Journalist Annia Ciezadlo explains why the city's balconies and rooftop gardens must be preserved
Food writer Annia Ciezadlo has made a career of eating in some of the most dangerous places in the world. As a foreign correspondent, she's explored the cuisines of Iraq and Lebanon, capturing them in her memoir Day of Honey.
Ciezadlo moved to Beirut with her husband soon after September 11, 2001. She left six years later, though she returns regularly for work. Over the last fifty years, says says, the city's population has grown rapidly. "The story of Lebanon is people moving form the hinterlands into Beirut," Ciazadlo says. "And when people migrated, they tried to keep their traditions."
Here, she recounts, in her own words, how the city is changing.
I first moved to Beirut in 2003, when Hamra [in Western Beirut] was this sleepy has-been neighborhood. It has since become extremely trendy. When we first told the realtor where we wanted to live, he reacted with absolute horror ... [at that time] the first generation of foreign correspondents were moving here. They all moved to east Beirut at first because that’s where you could get sushi and pilates classes and stuff like that.
Beirut has been really stagnant for a very, very long time. The government doesn’t really do stuff like provide water and electricity. There's no mass transit – a lot of people spend a lot of time sitting in traffic. And there's a lot of over-investment in the real estate sector. Old Mediterranean buildings are being really, really quickly destroyed in favor of a much more sort of Gulf-style, bland, generic architecture. Balconies and gardens and things like that are being destroyed and nothing is being put in its place. Neighbors can't wave at neighbors. Actual neighborhoods are becoming more of a rarity.
A lot of people hide their money by buildings. But the real problem is that the government refuses to do anything about it. The city’s being pretty much destroyed because the government is refusing to say 'we need some intelligent urban planning.' Beirut is like a wasteland of failed urban planning schemes.
There’s not any green space in Beirut and what little space there is is blocked off to the public. What people do instead is create these sort of mini-gardens on their balconies or their roofs. You sort of have this nice tradition of the balcony being the place where people could have tea and wave to each other.
That was their safe spot to watch during the civil war ... As soon as the gunfire stopped, people would come out on their balcony. You still see people doing this really lovely thing where they put a basket on their low rope, if there’s a guy selling something, you lower the thing down with some money, pull it back. It’s really cool.
Every neighborhood in Beirut has a guy who makes foul and hummus. Sometimes he makes omelettes. He makes this kind of breakfast porridge of beans. It is the best breakfast in the world. I have a couple of places in my neighborhood that I go to for that.
The neighborhood that still has mystery for me is Beirut's old Jewish neighborhood. It’s still one of my favorite parts of Beirut. You really feel this sense of history even though it’s being destroyed. There’s a handful of other neighborhoods like that. I've thought a lot about why this is. I think the really tight social fabric creates this really cool neighborhood.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.