Synopsis: ‘Nobody owns the Beach’ is a photo-project by Walid Nehme that traces a socio-economic and political history of the Beirut coastline, investigating the effect years of unfettered privatization, private sector encroachment, environmental decay and diminishing social cohesion have had on the area. Peering into historical archive, capturing modern micro-utopias that spring out of a need for public space, probing into the public and private spirit of Beirut.
“The boy who dives, blind to formations of rock down below, what does he leave behind? What does he strive for if not striving itself? The unforgotten panorama of giants that used to walk these shores back when civilization was the name we attributed to god. Before we inherited the power of gods and destroyed ourselves, each other, everything in sight.” Dani Arbid.
‘Nobody owns the Beach’ is very much a project about Beirut- about what the city has become. Any port city is somewhat defined by its proximity to the sea, shaped by it. The sea is symbolic for Lebanese, and for many who come to the Mediterranean port. In its juxtaposed stillness and havoc, the sea is very much like the city it mirrors. Through all that the two have shared historically their futures remain intertwined.
In Lebanon, it’s an eternal contrast between what we imagine the sea to be and what it is- wildly polluted, unhealthy to swim in and a pestilence for the other shorelines in the region. The sea has been disrespected, at the same time, it remains as profitable as ever. High rise residences loom large on the coastline, shielding the rest of the city from a Mediterranean view. Lavish and overpriced beach resorts litter the coastline, alienating most of the Lebanese. With a particular focus on the stretch of sea from the Western end of Ramlet al Baida to the edges of downtown Beirut, the project aims to juxtapose the many worlds that emanate from such a socio-economic mélange of characters, spaces, faces of a city, public and private. This is an area of Beirut that has transformed many times over throughout the years of modern Lebanon’s existence. The shoreline, with its famous white sands and summer resorts, and public boardwalk running along the coast, is always a reflection of the city’s many social and political challenges.
Much of the social dynamics in Lebanon are wrapped in highly impressed political histories. There is as much a gender dynamic as there is a dynamic governed by class divisions and social expectations. Social taboos are rarely flaunted in public spaces/ At the same time, a certain resilience is exhibited in the subjects, who find a personal refuge in the liminal spaces available to them. All kinds of people bring their everyday lives out onto the street- reading, others listening to the radio, swimming and jogging. The sea does not segregate, and if it were left to its own devices it would prove impartial to the privileges of social hierarchies. The political situation has swamped the sea with its filth, its decrepitness. The civic municipality has neglected its duties and it shows. If we are to take for granted that the ultimate function of the coastline as a public space is to perform a social task in providing a setting in which the social dynamic of the country may thrive.
I’m interested in a nuanced discourse on privatization and its effects on the society it engages, that goes beyond simple dichotomies of good and bad. What does ownership mean on the fundamental level? How has mass privatization shaped the social exchange of the coast for the Lebanese- for better or worse? Has privatization- in the absence of decent and effective governance- actually brought people closer?
The project is also about more than Beirut- about many cities like Beirut- privatized, post-conflict, decaying social structures, great wealth inequality, privilege. In my more personal previous collections, there is a timelessness to my subjects and the subject matter we are addressing. Here, in a realist sense, the subject is evolving in real time. If the coast line is meant to represent the barrier between total freedom and uncertainty and the world we know, that of captivity, certainty, the space available to everyday Lebanese is constantly dwindling.
“No matter what happens the sea is there. Barring some great tragedy, she will always be there, goading us on, drawing us forward in a parallel of intentions. I am a ghost, you say, she says come forward. I am your body, she says, I am your armor.” Dani Arbid.
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