Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?

Flooded with natural light, the sound-healing therapy building would offer meditation and cognitive behavioral sessions. (Supplied)
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Updated 29 January 2022

Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?

  • A design project envisions a museum, sound-therapy space and amphitheater where the deadly explosion occurred in 2020
  • Sultan El-Halabi was inspired by New York’s 9/11 memorial to imagine a place of remembrance for Lebanon

DUBAI: For Sultan El-Halabi, Aug. 4, 2020, began like any other day in Beirut. He was driving with his mother from their hometown of Chouf to the Lebanese capital, where they checked into a sea-facing hotel to rest.

But shortly after 6 p.m., El-Halabi’s mother said she felt a strange rumbling sensation. El-Halabi crossed the room to the balcony to investigate the cause when all of a sudden, the entire window frame flew off, collapsing right in front of him. They were both lucky to escape uninjured.

“No one could have expected that to happen,” El-Halabi, a 23-year-old architecture graduate, told Arab News from his base in Dubai, more than a year on from the Beirut port blast — a disaster that killed over 200 people and left some 300,000 homeless.




The scars from the blast remain visible on the city skyline. (AFP)

“I remember the view of the city afterward. They were warning people at the hotel to stay indoors because acid or chemicals could be in the air. The sky started changing color. It was more reddish. It was like a war zone. Everything, in just one second, was completely gone.”

More than a year later, the scars remain visible on the city skyline. What is less visible are mental scars the blast has left on those who survived and who lost homes, businesses and loved ones.

“In Lebanon now, you should just live your day as if it’s your last,” El-Halabi said. “Always stay connected with your loved ones because you never know what could happen.”

The tragedy motivated El-Halabi to base his senior graduation project at the American University in Dubai on restoring the devastated port, transforming it into an accessible, multi-functional and job-creating site that can be “given back to the people.”

His project, named “Repurpose 607,” envisages replacing the five damaged warehouse plots with a memorial museum, a sound-healing therapy space, an amphitheater and an underground parking area.




“Everything, in just one second, was completely gone,”  said Sultan El-Halabi, referring to the port tragedy. (Supplied)

The site would also feature a library, offices and a cafe, while a raised, circular footpath would offer visitors an overview of the port.

Flooded with natural light, the sound-healing therapy building would offer meditation and cognitive behavioral sessions to help those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the blast.

“For many people, until this day, if they hear a slight bang or any weird noise, they would always refer to the explosion or take cover,” El-Halabi said. Sound therapy could help many traumatized Beirut residents find calm and closure.

The proposed memorial museum would include a timeline of Beirut’s history up until the day of the blast and the names of its victims engraved on a large triangulated stone.




The tragedy motivated Sultan El-Halabi to base his senior graduation project on restoring the devastated port. (Supplied)

El-Halabi likens this tribute to how Americans honored the dead in New York following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They did not rebuild where the Twin Towers were located,” El-Halabi said. “They dedicated that plot of land to the people and they transformed it into a beautiful memorial place to make sure that people’s memories would live on forever. It kind of inspired me to do something similar, but for Lebanon.”

The proposed site would have pedestrian paths as well as greenery and seating areas to offer space for quiet reflection away from the city traffic. A basement area would also be built to include a gallery for Lebanese artists to showcase their work.




The proposed site would have pedestrian paths as well as greenery and seating areas to offer space for quiet reflection. (Supplied)

Aesthetically geometric and bold, it is a place designed to benefit the people, to help them “to overcome the trauma and for them to see the beauty in the site rather than always fearing it,” El-Halabi said.

In his design, only one crucial element of the site remains untouched and preserved — the massive grain silos, which experts claim shielded the city from further damage. “It symbolizes strength and empowerment,” El-Halabi said. “It’s proof to the world that we could overcome any obstacle that we face.”

The young architect acknowledges it could take time for traumatized residents of the Lebanese capital to feel emotionally ready to visit a renovated site. “Of course it could be controversial,” El-Halabi said.




Aesthetically geometric and bold, it is a place designed to benefit the people. (Supplied)

“Many people have different opinions and you can’t change them so easily. Everyone has their own freedom to view things the way they’re supposed to. But, I am able to at least enlighten them with the advantages behind this proposal.”

As a student embracing cutting-edge digital technology, El-Halabi admired the ideas of pioneering architects like Antoni Gaudí and Frank Gehry, and especially Santiago Calatrava, who designed the falcon wing-shaped UAE pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.




