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Thoughts about Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun or the Destruction of Lebanese Heritage

Thoughts about Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun or the Destruction of Lebanese Heritage

* Find my original Facebook post here
** This post builds on this “sleimans” blog post about Gaby Layoun 

Alright good people, happy new year and all. Let’s cut to the chase.

Off the bat, let me say that I do not vouch for the hanging of this man, nor of any man ever. In my world, the only things we hang are clothes (and even that depends on the weekdays).

It’s a controversial story and it’s worth giving it our attention, and I would really love to hear your opinions. Here’s the rundown: In our current cabinet, the post of the Minister of Culture is occupied by a man named Gaby Layoun. Mr. Layoun is accused by factions of the media and civil society activists of having facilitated the destruction of the Beirut Phoenician harbor (a said archaeological site that dates back to 500 B.C.) in June 2012 to make way for three skyscrapers to be built on the site. Then, in October 2012, he gave permission to the construction firm of Kettaneh Group to destroy Villa Medawar in Badaro, a beautiful 1920s house that was inhabited by Amin Maalouf and his family, and be replaced by a 22-story skyscraper. The villa’s destruction started just yesterday (Jan 4 2013). Now, one may conclude that, boy, Mr. Layoun sure loves skyscrapers, but I think we can push this a bit further.

Whether the harbor was really a Phoenician harbor or not, or whether Villa Medawar was ‘traditional’ or not should not be the debate here; in fact, I personally couldn’t care less if the site was used as a port 2,500 years ago or if it were a Phoenician donkey stable. What I care about is WHY.

Why has it classically been so easy for our ministers to manhandle Lebanon’s natural wealth, economic wealth, security and cultural heritage as if they were their own sandcastles, without the remote fear of a law coming back to prosecute them or a possible loss of reputation coming back to haunt them?

Our best answer is “ ما في دولة ”, “there is no government”. The phrase “وين هي الدولة ” “where is the government” has almost become our national motto. But I think it is wiser to ask “وين الشعب”; where are the people?

When there are no people holding a government accountable, there will naturally be no accountable governance. It’s simple. Thus, instead, we wound up with a game where only a handful of men with recurrent names and their occasional widows get to be the only players. They call their job being a “politician”, which is an irony in itself because a politician is not a job, it is a title.

Resultantly, we’ve hardly seen any real work done. In fact, if you take a look at the political battles of March 14 and March 8, you will notice that they are all centered on a couple of controversial issues that have no real end in sight. We call them “white noise issues”: dramatic, contentious, and practically unsolvable. Like the issue of Hezbollah’s armaments which has been the #1 issue for a few years now: it fuels half of the country’s loyalties or the other half’s resentments (dramatic), it divides the country over a 50-50 or 40-60 division line (contentious), and everybody knows that there is no real solution to this problem anytime soon (practically unsolvable for now) yet it plagues our discussions. The “politicians” don’t get to “work”, they just get to be in power and reap the benefits. And as long as the people don’t seriously ask for anything, the white noise is controversial enough to fill the time and justify their position.

But do you think “kassarat” are controversial? Do you think asking for gardens in Beirut is controversial? Do you think asking for a cleaner sea is controversial? Do you think having uninterrupted electricity is controversial? Do you think asking for safe drinking water is controversial? Do you think asking for faster Internet is controversial? Do you think preserving our historical heritage is controversial? I cannot imagine that an issue like Layoun’s decisions would “divide” the country, nor can I imagine who would defend such decisions and keep a “white face” in the media. Of course we will not see any political leader take that battle to the political and news arena. Why? Because the entire political spectrum has engaged in similar illicit, irresponsible activities at some point, and they are not stupid to go accuse a person of being guilty of the very thing of which they are guilty. If your house is made of glass, you don’t throw stones at your neighbor!

But what about us, the people? The ones who have an educated voice and have nothing to hide? We don’t live in glass houses.

Politics is not a dirty game my friends. In fact, politics is nothing close to being a game. Politics is governance, and governance is public service, and public service is a very noble devotion. But in order for the public to be serviced, there needs to be a public.

Just a thought.

