami January 12, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    @Hatem
    I am all with the evolving cities, but changing their identities is really bad!
    What if someone demolished the Eiffel Tower in Paris and replaced it by a much bigger and longer tower, do you think it’ll be the same??
    The same applied to the central district of Beirut.

  4. bethany January 12, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Well Said! I am in full agreement with you…it’s a shame that they were unable to retain the real feel and heritage of the old souks. Some people just have no vision or taste, no matter how much cash they throw. It makes me furious to know that this has happened and I wish there was a way to reverse it.

  5. Hatem January 12, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    If the Eiffel tower was completely destroyed by war, and was later replaced
    by a bigger,longer, nicer tower…sure, why not?
    Change is good, it shows progress

    • mercedes August 7, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

      hatem…you look very young to remember the old souks, they were amazing. they had a flavor that these new souks don’t have. the old cobblestones dating back to thousands of years and much more…what they have now is not progress, its so bland and boring and you can find it anywhere

  6. Na! January 12, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    exactly!
    I’m totally in favor of progress, evolution, change and modernity. But Beirut Souks??? The place looks like a Moroccan Alcatraz on LSD. When I went for the first time, I remembered what my grandfather used to tell me about the souks and I simply felt like a piece of History was amputated.

  7. Chantal January 12, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    Can’t agree more on what u wrote Rami! i went once & will never do it again!!
    why can’t they keep anth as simple as it is but renovated?!?!

    @ Hatem, we’re not against CHANGE, but they’re completely modifying the spirit :(

  8. Hatem January 12, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    :) it’s a healthy debate,
    i personally, don’t wish to live like how my grandfather lived
    and all this talk about “history amputation” “modifying the spirit” “retaining the real feel & heritage” is really not convincing me

  9. Rami January 12, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    @Hatem
    If it was the right thing to do, you would have seen the world cities being demolished and reconstructed every few years, just for the sake of renovation!
    I believe cities spirits must be maintained, they’re what give places their identities.
    That’s why I gave the example of Hamra street in the post, it has evolved and it looks really great now following the trends, but the most important is that it has maintained its spirit.

    • mercedes August 7, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

      bullseye rami!!! i am so impressed by u.

  10. Hatem January 12, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Embrace the future Rami, it’s faster than you think :)

  11. ZuZ January 12, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    Thank u Rami for this great read,

    Personally i would like to congratulate Solidere on this new/old accomplishment and hence reminding us that Beirut is no longer for the Lebanese and the Beiruti to be specific..

    As a young-adult Beiruti i can safely say i speak for the majority of the Lebanese when i say that we can no longer live in Beirut. Sure we are now living with our parents, but a couple of years down the road we will all be “homeless”. Continuously rising estate prices, and now Beirut Souks setting the new trend for consumer goods pricing.

    Dejavu:

    Citizen: How much does this water bottle cost sir
    Shop Owner: 10$
    Citizen: 10$ ?? shu bet2awes wala betresh may?
    Shop Owner: Expensive? go see TSC in Beirut Souks, they are selling it for 15$, what i am giving u is a real bargain!
    Citizen: K*!@#$%@#ssssss

  12. Lucy January 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    Nice post – I especially liked the video.

    I agree it’s nice to keep the atmosphere of the historical areas. I live in Bursa, in Turkey and I really like what they have done here: basically the old central shopping area has been renovated but little, keeping the old style. Then outside the centre they built some modern shopping areas, more like malls. That way there is both modern and historical side by side.

    The same thing that you wrote also happens here – the souk (here çarşı) is for everybody, whereas not everybody goes to the mall. The mall is very expensive too.

  13. Jihad January 12, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    well since i don’t remember how the souks where I cannot comment on that,
    but now that I think of it and after reading your article its very true that only snobbish people will go there or even buy something from there. and yes it really doesnt have an identity on its own. it was done in a very ‘manufactured’ kind of way.

    very article !! and thanks for sharing your thoughts !!
    Jihad
    http://www.twitter.com/jbeydoun

  14. Farah January 12, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Rami i really liked your post, it shows how things are going in Beirut as others said i don’t feel like i am in Beirut when i went there.
    The prove that it is not getting what it is expected since you don’t find so many people going there.
    The video is awsome !!
    thank you for this post.. hope the message gets to the right people.

  15. Thousand Reds January 12, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    I feel also bad that Lebanon is losing its french influence. Everywhere you would see pancartes written in Arabic and French. Now it’s all in English. Also to meet the taste and comprehension of our beloved tourists.
    But Again, we count on these tourists to help the country on the economic level… so its a vicious circle!