The idea has been called “clever and thoughtful.” (Supplied)

Having lived almost all of his life in Dubai, El-Halabi says he has also been heavily influenced by his ever-evolving urban surroundings — considered one of the world’s most dramatic and experimental cityscapes.

“It all started with dunes,” he said, reflecting on Dubai’s astronomical growth over recent decades. “They were able to convert the UAE into a heavenly place. It inspires me a lot. It shows that, in such a short time, nothing is impossible.”

He also subscribes to the notion that architecture is more than its stylistic elements, and should ultimately work to enhance people’s lives.




Sultan El-Halabi likens this tribute to how Americans honored the 9/11 terrorist attacks victims. (Supplied)

“It’s about finding the missing satisfaction of what people need and trying to provide it to them,” he said. “Architecture is more than just designing or placing a building. You need to take into consideration the people and provide facilities for them. It also needs to fit in perfectly with its surroundings.”

In October last year, as part of Dubai Design Week, “Repurpose 607” was among 60 submissions that made it to the MENA Grad Show, where graduates from across the region present their “design meets purpose” projects that address social, health and environmental issues.




“It’s an architectural solution that goes well beyond architecture,” said Carlo Rizzo. (Supplied)

Carlo Rizzo, the show’s 2021 edition editor, praised El-Halabi’s project, describing it as one of the “top entries.”

“Repurpose 607 struck me first of all for its empathy,” Rizzo told Arab News. “It’s an architectural solution that goes well beyond architecture. It looks at the built environment as a platform for building resilience in our communities and takes mental health and wellbeing as a starting point.




“Repurpose 607” was among 60 submissions that made it to the MENA Grad Show. (Supplied)

“To remember the victims and transform the site into a place of healing is not just a clever and thoughtful idea, but an urgent solution addressing a very real need.”

El-Halabi, who currently works for a Dubai-based architectural firm, still hopes to see his Beirut port project brought to life some day.

“I’ve been to Lebanon two times since the explosion,” he said. “Every time I pass by the port, I always picture how it would look in real life, trying to see my project being built there. It could have potential.”

Twitter: @artprojectdxb

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UN chief calls for ‘inclusive government’ after Lebanon vote

Updated 6 sec ago

UN chief calls for ‘inclusive government’ after Lebanon vote

  • UN chief also calls on country’s new parliament ‘to urgently adopt all legislation necessary to stabilize the economy and improve governance’
UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Lebanon to form an “inclusive government” to tackle the country’s economic crisis, after elections held over the weekend, his office said Monday.
Guterres “looks forward to the swift formation of an inclusive government that can finalize the agreement with the International Monetary Fund and accelerate the implementation of reforms necessary to set Lebanon on the path to recovery,” his office said in a statement.
The UN chief also called on the country’s new parliament “to urgently adopt all legislation necessary to stabilize the economy and improve governance.”
He stressed the need for Lebanon’s “political leaders to work jointly with the best interest of Lebanon and the Lebanese people in mind.”
Lebanon’s largest parliamentary bloc, led by the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah armed movement, appeared to have suffered a setback against the opposition and independents, according to partial results released on Monday.
Turnout was particularly low in Sunni-dominated areas mostly inhabited by Sunnis — one of the main communities in the country governed by a political system based on communal power-sharing.

Palestinian Authority appeals to EU for resumption of financial support

Updated 16 May 2022

Palestinian Authority appeals to EU for resumption of financial support

  • Palestinian Authority appeals to EU for resumption of financial support
  • ‘We have called on the EU to provide its pledged aid without conditions,’ Palestinian PM says

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority has reiterated its appeal to the EU to provide its pledged aid without conditions.

The authority is concerned about the continuing uncertainty over the EU’s annual financial support for its budget despite holding several meetings with senior EU officials in recent months.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyieh, who met EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles in Brussels last week, urged the bloc to expedite the transfer of its financial support, which has been suspended for two years.

Shtayyieh pointed to a growing financial crisis caused by the drop in external support and the continuation of Israel’s deductions from the tax it collects on behalf of the PA.

“We have called on the European Union to provide its pledged aid without conditions. We hope to accomplish this very soon,” Shtayyieh said at the start of the Palestinian Authority’s weekly Cabinet session on Monday in Ramallah.

The EU postponed the transfer of $223 million in annual aid to the PA after EU members supported Hungary’s condition to change the curriculum in West Bank schools because it “contains incitement against Israel and anti-Semitic content.”

The EU contributed about $156 million annually to the PA budget of which $93 million went to pay the salaries of its civilian employees. Those workers have received between 70 and 80 percent of their salaries for five consecutive months.

The PA suffered a sharp decline in international aid to its budget from $1.3 billion in 2013 to $129 million in 2021.

Samir Hulileh, a Palestinian economist, told Arab News that the policy of European countries has recently been to provide direct support to the Palestinian private sector, marginalizing the PA.

“European countries continue to expand their support for the Palestinian private sector economy, but the official support provided to the Palestinian government is completely halted,” he said.

“This leads to the weak performance of the Palestinian Authority in its functional role and tasks — especially with the halt to US and Arab support for it.”

The value of the budget deficit had reached $1.3 billion, Hulileh said.

At the beginning of this month, the Palestinian Authority presented a broad reform program to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee to encourage donor countries — especially EU states — to resume their financial support for the PA, a Palestinian source told Arab News.

A senior European source told Arab News: “The EU continued to support UNRWA. What remains pending is the funding to the PA, which is still stuck in Brussels.”

Nevertheless, news reports said that the EU reduced its aid to the UNRWA by 40 percent for the 2022-24 period, from $135 million to $82 million.

The EU said that aid could return to normal levels by changing school curricula and removing what it termed incitement materials against Israel while it continues to delay the $156 million annual financial support to the PA.

The reduction in the EU budget comes amid intense pressure and incitement campaigns against UNRWA last year by Israeli institutions. That led the EU to condemn UNRWA’s use of educational materials, which it claimed incited hatred and violence against Israel and Jews in schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was the first time the EU had condemned the UN relief agency for its curricula.

The EU demanded the UNRWA “immediately” remove the so-called inflammatory material, stating that its funding “should be conditioned” on the adaptation of educational materials to match the values of the UN that promote peace and tolerance.


First commercial flight in six years leaves Sanaa for Amman

Yemeni passengers leave the Queen Alia Airport following their arrival to the Jordanian capital Amman on May 16, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 17 May 2022

First commercial flight in six years leaves Sanaa for Amman

  • Yemenia flight takes off days after people with Houthi-issued passports are allowed to travel abroad
  • UN envoy calls for other elements of truce to be put into place, including ending seige of Taiz

AL-MUKALLA: The first commercial flight since 2016 took off from the Houthi-held Sanaa International Airport in Yemen on Monday morning, further cementing the UN-brokered truce between warring factions and rekindling hopes for a peace deal in the country.

The Yemenia flight, carrying 130 passengers, left the country’s largest airport bound for the Jordanian capital Amman just days after the internationally recognized government of Yemen allowed passengers with Houthi-issued passports to travel abroad.

BACKGROUND

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the resumption of flights and expressed his gratitude to UN envoy Hans Grundberg and countries in the region for helping to make it happen.

The flag carrier announced on Monday that a second scheduled flight from Sanaa to Amman would take off at 4pm on Wednesday.

The resumption of flights is part of the two-month truce agreed between the Yemeni government and the Houthis that came into effect on April 2.

The deal also includes allowing fuel ships to dock at Hodeidah seaport, ending hostilities across the country — mainly outside the central city of Marib — and the reopening of roads in Taiz and other areas.

Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy to Yemen offered his congratulations at the resumption of air travel and thanked the Yemeni and Jordanian governments for facilitating the flight.

“I would like to congratulate all Yemenis on this important and long-awaited step,” he said.

“I hope this provides some relief to the Yemenis who need to seek medical treatment abroad, pursue education and business opportunities, or reunite with loved ones,” he added, while repeating his call for all remaining elements of the truce to be put into place, including opening roads in the besieged city of Taiz.

“Making progress toward opening roads in Taiz is key for the fulfillment of this promise,” Grundberg said. “I expect the parties to meet their obligations, including by urgently meeting to agree on opening roads on Taiz and other governorates in Yemen as per the terms of the truce agreement.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the resumption of flights and expressed his gratitude to Grundberg and countries in the region for helping to make it happen.

He also renewed US support for the truce and called for the Houthis to end their siege of Taiz.

“We urge all parties to adhere to the terms of the truce and make progress on other steps to bring relief to Yemenis – including urgently opening roads to Taiz, the third-largest city with hundreds of thousands of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, and other contested areas, where Yemenis have suffered for far too long.”

Western diplomats and international aid workers in Yemen also expressed their support for the resumption of flights and called for a permanent cessation of fighting.

“This is indeed good news and an important step, demonstrating to Yemenis more concrete benefits from the truce. I support the work of @OSE_Yemen,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen David Gressly said on Twitter, referring to Grundberg’s office.

Erin Hutchinson, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Yemen, called Monday’s flight a “stepping stone” to achieving a permanent deal, adding that a full resumption of flights into and out of Sanaa would save thousands of lives and bolster the country’s economy.

“Yemenis will enjoy greater freedom of movement, and it will be quicker, easier and cheaper to bring goods and aid into the country,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yemenis urged the UN mediator to push for the quick implementation of the remaining components of the truce, including lifting the siege on Taiz and reopening roads.

“Before talking about any political dialogue, all civilian facilities, roads in provinces and Yemen’s border crossings with neighboring countries must be immediately opened to end the great suffering of the Yemenis,” Fatehi bin Lazerq, the editor of the news site Aden Al-Ghad, told Arab News.

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Iran bus drivers stage strike to protest low salaries

Updated 16 May 2022

Iran bus drivers stage strike to protest low salaries

  • The drivers and workers of the Tehran Bus Company decried the failure to implement a decision by the Supreme Labour Council to introduce a 10 percent salary increase
  • The strike comes days after Iranian media reported that a demonstrator had been killed in the southwestern Iranian city of Dezful during protests over rising food prices

TEHRAN: Dozens of bus drivers went on strike in the Iranian capital Monday to protest over their living conditions following demonstrations in other cities in past days, local media reported.
The drivers and workers of the Tehran Bus Company decried the failure to implement a decision by the Supreme Labour Council to introduce a 10 percent salary increase, reformist Shargh newspaper wrote on Twitter.
The strike comes days after Iranian media reported that a demonstrator had been killed in the southwestern Iranian city of Dezful during protests over rising food prices.
Demonstrators on Monday chanted slogans describing Tehran’s mayor as “incompetent” and calling on him to resign, as seen in a video of the protest tweeted by Shargh.
Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani attended a meeting with the striking workers and spoke with their representative, Mehr news agency reported.
The authorities announced last week a series of measures to tackle mounting economic challenges, such as changing a subsidy system and raising the prices of staple goods, including cooking oil and dairy products.
Hundreds took to the streets in a number of Iranian cities to protest the government’s decision, including in Tehran province, state news agency IRNA reported.
MP Ahmed Avai confirmed Saturday that one person had been killed during the demonstrations, according to the Iran Labour News Agency (ILNA).
IRNA had reported Friday that more than 20 people were arrested during the demonstrations in the cities of Dezful and Yasuj, but made no mention of any casualties.
Iran has been reeling under the effect of sanctions reimposed by the US in 2018 — exacerbated by rising prices worldwide since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The Islamic republic has witnessed several waves of protests over living conditions in recent years, most notably in 2019 after a fuel price hike.
In recent months, teachers have held successive demonstrations demanding the speeding up of reforms that would see their salaries better reflect their experience and performance.


Victims of Israeli ‘Tinder Swindler’ to speak at Arab Women Forum in Dubai

Updated 16 May 2022

Victims of Israeli ‘Tinder Swindler’ to speak at Arab Women Forum in Dubai

  • Norwegian Cecilie Fjellhøy and Swedish Pernilla Sjöholm rose to fame after Netflix documentary
  • Leviev emotionally manipulated women into giving him millions of dollars to support his lavish lifestyle

LONDON: Two women who were defrauded by Simon Leviev — notoriously known as the Tinder Swindler — are to speak at the Arab Women Forum in Dubai next week.

Norwegian TV personality Cecilie Fjellhøy and Swedish business owner Pernilla Sjöholm rose to fame after the Netflix documentary “The Tinder Swindler” told the story of how they were swindled by the Israeli conman through the popular dating app Tinder.

Leviev emotionally manipulated Fjellhøy, Sjöholm and others into giving him millions of dollars to support his lavish lifestyle and, as he claimed, to escape his “enemies.” Reports show that Leviev conned his victims out of more than $10 million.

The Arab Women Forum – a thought leadership platform for women — is taking place in Dubai on May 17 and will form part of the annual “Top CEO” awards and conference event organized on May 17 and May 18 by the Dubai-based publisher and event management company, Special Edition.

Julien Hawari, CEO of Special Edition, told Arab News he was fascinated by the strength the women showed in fighting a man with a long scamming experience.

Arab News is cooperating with the annual women-focused forum as its exclusive media partner. The event is held at a time of significant social change in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both countries have seen major reforms in recent years, including unprecedented freedoms granted to women in Saudi Arabia and the establishment of a gender balance council in the UAE.

The editorial cooperation includes moderating, participation, and special coverage of the event which also features leading international female executives and policymakers.