Once upon an Eid under the Pines

A schoolteacher, scientist, and elderly housewife shed light on the folklore of Horsh Beirut, once a vast forest of pine trees and site of Muslim holiday festivities and today the largest, most contested public space in the Lebanese capital.

The city of Beirut and the pine forest known as Horsh Beirut have an innate relationship with one another, one that dates back to the reign of Emir Fakhreddine II (1572–1635). Originally covering 1.25 million square meters in 1696, the forest had shrunk to 800,000 square meters by 1967. Today, Horsh Beirut is a triangle of just 255,000 square meters, bordered by Tareeq Al Jadeedah and Qasqas to the west, Barbir to the north, Furn Al Shebbak, Badaro, and Tayouneh to the east, and Shatila and Al Ghobeiry to the south.

The period between the end of the French Mandate and the early days of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 represents a notable stage of Beirut’s relationship with the forest, one that still lingers in living memory.
During this period, Horsh Beirut was an important place of entertainment during major Muslim holidays, particularly Eid
Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. The forest was a favorite destination for the nearby residents of Tareeq Al Jadeedah. It was also the site of an encampment of Allied troops after the British forces, backed by the Free French Forces, had expelled the Vichy France government and its German allies in 1941.

This article explores the history of Horsh Beirut, or the “Eid Forest,” between 1935 and 1955. This period includes several years before World War II and several more after it ended. It incorporates a number of key dates: the war ended for Beirut with the Battle of 1941; Lebanon declared its independence in 1943; and in 1946, shortly after the end of the war, the Allied forces withdrew from the country.

The article also sheds light on earlier and later periods of history. Economic conditions in Lebanon had changed by the mid fifties as wealthy Arabs left their home countries, which had undergone military coups and the imposition of socialist economic policies. They arrived in Lebanon, bringing their money with them, and with this economic shift, Horsh Beirut’s role as a playground for children of different classes faded. The rich would head elsewhere for entertainment – to the cinema, to the theatre, or to amusement parks – leaving the forest to the children of the poor, and thus, class divisions became increasingly clear. As those who remember the forest of these days grow fewer with every year, this story hopes to shed some light on the folk heritage of the Eid Forest.

Al Ouzai Street                                                                          

In the second half of the thirties, Al Ouzai Street stretched from Qasqas to the tramway station in the area known today as Barbir. The street was named after the local hospital, and it lacked the asphalt-paved sidewalks of other streets in Tareeq Al Jadeedah. As a child, Inaam Ramadan moved into an apartment in a new three-story building with her family.
Al Ouzai Street was lined with one- and two-story buildings, each surrounded by a garden filled with plumeria trees. Thirty years later, new buildings would replace these gardens, but at the time, there was a small triangular garden behind Inaam’s building, and Horsh Beirut lay just a stone’s throw from the playground of her youth.

“Every Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr, my three sisters and four brothers and I were each given fifteen piastres as a holiday present,” recalls Inaam, now an elderly housewife. “We would wear our Eid clothes for three days straight, including white knee socks for the girls. At the time, Eid Al Fitr fell in the spring – our holiday would last for three days, and on Eid Al Adha it lasted four.” On both occasions, she would head to the “Eid Forest” with her siblings and their cousins, who lived with their families down the street.

“Every day, we would go to the Eid Forest early in the morning and spend our holiday money on food and games until our piastres were running out and the sun had nearly set, and then we would go home. We were young and walked everywhere; the area was safe.” The Eid Forest was part of the pine forest in Qasqas, where the highway linking Bechara Al Khoury in the north with Shatila in the south lies today. “Near us, the pine forest was just scattered trees, but it became denser just a few meters to the east,” she says. “Folks without jobs would arrive on Eid with their games and things to sell, trying to steal what few cents the children had left,” she adds, laughing.

Food and Games

Inaam says that the most iconic foods sold at the time were pickles, maalal (a sickly sweet candy), and all kinds of chocolate. There was also naoma, a sweet made of roasted, crushed nuts mixed with fine sugar. She remembers a massive woman who would sit inside a tent, inviting the children to see her for two piastres. “My waist is two meters across, and my thighs a meter wide,” the woman would say. At the time, the only rides were a miniature ferris wheel that was turned by hand, and the aanazeeq which is what the people of Tareeq Al Jadeedah called the swings.