Written by Sara El-Yafi

36 Comments

  1. Annie Tazbaz · January 6, 2013

    I agree with U Sara …I am not fot hanging humans but I suggest they take away his Lebanese citizenship and send him somewhere flat where there’s nothing he can destroy ,like the Arabian desert or maybe the Sahara … 🙁

  2. Farah Malak · January 6, 2013

    The public simply couldn’t care less.. Some of them drowning in their own miseries, some of them basking in their own oblivion, the rest devoid of any will or reason to act.. All they seem to be able to do is voice some concerns and bark some indignations here and there in the hope they could be heard, and that maybe someone, someday, will take up the fight for them.. We are all guilty of that in fact, and each one of us feels powerless alone.. We have yet to learn the power of solidarity and coming together as one.. We have yet to learn to fight for our rights.. We simply are a coward public.. And as long as there will still be blind allegiances sworn to this or that faction, nothing will ever change in this country..

    • Rob Jennings · January 6, 2013

      @Farah: Your statement could be transplanted over here to the American public just as easily as the Lebanese public. Rare are the moments in history where people truly come together to make real change. We need more of these moments, and in our globalized world these moments need to happen across national boundaries, not just within them. My two cents.

  3. Ahmed YM Abdullah · January 6, 2013

    I think hanging a man for such acts is too extreme. The guy is just another corrupt politician that is making money off these new projects coming along, I think a suitable punishment for any corrupt politician is to freeze all their assets and accounts and remove them from their posts plus a long time in jail. As for “the people” you are looking for Sarah, I was just watching the news and it got me thinking, us arabs really love to blame others for our shortcomings and our problems, and that is proven by what you just said in this post, and with everything that is happening around the arab world. We seem to let ourselves fall into chaos because we love devoting our time and efforts fighting each other over things that don’t really matter like what religion you follow, what ethnic group you belong too, etc. We seem to be able to do that very well, but when it comes to standing up for real issues that need to be addressed, we are nowhere to be found. The blaming part that I mentioned earlier is actually portrayed on how much we love always blaming this chaos we are in on either Israel, the US or any other party that is different from ours (including arab parties). To be honest, I point the finger towards myself, and I think if every arab did that, they might actually start to move forward in resolving real issues and be more united in order to make a difference. We do not need more divisions in the middle east, we need dialogue and movements that will actually make a difference. WIth all due respect to the uprisings that have been taking place, but half of the people that are chanting for democracy do not even fully comprehend its dimensions. Just so I am not misunderstood, I am not supporting these dictators that remained in power for so long and killed their own people in any shape or form. I am just saying that if the people had a better understanding of the democracy they seem to want so much, there wouldn’t have been all these divisions all over these countries over religion, ethnicity and other factors that they may find. FInally, Sorry for such a long post, I was just speaking my mind .. 🙂

  4. Nay Rouhban El-Yafi · January 6, 2013

    It’s outrageous!

  5. Ghada El Yafi · January 6, 2013

    Nous n’avons que ce que nous valons!

  6. Zina Sawaf · January 6, 2013

    brilliant

  7. Sarah Beaini Rafeh · January 6, 2013

    Very well said Sara!!

  8. Roberto Maluf · January 6, 2013

    Enjoyed this

  9. Bechara R. Harfouche · January 6, 2013

    hmmmm … in theory of course. but the public needs to have ways to enforce his choices. typically 2 ways. Elections but also laws. When elections are a few years apart… and in absence of “noble public servants” to vote for, and a public mass you can purchase this enforcement channel is strongly diluted. 2- laws. written and enforced haphazardly and with favoritism to people already in power to either maintain, increase or even pave forecasted ways to power in all its forms.
    so the question to ask is, can we find other channels or make those more effective…

    • Sara El-Yafi · February 1, 2013

      Bechara: You make a very good point. In first world countries, elections and laws protect civilians and ensure that the population’s integrity is respected. Both elections and laws in Lebanon however are subject to political manipulations and subdued to the political players’ whims and power. In our country, you are above the law and the constitution if you make it to one of the seats. However, the only source that hasn’t been tapped into in terms of a “channel” powerful enough to make changes is the Civil Society. Us. We the people, our public participation in voluntary associations. You and I and our compatriots. That is the only channel and there’s nothing more effective.

  10. Karim Seikaly · January 6, 2013

    Isn’t there a public? Public awareness maybe?

  11. Diala El-Yafi · January 6, 2013

    Bravo !!!

