BEIRUT: This year’s Horsh Beirut Festival attracted visitors with a program whose attractions ranged from Palestinian bagpipes and oriental pop music to Lebanese storytelling and circus shows. But the festival, organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, also provided room for NGOs that had built stands between the trees. These organizations focused on a variety of social issues such as raising awareness for the environment, advocating for public spaces and combatting sexual violence and racism.
Greenpeace Mediterranean organized a workshop on plastic reduction, while the Waste Management Coalition promoted environmental issues through activities such as face painting and a movie screenings.
Horsh Beirut, which was destroyed in the 1975-90 Civil War, was rebuilt but remained closed to the public until 2015. It finally reopened as a result of a yearslong campaign by the organization Nahnoo, whose name translates to “Us.”
Founded in 2003 as a student club at the Lebanese University and officially registered as an NGO in 2009, Nahnoo campaigns to keep public spaces across Lebanon clean and accessible.
One of Nahnoo’s current one-year projects targets the Al-Tariq al-Jadideh neighborhood. The NGO seeks to preserve its cultural heritage, create and enhance public spaces and link the area to Horsh Beirut.
Although Horsh Beirut is across the street, Al-Tariq al-Jadideh’s residents must walk two kilometers to access the park’s gate. In 2016, Nahnoo created a green path on Mekkawi Street linking Horsh Beirut to Al-Tariq al-Jadideh, adding trees and benches which, according to the organization’s website, were later confiscated by the capital’s municipality.
Rouba Wehbe, a researcher at Nahnoo, studies how the residents of Al-Tariq al-Jadideh construct their public spaces in organic ways. The research she is conducting for Nahnoo’s project on Al-Tariq al-Jadideh will be published this August, but Wehbe discussed some of her findings in an interview with The Daily Star during the festival.
According to Wehbe, the Lebanese use and construct their public spaces differently than one might observe in other regions, such as Europe. She sees the Civil War as a primary reason for ongoing sectarian tensions in Lebanon preventing “civil contact” between different groups – public spaces in the country do not encourage or facilitate interaction among various communities.
She highlights the complexity of the effects of Lebanon’s history on its public spaces, pointing to the differences in Beirut before and after the war. “Looking at the medina, the traditional city, we see that the public space was used differently,” Wehbe said. “The traditional souk was mainly a place to gather, to talk.” While this might still be the case in some souks, Beirut’s modern malls are constructed to satisfy different needs.
Wehbe said around 85 percent of the spontaneously used public space in Al-Tariq al-Jadideh is the sidewalk, which is used as a continuation of the stores on the street, as well as spots to smoke nargileh and to park motorbikes.
“Inhabitants hang flags, and the sidewalk is what you see when you enter an area and when you take pictures of it.”
During the two-day Horsh Beirut Festival, the spaces were occupied by visitors who sat on the grass, danced between the trees and walked along the paths. Children played with flowers and sticks they found as adults also enjoyed the green space.
While these activists hope to establish more equitable social living conditions though raising awareness of public spaces, other NGOs brought social issues typically confined to private spheres to the public’s attention.
Members of gender equality advocacy group Abaad informed visitors about the discrimination of marginalized groups through activities that included an interactive installation on gender-based violence.
Lebanese NGO Kafa – “enough” – screened short films that focused on violence against women and child marriages.
The organization, founded in 2005 with offices Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, provides support for victims of sexual violence and conducts workshops to raise awareness on the issue.
“The [Lebanese] law doesn’t stand with women. For instance, marital rape still does not exist [in the law],” said Zeina al-Masry, an intern with Kafa.
However, she added that Kafa has contributed to some reforms, such as the successful campaign to abolish the law that allowed men to escape legal charges for rape if they married their victim.
The two-day festival offered these organizations and others a valuable opportunity to discuss their causes with the visitors.
“This is why we need public spaces,” Wehbe said, highlighting the importance of communal areas as a place to discuss and address local issues.