In July 1941, the English army invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine, backed by soldiers of the Free French Forces led by General Charles de Gaulle, and expelled the French Mandate powers of the Vichy government, which was loyal to Nazi Germany. “During the Allied air raids in those years, I remember we covered our lightbulbs with Blue Nile liquid laundry detergent, by order of the police,” says Inaam. “And when the British war planes bombed the Pine Residence, the official residence of the French High Commissioner under Vichy France, on the north end of the Horsh, the doors and windows in our house all blew open from the pressure of the bombs exploding.”

On Eid Al Fitr that year, months after Beirut fell into the hands of the Allies, there was a fierce battle south of the capital in Damour. “The English army had set up tents in the Horsh and surrounded them with barbed wire,” Inaam says. “Some of the soldiers were black. I remember going to the Eid Forest with my two younger brothers that year. Two of my cousins came too, girls who lived on the nearby Hamad Street, along with their younger brother, who was still a little boy. On the way, one of my cousins – Malika – noticed some peanuts that one of the black English soldiers was eating. She spoke to him in gestures, and he gave us some peanuts, and we ate them on our way to the Eid Forest. Later, I learned that her little brother Aarif had told his mother what happened, and Malika received a slap or two from her mother for speaking to the strange soldier.”

By the late forties and the early fifties, more and more people had moved from the countryside to Beirut, and a different kind of immigration began: after their country had succumbed to a series of military coups, wealthy Syrians began to arrive. “By then I had grown a bit too old for the Eid Forest,” says Inaam. “But my younger brother and sister hadn’t, although they grew less and less interested as cinema became more common.” Syrian shopkeepers opened grocery stores selling vegetables and meat along Al Ouzai Street. After Inaam and her brothers and sisters had all married, they moved into newer buildings where the rising middle class lived at the time, buildings that replaced the houses and their gardens beyond Tareeq Al Jadeedah, far from the Eid Forest.

Hamad Street

As a child in the early fifties, Mohammed Ahmed Shouman lived in a building on Hamad Street. “There was a row of two-story buildings across from ours,” he says, “where established Beirut families like the Deeb, Maati, Doughan, Ezzo, and Saidi all owned shops. On the corner of a long, narrow lane that snaked up to the municipal clinic and ended at Falaki Street square, which was famous for armed Lebanese and Palestinian protests during the war, there were two shops next to each other. One of them belonged to a man we knew as “Al Mudammir” while the other one belonged to a Palestinian vegetable seller named Said. Al Mudammir was a bookie – someone who bet on the horse races that took place next to the Pine Residence and sold race tips to gamblers in the area.”

Al Mudammir would spend all day “giving tips to the gamblers and collecting payment in exchange but never arousing any suspicion.” According to Mohammed, “the tips he gave them weren’t suspicious; if they lost it was just their own bad luck! And even after the disappointment of losing, you’d see a guy go back to the tracks like a drunk to the bottle, not coming to his senses until he’d returned again, buzzing with the joy of victory even if he hadn’t chosen the winning horse.”

Mohammed was witness to the second stage of the forest’s demise. In 1917, the Ottomans had destroyed the northern part to build a casino, which would later become the Pine Residence, the French High Commissioner’s headquarters during the Mandate period (1918–1943), and the official residence of the French ambassador to this day. In 1921, the French cut down part of the forest next to the Pine Residence to build a horse racetrack, which attracted the French and Lebanese elite. This laid the groundwork for further construction that would replace the pine trees throughout the fifties. Later, during the brief civil war in 1958, the residents of West Beirut built the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Qasqas to bury those killed. Bashoura Cemetery was the central Muslim cemetery in Beirut, but getting there was difficult as it lay on the khat al tamas, the dividing line of the confrontation. As the city’s southern suburbs expanded ever closer to the edge of the forest, the need for a private cemetery arose. Rawdat Al Shahidayn, the Martyrs’ Meadow Cemetery, was built on the eve of war in 1975, and to this day both cemeteries are still in use. During the civil war, schools and mosques soon sprouted up where stretches of pine had previously grown.

