Old Beirut's his­toric stairs con­nect­ing Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENT -

The old stairs of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi have seen the city trans­form around them. They hold mem­o­ries of the city’s past, but as Beirut be­comes more ur­ban­ized, like the old com­mu­ni­ties that sur­round them, they face an un­cer­tain fu­ture

Eight ma­jor stairs connect the two neigh­bor­hoods of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi, and a few smaller ones are hid­den be­tween. Once, th­ese semi-se­cret al­ley­ways built hap­haz­ardly by lo­cals, were the only con­nec­tion be­tween their houses and the train sta­tion be­low. Now they are the link to old Beirut, pass­ing through com­mu­ni­ties that seem un­changed from the ‘50s; communal living in out­door spa­ces, shared gar­dens and daily cof­fee and con­ver­sa­tions.

The wide stairs named Geara are still full of life. Also known lo­cally as the Ven­dome Stairs, even their name harks back to an­other era, a rem­nant to the cinema that once stood at its side, re­plac­ing the Olympic Cinema be­fore it in 1979. Houses line the sides of the stairs, which are the only ac­cess to res­i­dent’s front doors; the public space has be­come their shared gar­den. El­derly res­i­dents still gather in a cir­cle of chairs to drink cof­fee ev­ery morn­ing; at the top of the stairs mu­ral and graf­fiti-cov­ered walls are lined with plants and trees, punc­tu­ated with re­li­gious icons, an ur­ban gar­den en­joyed by all.

Diala Lteif, Re­spon­si­ble for Sec­tion De­sign at ALBA Uni­ver­sity, is be­hind a se­ries of tours around the stairs of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi and has led a re­search project on the area for her stu­dents. When Lteif dis­cov­ered a re­search ini­tia­tive on the stairs from ALBA ur­ban ob­ser­va­tory, Ma­jal, she de­cided it would make an in­ter­est­ing topic for the course she leads in Sec­tion De­sign. The first public tour was launched in June 2013 as part of Beirut De­sign Week.

“Ini­tially the stairs were in­for­mal al­ley­ways made by res­i­dents to get to the train sta­tion in Mar Mikhael or to their jobs in the late 1800s,” she says. “They were al­most se­cret; only used by lo­cal res­i­dents. Later the French colo­nial­ists for­mal­ized them. When the trains stopped and cars came to the city there were less pedes­tri­ans and so less use of the stairs. This was the first fall of them.”

Many of the lo­cal res­i­dents have very per­sonal at­tach­ments to the stairs and there are hun­dreds of sto­ries from don­keys go­ing up and down car­ry­ing pro­duce to their role dur­ing the civil war when they were used to carry weapons. “One cou­ple got mar­ried on the stairs, an­other set of stairs next to [lo­cal bar] Bodo have a hole in the mid­dle and res­i­dents have bro­ken their legs on them. Res­i­dents have their own daily habits. They use the Ven­dome to go up since it has rest­ing lev­els and the other steep stairs to go down,” Lteif says.

For lo­cal res­i­dent Tony Ak­oury, who has a bar­ber­shop op­po­site the Ven­dome stairs, they’re im­printed on his mem­o­ries and sto­ries. Once a pro­jec­tion­ist at the La Ven­dome Cinema, he fondly re­mem­bers the first ever screen­ing of “Wild Geese” in 1979. “I re­mem­ber go­ing down the stairs on my mo­tocross bike dur­ing The Hun­dred Days War with Syria, avoid­ing the drop­ping bombs,” he laughs.

When many of the city’s old her­itage houses have been pulled down and re­placed with high rise flats, it’s per­haps a sur­prise that the stairs have man­aged to sur­vive un­til now, but it’s ac­tu­ally down to their un­usual legal sta­tus. Built on pri­vate land, many of the stairs cross sev­eral houses' plots. “Jeitawi and Mar Mikhael have be­come ex­pen­sive ar­eas, real es­tate agents buy ad­ja­cent plots and fuse them to­gether so they can build higher. The fu­ture of th­ese stairs is rest­ing on a few res­i­dents re­fus­ing to sell,” says Lteif.

The sound of con­struc­tion now dom­i­nates the sleepy neigh­bor­hood around the Ven­dome Stairs, threat­ened when a con­struc­tion firm wanted to make an apart­ment tower’s park­ing en­trance, saved when one res­i­dent re­fused to sell. The view from an­other set of stairs rests on Bernard Khoury’s Sky­line Tower. It’s per­haps the per­fect sym­bol to the chang­ing ur­ban fab­ric of the city – a stark con­trast to the old neigh­bor­hood close by. “We’re try­ing to raise aware­ness. Th­ese stairs are a tes­ti­mony of what the city was, our shared mem­ory that’s at risk of be­ing forgotten,” says Lteif.

A num­ber of as­so­ci­a­tions are work­ing to raise aware­ness of the stairs, one of which is Paint Up!, an NGO that goes by the name the Dihzahyners. They started an ini­tia­tive to paint and re­fur­bish the stairs be­tween Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi bring­ing color to grey ur­ban ar­eas. “We

aimed at mak­ing a real dif­fer­ence in the land­scape of Le­banon, and re­ally chang­ing com­mu­ni­ties that peo­ple live in. We thought that we would start with stairs and have it grow into a real move­ment to re­shape the way Beirut looks,” say "the Dihzahyners."

Founded by Lana Chukri and Jubran Elias, the NGO that started with just 12 mem­bers con­tin­ues to grow and evolve. “We do feel we are mak­ing a change to the com­mu­nity. Neigh­bors in the ar­eas we have painted have thanked us, joined us, and re­joiced in the color we spread in their streets,” say the Dihzahyners. “Beirut’s old stairs are ev­ery­where, they connect neigh­bor­hoods to­gether and at the same time it con­nects peo­ple houses to­gether which means it connect peo­ple hearts to­gether.”

Info on the next tour held in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gaia Her­itage at dl­teif@alba.edu.lb Face­book: Dihzahyners dihzahyners.tum­blr.com

Photo cour­tesy of Nadim Kamel

A: Gho­lam stairs con­nect­ing Salah Labaki and Ar­me­nia street. B: Stairs con­nect­ing Three Doc­tors and Salah Labaki street. C: Mas­saad (or Mar Mikhael) stairs con­nect­ing Al Khazinian and Ar­me­nia street. D: The stairs of Nas­sif Rayes street link­ing to Ar­me­nia street. E/F: Two par­al­lel stairs link­ing to Ar­me­nia street. G: Stairs con­nect­ing Al Khazinian and Ar­me­nia street. H: Ven­dome stairs of Younes Gbaily street con­nect­ing Al Khazinian and Ar­me­nia street.

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