  12. Massoud A. Derhally · January 6, 2013

    Good luck with swaying the paralyzing inertia of the public! Kudos to you for highlighting this

  13. Abdallah Jabbour · January 6, 2013

    Oh there is a public, and it’s as vocal as it gets when it attacks the “other camp”, but it’s way more divided than you think when it comes to its rights, responsibilities, and most importantly, its identity. Virtually every issue you mention as being uncontroversial becomes contentious when the Lebanese people are your audience (due to personal conviction, vested interests, fear, mistrust, or brainwashing). For example, here’s what I guarantee you’ll hear from a sizable chunk of the population:

    * Kassarat? But that MP who’s behind the destruction of this mountain $takes care$ of my family before every election, and wants to protect the Christians/Sunnis/Druze/Shiites from an eternally imminent danger, so sahtein 3ala albo. Not to mention I need construction material to erect a building on this piece of land that my grandfather left me, and you trying to deny me that right and the potential profits I could generate from my project is completely immoral. Shou baddik to2ta3ile bi riz2e?
    * Uninterrupted electricity? Are you trying to ruin the business of the thousands of generator owners who have made our nights brighter and our life a bit more tolerable? Not to mention we’ll need generators again after the next war with Israel, and I don’t trust Électricité du Liban because it makes me pay, while it can’t enter other areas of the country to collect its bills.
    * Faster Internet? We have more pressing issues to worry about (such as Hezb. weapons and the Syrian crisis), only the rich would be able to afford it, and Sehnaoui is trying to cover up for the assassins of El Hassan, so no thanks.
    * Public gardens? Horsh Beirut is only open to foreigners because the municipality – and many citizens – fear that the Lebanese would litter it, pollute it, and even burn it out of negligence. Just count the number of times you see a Kleenex thrown out of a car window, or remember the mountain of trash that was left behind after the Pope’s mass in Beirut. Do you really want our cash-strapped government to invest in more unusable gardens?
    * Preserving our historical heritage? I don’t really care if the Phoenicians invented the alphabet 6000 years ago, or if Amin Maalouf is an “immortel”. During this very crucial period our country’s passing by, we need to work hard to attract Gulf investors, and those guys love skyscrapers and malls. Not to mention new construction projects all create jobs!

    Yes Sara, this is how many Lebanese think. Seriously, is there anything more unambiguous and uncontroversial than the meaning of the word “law”? What exactly happened after Law 174 (smoking ban) went into effect to combat the #1 cause of death in the country? Many PEOPLE decided they didn’t like it, and declared they were boycotting it because: 1) We have more important issues to worry about (electricity, roads, and of course Hezb. weapons) 2) The law is unfair because it will hurt some restaurant owners (and Lebanon is the only country in the world where businesses open but should never, ever close). You see, despite the relatively good enforcement of the smoking ban, even abiding by the law – any law – is a subjective opinion in Lebanon. But why exactly don’t we respect laws? Corruption, bribes, lack of enforcement, etc…, certainly exacerbate the attitude, but I believe the root cause is the citizens’ lack of trust in their state – irrespective of who’s at the helm. But why the mistrust?

    To get a plausible answer, let’s take it a step further to our Constitution: “Lebanon is an Arab country” – what does that exactly mean? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel I have more things in common with Mexicans than Mauritanians and Comorians. “Lebanon is bordered by Syria, Palestine and the Mediterranean”, but yet nobody knows where exactly our borders are, or whether the Shebaa farms belong to us or not. Nobody knows (or wants to know) the exact percentage of each religion within the population, but yet religion dictates power distribution and public office assignments. What I’m trying to say is that if we’re that divided over our identity, we might need to gather independent intellectuals and experts in order to write a new social contract and put every bullet item in it to a referendum. I don’t necessarily think I’d like the outcome of the vote, but I would love to know what vision we have for Lebanon, what people expect from each other in terms of rights and responsibilities, and whether I really belong to this country or should go conquer a Pacific Island and call it home.

    Yes, in order for the public to be serviced, there needs to be a public, but not one that’s sharply divided over its identity and its definition of a nation. I would have loved to write more, but we just lost power and my laptop’s battery is dying 😉

    • Sara El-Yafi · February 1, 2013

      Abdallah: I feel and share your frustration. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I just want to make a few points and shed some light on a few things you said. The divided public to which you forcefully allude to is a byproduct of years and years of frustration, malaise and disrespect felt by the public, not because of a belligerent biology specific to the Lebanese people but because of historical heartache specific to the Lebanese people. Every single faction of our society has gone through some form of oppression and rejection induced by other Lebanese and their respective foreign allies. Resultantly, we became an insecure people, a very distrusting, insecure people. The result: Contention can only stem from insecurity.

