For most Westerners, the words “downtown Beirut” conjure up two distinct images: a farrago of bullet-scarred buildings, car bombs and machine-gun-toting militiamen, and a glitzy, picturesque pedestrian mall. Nobody remembers Wadi Abu Jamil, the old Jewish quarter of downtown Beirut, a warren of winding alleys, antique Ottoman and French Mandate houses, and a lonely crumbling synagogue. By the mid-1990s, it was home to everything the Lebanese government would rather forget. Most of those who lived there were Shiites from the south of Lebanon, routed from their homes by the Israeli occupation and shunted into the neglected neighborhood by a city that didn’t want them.
But somebody wanted Wadi Abu Jamil. Solidere, the private company that had the contract to rebuild the city center, was determined to raze the old downtown by any means necessary. So when the Ayad family refused to leave their home in February 1996, Solidere dispatched a crew of Syrian and Egyptian guest workers to begin tearing down the four-story building–with the family still inside. As the laborers began to dismantle the building, not surprisingly it collapsed. Seven workmen and six of the Ayads, including a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old baby, were crushed to death by the march of reconstruction.
Rafik Hariri, the billionaire prime minister who founded Solidere, expressed his “sorrow” while attending a banquet at a five-star Beirut hotel. “This incident has shaken the hearts of all of us,” he assured the grandees at the banquet, promising to conduct an investigation, punish those responsible and guarantee the “rights of the innocent.” Predictably, Hariri’s foes, the Shiite political parties Amal and Hezbollah, made a great show of wanting justice for the Ayads–mainly to squeeze more money from Hariri. But in Lebanon, the innocent have few rights; and so Solidere continued its mass clearance, bulldozing neighborhoods and critics alike until barely a memory of either was left.
You won’t find a whisper of this tragedy in the paeans to Beirut’s resurrection that parade with fulsome predictability through Western newspapers. Nor will you read about it in the bushel of biographies published in the two years since Hariri’s assassination, or the buckets of glowing travel-brochure prose about Lebanon’s post-civil war revival. In these accounts, a simplistic narrative dominates: a wounded city healed, rebuilt by a savvy, big-hearted tycoon who transformed a war-ravaged capital into a gleaming tourist hub before his dramatic assassination on February 14, 2005; followed by the peaceful “cedar revolution,” which ousted Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. The phoenix works overtime in this version of events; and if you had a dollar for every time the old “Paris of the Middle East” shibboleth rears its head, you’d feel almost as rich as Hariri himself.
The problem with this confectionary tale is that it does almost nothing to explain why downtown Beirut is today the center of a battle for the future of Lebanon, a brewing proxy war for the soul of the Middle East–and for America’s tarnished image abroad. To understand why the playground of downtown Beirut has become a battleground once again, you have to look past the glittering surfaces of its luxury stores, past the pretty flags and banners of the so-called cedar revolution. The secret history of downtown Beirut and the man who rebuilt it is more complicated than the fairy tale; because it doesn’t go down as smoothly, and is not as easy to report, it remains largely untold. Which is a shame, because compared with the fable, it’s every bit as much of a thriller.