ISSUE #2 THE SQUARE, SPRING 2013
NARRATIVES
Cola: A Station for Transportation and Seasons of Violence
Arising from desolate sand dunes, Cola is today a bustling transit hub from where passengers leave for destinations as far away as the Syrian-Turkish border. Yet it is also a microcosm of Beirut’s historic divisions and has become an organic city square, home to universities, mosques, markets, and places of fun when no one is looking.
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As a child, I used to find it odd that the place we lived in was called “Cola.” I was also puzzled by those screams reaching us at home from the street throughout the day: “Halab [Aleppo], HalabMenbej.”

Nothing of what remains in Cola today suggests that it is a public area – not least based on the standard architectural specifications of what constitutes an urban space. Extending lengthwise, Cola is overpassed and divided into two equal parts by a bridge whose columns fill up the place. Heavy and bleak, these pillars strip it of the open free space that characterizes public squares.

The square took its name from the Coca-Cola factory that disappeared a few decades ago. When the factory was first removed, it was replaced by a large parking lot. Then, a circus took over for several months and went away. Policemen soon started using the place for impounded and confiscated motorcycles and cars. Finally, a huge towering building was constructed and, next to it, a glass edifice belonging to a private university. Across from the gigantic building and the glass university, a religious charity built a mosque with two minarets, its many floors almost touching the bridge.

Two contradictions coexist in Cola. Firstly, the rectangular space is punctured by the bridge: it is a public square that does not look like a square. Secondly, it is named after a factory that doesn’t exist. Forty years ago, the area did not even have a name.

Doyens of the Tareeq Al Jadeedah (New Road) neighborhood recall that the wasteland needed to be called something after the clashes that ensued there between Palestinian guerillas and the Lebanese army during 1969. One of the victims was a charred tank, which remained there for three days. An anonymous person, who will remain forever unnamed, was inspired by the large factory, the most famous in the region. “They are fighting at Cola,” he said. From that moment on, the word “Cola” turned into a specter roaming around the place before it took it over and implanted itself a short time after the Coca-Cola factory was demolished.

Today, the word “Cola” exudes the image of a chaotic world, full of events and incidents, which mark the area’s recent history and urban makeup in the imagination of a divided and conflicted Beirut. Getting nearer and walking around the square, we witness features of the world of popular transportation, flanked by faces from a wretched “underworld.” Cola is one of the most important transportation hubs in Beirut; it is disorganized, in disarray, and with the minimum of facilities and administration. What distinguishes the square and keeps it almost under control are the values, traditions, relations, bustle, and sometimes violent squabbles of the taxi, minivan, and bus drivers: mixes of drivers and passengers, who hail from the four corners of the city. Alone or in groups, they form mixes of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian. They converge at the square to move to other neighborhoods in Beirut, the suburbs, and other parts of Lebanon. One can also notice the heavy presence of students from Beirut Arab University (BAU) in the square and connected streets.

The university stands only a few dozen meters away from the square. Its impact on the history of the surrounding area has been organic and strong, ever since it was established as the embodiment of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist influence among Muslims in Lebanon. That was a few years after a popular uprising in 1958, against the regional and international policies of Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. Ever since, due to its mix of Arab students – especially Lebanese and Palestinians who also lived temporarily around the campus – it began to play an important role in creating a focal point for armed Palestinian resistance groups and for their media and leadership organizations in Lebanon after 1968.

Beirut Arab University was also a contender for the area’s name, after Cola and Tareeq Al Jadeedah. Even today, the university’s presence remains strong in the quarter and in the square. On Friday afternoons, one can watch numerous university students dragging their bags full of clothes and books, leaving their students’ residence in the area to spend the weekend with their parents in faraway cities and towns. They would return to their university and temporary abode on Monday morning. The square-station is filled with men, busy transporting, exchanging money, selling food … and alcohol. There are also those whose profession is unknown. You see them on the wide sidewalk, sitting, lying down, or sleeping on ragged blankets and cardboard boxes near the bridge’s columns. You might assume that they are wandering, desolate homeless who arrived from faraway lands.