      Our image of one another has been destroyed in the past, over and over again due to our historical actions, distrust pervades all our relationships. We even distrust the motives of the law (you cite a great example of Law 174 smoking ban) if it were implemented by an adversary faction! Even if it makes sense to the objective mind, even if it may be in my own interest, if you and I belong to two different factions, then whatever your motive is, I will disagree with it. I don’t trust it just because you are “the other” and historically your people have only wanted to hurt my people. And so, I contend and I react so forcefully out of self-protection and I walk around thinking that what makes me feel protected is the opposite of what my adversaries want. Look at what Saad Hariri said on TV last night, he virulently repeated over and over again “Whatever they will do, we will do the opposite! Anything they decide, we decide the opposite.” Perfectly in line with our history of contentions, we protect ourselves by disapproving of the other. Is that a campaign plan? “To do the opposite of our adversaries”?… And the heartache is that people can only follow because of the fears, frustrations and insecurities perpetrated by our backstabbing history.
      Unfortunately, contention in our society has become our way of “expressing” ourselves and “asserting” our presence especially when all other means of expressions are stifled. So with our built up anger, and genetically transmitted frustrations, we see contention as our only opportunity to set our “presence” against the other communities we have learned to fear across the years. But deep down whatever issue we are discussing is often not so valid in itself, it is just another war zone for our insecurities. The proof is we forget every topic we disagree about as soon as we create the next topic to disagree on. “I must limit you before you can limit me.” or the way our saying goes, “have you for lunch before you can have me for dinner.” Contention stems from insecurity.

      Let us mend our old wounds, and learn to understand each other’s fears in order to alleviate them. Only this will result in nation-building.

      • Abdallah Jabbour · February 1, 2013

        Amen. It’s funny you mentioned Hariri’s campaign “plan” because I was literally just talking about it with someone. I think the guy seems to be heading to bankruptcy and he’s trying to save on ink.

        • Sara El-Yafi · February 1, 2013

          Abdallah: To be honest, Saad Hariri has become a victim of the system today as much as you and I are. Resultantly, he can only think in a series of narrow cause-effect situations in the parochial microcosm that has become Lebanese politics. He only harbors a minute-by-minute reactive anti-March 8 stance forgetting the bigger picture, just like every single politician. Why? Because he acts out of protection and self-preservation… It’s understandable but it doesn’t work for the country, and it will NEVER work for the country. The answer is not in his hands anymore, even if he disappears, the system will not disappear. Whether he wins, loses, beseeches, or resigns, there is nothing optimal that he or any of those politicians can do anymore for us. But we can. And we must.

  14. Annie Tazbaz · January 6, 2013

    LEBNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN 🙁 !!!

  15. Joumana El-Yafi · January 6, 2013

    Habibti!simply Habibti ya mama. Such eloquence!You fill my heart ya rohi,this is what i can add for now…You simply fill my heart ,my inside out beauty Allah mae3k!

  16. Wassef Ezzedine · January 6, 2013

    Ok Sara, now that the problem has been so crisply and convincingly laid out (really!), and that you know there are at least some people who think like you, but that the general context still make it difficult for things to change significantly, what do you suggest ? 🙂

    • Sara El-Yafi · February 1, 2013

      Wassef: Thank you very, very much for saying what you said. It struck a chord with me. To answer your question, I have two answers. What I wrote above to Abdallah is my first answer (would appreciate it if you read it). In short, there is a lot of work to be done vis-a-vis our own history and connections with one another. We cannot keep building layers of distrust. Civil society, our public participation in voluntary associations of nation-building, will do the bulk of the work, not the politicians or any official. We need to commiserate with each others fears, no matter how distant, and alleviate them every day. The second is we will CHANGE THE LAW. Not via politicians, not via political parties, but via civil society. And we will do it. We will raise awareness on our rights and change the laws that date back to 1933 based on the format of the 3rd French Republic… The French are now in the 5th republic, and we are still reminiscing on the sultan’s harem (great show though). Let’s mobilize likeminded people and we will take it to the parliament. Stay tuned.

