In Lebanon, sterile shopping malls show the growing gulf between rich and poor

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In Lebanon, sterile shopping malls show the growing gulf between rich and poor
The Beirut souks were once a place where the scent of rare spices filled the air. Today, all you can smell in are cleaning detergents and what you hear is ambient music.’ // Photograph © Mattia Sobieski/Alamy

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In Lebanon, sterile shopping malls show the growing gulf between rich and poor
The Beirut souks were once a place where the scent of rare spices filled the air. Today, all you can smell in are cleaning detergents and what you hear is ambient music.’ // Photograph © Mattia Sobieski/Alamy

The destruction of cities in Syria and the terrorising of populations in Iraq are rightly the focus of the world’s attention. In this context it might seem churlish to draw attention to the problems of another city in the Middle East, not currently in the midst of conflict. But the “soft” destruction of Beirut is something that many of its citizens – who have seen their fair share of war – are watching with horror. In short, the greed of Lebanon’s politicians and real estate developers is slowly but surely decomposing the city’s social fabric. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is now wider than ever.

To understand the nature of real estate development in Beirut, one needs simply visit the new city centre, which was rebuilt after the civil war (1975-90) by a company called Solidere. The new centre boasts expensively restored French-era buildings which, apart from some shops and offices, remain eerily empty. “A movie set”, to quote a Canadian film professor. As for the newly refurbished Beirut souks, they were once a place where merchants haggled and the scent of rare spices filled the air. Today, all you can smell in this open-air shopping mall are cleaning detergents, and what you hear is ambient music. Hardly a word of Arabic can be seen – even emergency signs are in English. “This could well be Heathrow airport,” noted one British visitor.

The most unsettling thing about the city centre, though, is its “exclusive” aspect. Although its shops are not necessarily aimed at wealthy visitors (as is often claimed), it is a good Lebanese example of what some have called “hostile architecture”. ….

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