Today, Mohammed works as a translator and scientific researcher and lives in Armoun, south of Beirut. His stories about the Eid Forest are similar to those Inaam tells when it comes to geography, though they fall at different points in history. “The Qasqas forest was a piece of land that belonged to the municipality of Beirut. The highway didn’t exist then, and the forest was one long stretch, starting near Sabra in the west and extending to Tayouneh in the east, from Barbir in the north all the way to Al Ghobeiry in the south. The ground was completely sandy, red like the sand on Beirut’s beaches. When we were children, the Eid Forest was where the new park is today.”

The new park, which was part of the Horsh, burned down during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982. The city municipality reforested the land in 1995, in cooperation with the Regional Council of Île-de-France, the French district centered around Paris. However, the municipality postponed opening the Horsh until renovations were complete and it had hired security and maintenance staff, complaining that it did not have sufficient financial resources to do so. A Lebanese civil society organization named Nahnoo was not convinced by such excuses, however, and organized a campaign with the slogan “Let’s work together to make Horsh Beirut open to everyone.”

“We would walk about a kilometer to get there,” says Mohammed. “At the start of the civil war [1975–1990], it included some land in Qasqas, where the Abdul Hadi Al Debs Vocational and Technical Center of the Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association stands today. In the end, it was the seasonal employees who sped up the establishment of the Eid Forest.” In just a few years, they had set up a market: “There were people who sold pickles brined with mustard seeds, and men who owned the seesaws and ferris wheels. Then the people who rented machines and screened film clips appeared with films like Tarzan and The Three Stooges, making the children all laugh. They loved those films. Don’t forget the games of chance and gambling, each one hoping to win the last of the children’s pocket change left over from their holiday money. There were tarot readings, three-card monte, games where you shot an arrow at a target to win a prize, and fortune-telling too.”

Mohammed used to go to the Eid Forest with two of his sisters, other relatives, and the neighbors’ children. “I’ll never forget the donkey owners, who would charge the children a quarter lira for a ride. Carts that usually sold kerosene took the children through the forest on holidays, because of the thieves and pickpockets. All in all, the Eid Forest was a place of amusement for the children and a yearly blessing for the poor. But it also attracted drug addicts and unsavory types from the racetrack, and soon there were more hashish smokers around than ever before.”

The Eid Forest and the Racetrack

 Although the Eid Forest was located in Qasqas, it was created for the families of Tareeq Al Jadeedah, and only rarely did it attract children from areas farther away. “There were two places where the Eid Forest was held for the people of Ras Beirut, Basta, and Msaytbeh: Al Minchiye in Aisha Bakkar in West Beirut (which is the Mufti Hassan Khaled Garden today), and Al Minchiye in Houd Al Welayeh, west of the former khat al tamas,” Mohammed says. “There weren’t many options for transportation, and so residents of nearby Ras Beirut, on the western coast of the city, were forced to set up an Eid Forest in their own areas, as were people from Msaytbeh and Basta, south of the Beirut Central District.

In one way or another, the Eid Forest was like a funfair.” The Eid Forest did not change with the arrival of Palestinians after the Arab- Israeli War in 1967, nor did it change as they moved to Tareeq Al Jadeedah from nearby Sabra and Shatila, and became enmeshed in the social fabric of the area. Local residents had held the Palestinian cause in high regard, but as Palestinians took up arms, they fell from favor in the eyes of their neighbors.
It was the war in 1975 that put an end to the Eid Forest.

On the searing hot summer days of his childhood, Mohammed often roamed through Tareeq Al Jadeedah and nearby areas on foot, discovering new places and observing all the little details. “One day I decided to head to the racetrack,” he says. “The people would call it ‘the tracks’ for short, quickly adding ‘God forbid!’ The devil himself worked his wicked ways on some of the men in the area, furiously filling their lives with joys and sorrow, and always waiting for them … In my eyes, the racetrack was just a suburb of Tareeq Al Jadeedah. To me, Tareeq Al Jadeedah was all of Beirut itself – so why shouldn’t it have a suburb? The other children and I, we were used to seeing the jockeys leading their horses to the tracks from the stables in Sabra, to the west of the Horsh. Even though I was young, once I made it all the way to the tracks by following the horses, or guided by their manure if the horses themselves had already walked past.”

