Starting with hope changes everything

How the Solidere story helped transform Beirut

The wave of panic hit while I was standing on Bab Idriss in central Beirut. As I looked at a skyline of rubble and ammunition-pocked hulks in all directions,
I could not fathom how we would tell a story of hope. The word Beirut had become synonymous with death, destruction, and discord and I was looking at the evidence.

I had won the project to help Solidere—the public-private partnership rebuilding the city center—communicate how the city would be reborn. It was an opportunity to tell a rich story that could give enormous power to the city’s drive to reinvent itself. The photographer, his assistant and I had landed the day before, concerned at the felonious act of travelling to Beirut1, but exhilarated at starting the ten-day photo shoot. It wasn’t until we looked across what had been a battlefield that we realized the herculean effort that would be required to bring this dismembered city back to life. How does one photograph the intention of a healed city when everything you see bears witness to hatred and struggle?

From riches to rags

From 1975 to 1990, a bloody sectarian war destroyed the city center, reducing it to a rubble-strewn no-man’s land between the Hezbollah, Palestinian, Christian and Druze strongholds controlling different parts of the country. While the conflict had shut down Lebanon’s economy, the human toll was the most heartbreaking, with estimates of over 100,000 dead, 1 million wounded and over 350,000 displaced during 16 years of conflict. With the Taif Accord2 in 1989, a coalition government committed to ending the violence and begin the process of reconstruction.

Rafic Hariri3, the Lebanese self-made billionaire, returned home from Saudi Arabia to take up the role of Prime Minister in 1992. Hariri’s single-minded vision was to restore central Beirut as a means to reboot the economic, social and spiritual life of the country. His long-sighted vision resulted in the establishment of Solidere, the entity tasked with re-imagining and rebuilding the square-mile heart of the city. Our charge was to build an editorial and visual expression of the story that would make Hariri’s vision believable, compelling and enticing to the investment community and to the Lebanese. Although the Syrians were still meddling and manipulating, there was a renewed sense of optimism that the city once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East”, could win back its former glory.

Healing stones

Beirut’s center had always been a meeting point for Lebanon’s fractured society, bringing Sunni, Shia, Maronite, Druze, and others to the hub of social and economic intercourse in Centre Ville. Angus Gavin, the chief urban planner explained how the new city center could benefit from the best global thinking on “city-making in the 21st century”, and even resurrect that old harmony. The street grid and view corridors from before the war would be reinstated and key landmarks restored tapping the power of collective memory. But there was a deeper story.

While the theme was best practice in urban planning and reconstruction, it became clear that at its core was a story about hope and healing. Angus had told us, “if a city is designed to keep us apart, it has lost its reason to exist. We must find ways to show how we will create a Beirut city center that has the power to reconnect and to heal.” In such projects as the Garden of Forgiveness and the restoration of Martyr’s Square, the new city center would fulfill an important role in re-establishing the bonds that the war had blown apart

Angus had begun writing the text for what would become the primary output of the project, a large format book, entitled, Beirut Reborn4. As we began to shape the structure and sequence of the book, we hoped that the photography would anchors each of the sections.

I finished several days of art directing the first segment of the photo shoot in and around many of the ruined buildings. The days had been long and fraught with logistical difficulties, not least because of the need to carry our own generators and water. Mark, the photographer, and his assistant were doing an excellent job of masking the exasperation and exhaustion. Nahla, the client’s program manager, kindly suggested we take a day off, to visit Baalbek, the ancient Roman ruins in the Beka’a Valley, one of Lebanon’s most spectacular sites.

The real story

It was a much-needed break, and while wandering around the awe-inspiring site, we met a father and mother explaining to their twin 10-year-old daughters the significance of the place. I remember Angus’ words about the role of the city and realized that we could not tell the story of the new Beirut city centre without telling about its role in everyday life. We explained our project to the mother and father, who enthusiastically agreed to my request for their children to be part of the photo shoot. I could already see the girls on the cover of the book.

Photo: Mark Mercer

The smiles on their faces the next morning after we bought them new dresses could have lit up the entire city. We headed up to a set of shell-pocked stairs on Wadi Abu Jamil to start the photography. With parents watching from the side, and the photographer and I trying to agree on the angle of the shot, we were oblivious to the two men with 9mm Berettas bulging from their pockets who walked up behind us.

With my heart pounding I called Nahla. She explained that she had sent the chairman’s personal guards for our protection after riots earlier in the week, in which a BBC crew had been roughed up. It was hard to synch it all up: armed bodyguards, two smiling 10-year-olds, parents and a photo crew? The panic from several days ago had now morphed into a sober realization. This was the story we were trying to capture on film – the struggle to regain hope, where it had been absent for so long.

Shooting hope

Photographing the smiling schoolgirls on the ravaged stairs that day, I realized that hope can be made visible. And that it must be part of any story that is meant to inspire change. While we had primarily used images of buildings, maps and other urban planning references to paint the picture, it was not the whole story. For this story to be credible and true to Hariri’s vision, Beirut Reborn had to show how both the restoration of the infrastructure and the human spirit were inextricably linked.

The results of our work – and the lessons learned on the steps that day – helped us shape Angus’s text and the deeper story of Beirut Reborn. The book became a catalyst for politicians, investors and Lebanese at home and abroad to transform the meaning of Beirut.