BEIRUT: For over two decades Abu Ali was a familiar sight in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood, where every morning he would sell kaak, the traditional purse-shaped bread, from his cart on the side of the street.
When his cart was impounded and destroyed by the authorities last week, the 63-year-old didn’t know what else to do but return to the same spot. As authorities across the city crack down on illegal street sellers and shops, Abu Ali now spends his mornings smoking and drinking bitter coffee, without the cart with which he earned his crust and sustained his livelihood for decades.
According to Abu Ali, whose full name is Mohammad Ali Jawad, officers of the Internal Security Forces arrived at his habitual spot last Wednesday night, destroyed his cart, wrote up a report and drove off with the wreckage.
A security source with knowledge of the matter told The Daily Star that the cart had been confiscated during a patrol by officers from the Mina al-Hosn station, and that the cart had been confiscated because its owner did not have a license to operate from the Governor.
Abu Ali admits to not having had a license to operate and hasn’t had one in the decades he has been selling.
The security source said it was not ISF policy to provide warning to unlicensed vendors before impounding their carts, but suggested if he got a license there would be nothing stopping Abu Ali from once again supplying Hamra’s residents with their favorite sesame flavored bread.
The source said that he had no knowledge of the vendor’s cart having been destroyed, saying there are “no rules” regarding what ISF officers should do with carts when they are impounded.
While the source said the patrol that confiscated Abu Ali’s cart was “routine,” various agencies across the city are overseeing a crackdown on illegal shops and kiosks.
New Interior Minister Raya El Hassan vowed earlier this month to oversee the strict implementation of various laws, including traffic and domestic violence, among others.
According to a ministry spokesperson, last week Hassan set her sights on kiosks operating without license that sell alcohol and drugs to young people, which will come into effect in the near future.
Meanwhile, within 24 hours of Abu Ali having had his cart confiscated, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib targeted another establishment that had been operating for decades without a license. The row of shops between Beirut Port and Forum de Beyrouth in Karantina has been there since 1977, according to shopkeepers. Last Tuesday, they found their businesses had been closed and they had been ordered to move their shop fronts, which infringed on public land, approximately between 2 and 5 meters.
Aziza Geagea, who runs a plant nursery on the block, complained of having had little warning. “All of a sudden the places were all shut down ... Is [the state] finding alternatives for these people? Here there are 150 families and they are thrown into the streets,” she told The Daily Star. “We are all for the state getting its rights, but not in this reckless manner.”
Chebib rejected the notion that the Karantina shopkeepers had not been given sufficient warning, telling The Daily Star that warnings had been given months ago. “Some cooperated while others thought we would be pressured or not follow through on the decision,” he said.
“This will continue for all other businesses that are violating public property around the city. Of course, I will wait for a while [before closing shops down after giving warnings] because I don’t want to cut off these families’ means of living, but this has to stop.”
Back in Hamra, the decision by the authorities to crack down on a member of the Hamra community who is both well-liked and vulnerable - Abu Ali says he is struggling to pay his $400 rent and support his wife, son, and daughter in law - spurred the local community into action.
Ghina Abdo would often buy from Abu Ali on her way into work at an international NGO.
A post she shared on Facebook detailing Abo Ali’s story has been shared 1,700 times, and she has raised several hundred dollars for Abu Ali at her workplace.
Others are also doing what they can. As The Daily Star talked with Abu Ali, a street cleaner paused as he swept the street beneath the vendor’s feet to give him a LL1,000 ($.66) note, while some anonymous well-wishers have offered to take care of the paperwork to procure a license.
With the funds raised by the community, he should be able to afford the $400 for a new cart, which he desperately needs: “All my life I’ve been working on the streets,” Abu Ali said. “I don’t know anything else.” - Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush