BEIRUT — The majestic expanse of green rises like Central Park from this cramped city of concrete, brick and steel.
Grassy hills line wide footpaths overseen by graceful trees. Migrating birds sip from pools of water. And when it rains, the carefully cultivated violet wildflowers glisten in the half-light and the entire park is cloaked in the sharp scent of pines, a rare natural oasis, a refuge in the Lebanese capital.
Except that it's not.
The park is fenced and gated, forbidden to anyone without the written permission of local authorities (with a few loopholes; more on that later).
The 80-acre Horsh Beirut or Horsh Sanawbar, the Pine Woods, is a victim of Lebanon's sectarian troubles as well as what some critics describe as an elitist attitude among authorities who deem the park too nice to let just anyone in.
"People in Lebanon don't understand the concept of public space," said Zahra Wahid, an environmentalist who leads children on nature tours at the park (with permission, of course) and supports keeping the public out for now. "When they opened it up once a week, people started ripping out the plants and taking them home."
Activists find the notion that Lebanese don't understand public space insulting. They point out that people behave just fine along the Corniche, the palm-tree-lined promenade along the Mediterranean shore used by runners, fishermen, strollers and the occasional Brazilian martial arts troupe.
"The municipality can't expect people to be perfect," said Fadi Shayya, an urban planner, activist and author of "At the Edge of the City," a book about the park. "They have to hire people to clean. They have to hire guards."
Authorities are quick to point out that the triangular park, about three times the size of Echo Park, rests at the heart of the country's sectarian divide, geographically at least. To one side are Shiyah and Ghobeiry, largely Shiite Muslim neighborhoods; to another is Tariq al-Jadida, a Sunni district; Christians live in the adjacent Badaro.
"Divisions are occurring even within families," said Khalil Choucair, a member of Beirut's municipal council who supports the decision to keep the park closed. "With this huge space that lacks the minimum standards of security, fights can occur. Such things might explode."
This sort of reasoning doesn't impress a growing group of environmental and civil society activists, who say many young residents probably think the park is another of the closed-off compounds of nearby diplomatic outposts.
The activists have begun demanding access to the park, just about the only publicly owned green space in the city that's any larger than a garden. They've consulted with a lawyer for possible legal action, launched a publicity campaign and lobbied politicians. They argue that not only has the closure done more harm than good to the country's fraying social relations, it is illegal and unjust.
"When you have a place that's designated as public space, then it's for all the public," said Mohammad Ayoub, founder of Nahnoo, Arabic for "we," a nonprofit organization advocating for the park's opening. "Legally they can close it at night or for specific safety reasons, but you can't close all day. It's owned by Lebanese."
Even more outrageous
to them, Western visitors and some Lebanese do get access to the park; they
can apply for a permit at the municipal headquarters, the seat of local government, as long as they're 35 or older and "of decent character," something that authorities have yet to define. A letter from a doctor prescribing time outdoors helps. Flashing a Western passport to the gatekeeper or pretending you're a foreigner can also get you access, activists and residents say.
On a recent day, a muscular security guard from the nearby French Embassy could be seen jogging along a path while an upper-class Lebanese woman played with her young daughter and an elderly man in a track suit took a stroll.
Ayoub calls such apparent discrimination a violation of the Lebanese Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal rights "without any distinction whatsoever."
"A lot of people are in need of a place to meet with their friends," he said. "Poor people have no place to go. They can't afford 20,000 lire [about $13.33] for coffee at a cafe."
The Horsh Sanawbar was once part of a much larger 310-acre forest that was whittled down over the decades. Successive wars and invasions left it in a state of disrepair. Then the French, who consider Lebanon part of the Francophone world, came to the rescue. The provincial government of Paris and its suburbs provided $2 million for renovation of the park, with the proviso that it be reopened to the public by 2002.
Even though the renovation was completed and sectarian troubles were relatively calm then, local authorities decided to keep the park closed. The trees, they contended, needed more time to grow, lest they be damaged by the people who were supposed to enjoy them.