Last week, the Beirut souks, once the heart of this cosmopolitan city, were relaunched with a discreet soft opening, spearheaded by shop owners itching to start business.
For the first time, people were encouraged to visit an area whose opening was repeatedly postponed by war and political sit-ins. Yet ever since last June’s parliamentary elections that sealed the victory of Saad Hariri’s pro-liberal party, business confidence has been on the up.
The core souk, a project designed by Pritzker-prize winner Rafael Moneo, is the first opening in a series of commissions by Solidere, the company in charge of reviving downtown Beirut. A gold souk and an entertainment complex designed by Kevin Dash and Zaha Hadid are to follow.
Moneo’s design is a beautiful rendition of what a modern souk should look like, integrating traditional features reminiscent of the old bazaars, which were all but destroyed during the “Battle of the Souks” in the 1980s at the height of the civil war.
There is no question this is a stunning space. The surrounding streets built on the ancient Roman grid and the archeological findings on show only add to the experience. The hustle and bustle of Beirut’s bazaars, however, has disappeared.
In their heyday (think the 1950s until the early 1970s) the souks were an intense place where retail was based on local craftsmanship. Shirts, shoes and lemonade were not only sold in the souks, they were made there too.
Today’s souks serve as a showcase for international luxury brands such as Porsche Design and Panerai and high-street names such as Zara and H&M – a mix that appeals to Beirut’s upper class and visiting Arab tourists but not to the majority of Lebanese, who earn less than $600 a month. It’s fuel for critics who have always argued downtown Beirut was built with Saudi tourists in mind rather than ordinary Lebanese.
For Assem Salam, the former head of Lebanon’s Order of Engineers, “Solidere has turned the souks into a western mall. This is not an oriental bazaar but a place for a privileged few.”
Places like Souk al Franj that functioned as Lebanon’s biggest fruit, vegetable and flower market should be brought back. Same for the tailors of Souk al Tawileh and Souk Ayass, whose genius was to offer in the same store their bespoke services and international fashion brands, leaving the customer to decide which was best.
But it is not just about reviving the past. Solidere can still act as a magnet for local creativity and craftsmanship.
Subsidies could be offered to artisans for instance, whose traditional copper, glass and silk workshops are a major pull for tourists in the nearby Tripoli and Damascus souks. The burgeoning design and fashion industries could also be supported. Is it not possible to waive the high rental fees (said to be over $1,000 a sq m) to encourage studios and showrooms to move in? With expert merchants like the Phoenicians as our ancestors, surely we can offer something more compelling than another Zara franchise.