    • Ali Baydoun · February 1, 2013

      Lets make sure that when the elections come the Lebanese citizens vote for the same corrupt people ! Just as they did in the past 20 years….It’s a must have and a pride for all Lebanese people ! …not

  17. Mayssa Jallad · January 7, 2013

    Sara the community is outraged but what can you do. Organizations like Save Beirut Heritage! have been following this case for months. Just 4 months ago the building was considered to be valuable to our heritage by the same man who considered it dispensable a few days ago. The owners of these buildings are selling them because they are private property. The government is approving because it is pressured (and bribed) by developers. If the community considers these buildings precious, but the government and developers don’t, what is the solution? CHANGE THE LAW. The destruction of such a building shouldn’t rest on the hands of one man.

  18. Jad Jalloul · January 7, 2013

    It’s a shame what they do to this country the people should make their voices heard and respected.

  19. Issam Yafi · January 7, 2013

    Its true what you’re stating as matter of fact this has been discussed and tv interview concerning the phoenician podium but no one is ready to hear it is a pitty loosing such archeological site adieu beyrouth thank you sarah for plading this cause you should go till the end

  20. Khalil N. Fares · January 7, 2013

    قي لبنان لا يوجد شعب يحاسب , بل توجد قطعان بشرية طائفية , مع بعض الاستثناآت لأفراد غير فاعلة وغير مؤثرة

  21. Raghed Al-Hassan · January 9, 2013

    Maybe the answer is in a 6 digits number (Bass ma bidi 7ott 3a dimti, I did not see it happen!!!)… Maybe if I were in his shoes I would have been tempted to do the same (Maybe Not!). A city is killed when its historical heritage is destroyed. It’s a pity that our beloved Beirut lost its soul, a city with no old souks, and historical monuments and buildings has no soul. Our heritage has been plundered for centuries. With almost the absence of awareness in this country, I do not expect people to protest for such issues. People are getting killed for the silliest reasons and nobody moves a limb!!!!

  22. Zeinab Charafedine · January 9, 2013

    You have elaborated Sara,in a very clever and sensitive way, the questions, genuinely concerned Lebanese have. What to do? We have got to do something? We are concerned. I have assisted to this press conference where Layoun was just trying to defend himself stupidly, I had difficultly to remember whether he is from 8th or 14th march movement. They are so alike, and they are stealing and fussing in this country. Yes, where are the public, where is you and me? And all the rest??

  23. Johnny Molasses · January 9, 2013

    hanging is a bit aggressive. why not just strip him naked in public as a first test?

  24. Noha Chidiac · January 9, 2013

    tous doivent demissionner,c’est une sortie honorable,pour ce gouvernement pourri.

  25. Zeina Badran · January 9, 2013

    sara, i must say well said. Bas there are many educated people fighting back for the various issues which you mentioned, bas wa2et kil ma y7awlo w el beb ydal msakar 2edemon , they’re going to pack up and go mesh la2en hene bedon bas njabaro. Bta3rfi iza btis2aleh maslan wizaret el bi2a fi mashri3 3an el may aw 3an mashkel el nefyet la libnen shu bi7kolik? the response is ma fi masari aw hayda el project sewo bas ma tab2o la2en bisabab arar siyese. Kel hel politicians 7ake fadeh, w the public noso reked wara politicians w nos el tene batal 3indo motivation ad ma 2erif! some of the public try and they fight but till when can humans continue to fight for issues that only see closed doors? I agree with you and yes shi mo2sif ktir ino skyscrapers saro aham min leb’s herritage w 3a yali 3am ya3mlo howe.w el mo2sif aktar ino masale7 el politicians saro aham mnil sha3eb bi 7ad zeto!

  26. Habib Battah · January 9, 2013

    You are totally right about accountability; that’s the real issue here. And to hold them accountable we cannot blame “el dawli” We must name, names. That’s what I’ve done in my op-ed yesterday: http://www.beirutreport.com/2013/01/open-letter-in-defense-of-our-heritage.html

  27. Zeid Tawil · February 1, 2013

    spot on Sara

  28. Ghias El Yafi · February 2, 2013

    Well said Sarah. You can add many other “historical” sites destroyed to make room for Solidere and very recently the destruction of the home where I grew up which had fantastic architecture and where Abdallah El Yafi who was prime minister 11 times lived! This is now making place for yet another sky scraper which will be bought by super wealthy people but who live somewhere else. Not acceptable that the only thing that matters is money, money, money.

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