  16. JOBOX January 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    I like Soliders, as you said it is for rich people maybe but in the souk you can find some outlets for everyone, we are Lebanese and all Lebanon is us!
    NB: the old Souk in Lebanon was in chaosand so dirty !!! ( i was told that by my parents)

  17. a.m. January 13, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    @Chantal
    went once will never do it again too

  18. WorriedLebanese January 13, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    Good points. and healthy debate. pity it came 16 years late.
    I was quite shocked by the “Souk” when I visited it two weeks ago. I jotted a couple of thoughts down while walking around and didn’t get to publish them. I’ll do it today.

    By the way, the Souks were not destroyed by the war. They were severely hit in the 1980s following their rehabilitation (by Hariri’s Oger Liban). I remember walking in and around them in 1991 (or 1992) before Solidere bulldozered them.

  19. rolf January 14, 2010 at 3:36 am #

    Ah well, the old souks were destroyed, and were in 2010, so we build something 2010-ish.
    Its not bad, its all malls and stuff, like Dubai. Maybe they should have kept the feeling of the original souks, but I think trying to re-create something authentic that was destroyed wouldnt have resulted in something better then what you have today. Different, maybe, but not better, since it would also be fake.
    Just look at the rest of Downtown, and you will see what I mean. Or go to Germany, which was mostly rebuilt after WW2 in that spirit. Its not that great. What is gone is gone.
    Now if they were destroyed by solidere, then its another story, and that would be the real problem.

  20. rolf January 14, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    I just watched the video. They shouldnt have called it beirut souks.

  21. theFool January 15, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    Why such a morbid title?

    Beyrouth is blossoming in my opinion.

    ‘Nothing endures but change’ – Heraclitus

  22. Elie January 16, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    I totally disagree with you on this mate, the original souks were already wayyyy to damaged to be restored, they endured arson, explosions and bombings and were left to decay after the war. So technically they were not demolished by solidere, they were a hazard to keep, both to safety and financially. The souks are a major source of revenue for Solidere, so i dont blame them for setting up a venue for high-end labels. as for the architecture, it is a little monotonous and dull at some places, but in general i like the souks, i like the shops, the setting, the used materials…. In my modest opinion, the Beirut souks will help put beirut on the map, we need such a venue in the heart of Beirut (mall, souk.. call it whatever you like .. i like it). The upcoming additions to the souks (opening of the jewelers quarter, the cinemaplex and the mall will make it even more enjoyable.

    I took my parents to the souks, they both worked in the BCD in the 60-70’s, my mother worked at a tailoring house and my father was a shop keeper in the azarieh building, needless to say they did not recognize the souks, yet it left a positive impression in them…

    Oh, thank you for quoting from the Wikipedia stub i started on the souks, it warms my heart :D

  23. Posh January 16, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    theFool that’s a good one lol quoting Heraclitus.

    Rami true. I hated these souks. I felt transported into some future dimension of what Beirut or Downtown may look like 50 years from now. And it’s not an image I liked. I am glad there are other places all over Lebanon that are more real, more authentic, more unaffected, less refined… These places have changed, without a doubt. But this process of change, organic change, is visible in the material and physical makeup of these places and this is what conditions one’s sense of belonging to a place – when it’s on a human scale. The building from 2 centuries ago is probably a few meters away from the building from the 60s and in turn that is in proximity to a building from the 20s and so forth. But the souks: it’s wham bam! The natural sequence of change was dodged.

    So change is inevitable. But (with the exception of nature although cloud seeding exists) it is up to us as a collective whole to control what we want to change.

    I wonder if the vox populi, as evident here, would’ve been able to avert the artificial renovation of these souks. Was there any?

  24. Elie January 16, 2010 at 7:42 pm #

    @Hatem
    Well said!! and how do the Eiffel tower and the old dilapidated souks compare!!!

  25. Elie January 16, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    @JOBOX
    It was a mess, chaotic and dirty, both my parents corroborate this

  26. LaZaytouni January 28, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    I can’t believe they couldn’t even incorporate the traditional Lebanese arches that are essential to the souks into the architecture!

    ~LaZaytouni

    betlz.blogspot.com

  27. Fadi Majdalani May 26, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Excuse me and forgive me if i say that Beirut for now is the city of dead spirit of the region
    trying to make it a stage for art events is never a solution,
    City downtown means people and humanity, not walking robots

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    [...] espera su renovación o demolición antes de tres años. Demasiada tensión y personalidad para el aséptico souk diseñado por Solidere en sustitución del tradicional mercado beirutí. “Cuando mis padres [...]

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