“I stopped at the entrance to the racetrack, wondering at the marble plaque hung above its door and taken with the words inscribed on it. Later I learned that it was a hadith: `Goodness is bound to the forelocks of horses.´ I didn’t understand what it meant at the time; I was just struck by the words horse and goodness. But forelocks, that word was a hard one for me. It was a long time later – that’s often the case with things from childhood – before I realized what the hadith meant and how innovative it was, linguistically! Almost twenty-five years later, the racetrack was turned into a pedestrian walkway between East and West Beirut. It had been shredded under the shells of the Israeli invasion: the land was flattened, the track riddled with holes, the life of its pines cut short. Most of them had died;
their numbers were far fewer, and the ones that remained were scattered sparsely over the area. The forest was gaunt and emaciated, no longer a sanctuary for a passerby who might hide behind the trees or among them when snipers’ bullets thickened on either side.”

Msaytbeh and the Eid Forest after the War

Noor Al Hoda Afram lived in a small neighborhood in Msaytbeh as a young girl during the fifties. Today, she is a retired schoolteacher and still lives in the same neighborhood. “Personally, I loved going to the Eid Forest,” she says. “But I think that the people who were in charge, and those who first founded the festivities, were only concerned with the two main Muslim holidays, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. I don’t think they knew when our [Christian] holidays were. I mean, everyone knew that the Eid Forest was open during Muslims’ holidays. Even without advertising and without the media, families and children knew that on that day the Horsh would be waiting for them.” Why didn’t those responsible for the Eid Forest try to attract Christians? “Maybe it was because the church had its own rituals for children during the holidays,” she says. “Santa Claus at Christmas, carrying decorated candles on Palm Sunday, and cracking eggs open on Easter. I think if we’d gone to the Eid Forest on Christian holidays, we would have found it closed; no sweet-sellers or swings, and no games or miniature ferris wheels.”

After the civil war ended in 1990, a few individuals and several small civic associations attempted to revive the Eid Forest in Qasqas. After some limited success, the Sons of Beirut Association took over in cooperation with the municipality of the capital. “We haven’t stopped working on the Eid Forest since we started in 1996, except for the years between 2005 and 2010, due to Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination and the subsequent unrest,” says Ibrahim Kalash, the executive
director of the association. The new Eid Forest is open from the first day of Eid Al Fitr until the last day of Eid Al Adha, without a break. Food and game vendors no longer operate on their own schedules, says Ibrahim.
“Everything runs according to the association, which ensures that the rides are safe and that the food meets health and sanitation standards.”

The food and other festivities have evolved as well. “In 2013, we brought wild animals in cages with someone guarding them,” says Ibrahim. “Most of our visitors are children from middle-class and poorer families, although children from wealthier families are drawn to the Eid Forest too. Volunteers from the association are there to look after them and ensure their safety; we believe that children should have adult supervision. There are electronic games too now, alongside the aanazeeq and other traditional rides, and there are pickles, maalal, and cotton candy, as well as fast food like hamburgers. Given the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the association doesn’t require Syrian children to purchase food from the Eid Forest booths and lets them enter with their own food.”

Horsh Beirut Today

Since 2010, Sabeel, an NGO primarily concerned with running public libraries, including the Beirut Municipality Library in Bashoura near the Beirut Central District, has overseen the children’s activities. Sabeel uses the title “Horsh Beirut Festival” to distinguish it from Eid Al Adha, Eid Al Fitr, and other religious holidays. Beyond pure entertainment, the NGO organizes cultural activities, in cooperation with the Municipality of Beirut and the Regional Council of the Île-de-France. At the end of summer holiday in September, activities like games and puppet theater unfold in different parts of the park and nearby areas.

This is just one of many endeavors that seek to resuscitate the spirit the forest possessed in earlier days when it lay at the edge of the city. Today, the Horsh is a living, breathing public park, but it is entrenched in administrative complications generated by governmental departments and civil authorities in the surrounding areas. In the end, these complications suggest that our relationship to public space is severely shaken by war, scattered and scattering populations, and the depth of these changes to the life of Horsh Beirut.


Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

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 Abdel-Rahman Ayas is a writer, journalist, and translator who lives in Beirut.

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