***

Once again, I feel mystified while tracing the landmarks of the place as a public square. To explain this bewilderment, it is necessary to evoke the urban imagination related to the concept of the public space – and then to compare it with the appearance of Cola and the nature of its activities.

The public square invokes an image of a wide open space with architectural features, round or rectangular, surrounded by buildings and intersected with roads. You need to imagine a place swarming with significant numbers of people: pedestrians strolling quietly, alone or in groups. Others will be at cafés, restaurants, or various facilities. Sellers and shop owners might grab the strollers’ attention. One might enter a store or keep walking toward nowhere or an unknown place. You must be imagining a friendly place, at least in shape, to spend time and be entertained, where time passes smoothly, without worry or distraction, and a lustful calm seeps into your imagination and senses.

“The bridge imposes its presence on the square, transforming it into a passage for scattered people, punctured and linked by a chaotic stream, which makes them look busy and hurried.”

None of this is shown or provided by Cola in its architectural arrangement that lacks the characteristics of standard public spaces. The bridge where the fast cars pass occupies its space and divides it into two, beginning from the Sports City to the Salim Salam Bridge. It imposes its presence on the square, transforming it into its likeness, a passage for scattered people, punctured and linked by a chaotic stream, which makes them look busy and in a hurry. It is a square for movement and transportation, visited by people who arrive only to leave immediately to other places. Transport is the soul of the square, its beating heart, throughout the day and less so at night. Most other activities are connected to the dominant function of the square.

From Cola, one can go anywhere. “To the moon,” said the taxi driver. However, this exaggeration is only partially true. If you want to go to the north, south, the mountains, the Bekaa valley, Syria, Jordan, or around Beirut, you must head to Cola. Going there, the taxi (service) driver might ask you, “After Cola, where are you going next?” He knows that Cola is rarely one’s final destination. While Charles Helou Station near the port of Beirut could be more important and attracts more people than Cola for travel outside Beirut and Lebanon, there is no doubt that this square is the capital’s lively transportation center. On the other hand, Dora Square, its counterpart in the eastern part of Beirut, is less congested and consequently more attractive. Nevertheless, these three hubs (Cola, Charles Helou, and Dora) became the most important in all of Lebanon after Martyrs’ Square was emptied by the 1975 war and then destroyed.

***

The columns of passing cars, vans, and buses crowding Cola and parked around it, on the side streets, captivate the eyes and exhaust the senses. A cacophony is interrupted by the honking of cars that appear from all directions and are dispersed to all sides. Buses, vans, and taxis are parked on all sides of the square; their drivers lie in wait for the passengers. Many drivers linger, alone or in groups. This is in addition to the throngs of pedestrians and customers who stand outside the stores selling fast food and cheap merchandise scattered around the square. Motorcycles appear out of nowhere, thrusting aimlessly. Their mostly young drivers seem to take chaotic risk very lightly.

This is only during daylight. At night, some of the young drivers grab the opportunity of light traffic and begin racing each other on the highway coming from the airport, south of the capital, to Beirut’s center, through the Salim Salam tunnel. Their adventure becomes a frantic masculine hobby atop their motorcycles, which give out terrifying squeals that blindly pierce through the darkness and the bodies of Beirut’s revelers and sleepers alike. Motorcycles now have a sort of market-store overlooking Cola that sells various models of this means of transportation, which the traffic department has yet to organize. The store used to be a local supermarket. Later, it became a Pizza Hut franchise. Such transformations mirror the vagaries of the function of the square and its chaotic role.

The square and the surrounding area will astound you in its ability to absorb all this diversity in things, merchandise, people, and facilities. The new mosque, erected vertically over a narrow space on the edge of the square, was being visited by worshippers before its construction was completed. All the while, the sounds of the call to prayers and the Friday sermon there and from Al Houri Mosque in the basement of the nearby BAU mix with the cacophonous noise of cars and their horns, the bustle of pedestrians, the calls of drivers and sellers, and the boom of motorcycles. An overflow of worshippers from Al Houri prays along the sidewalks of a famous restaurant serving fool (beans) and visited by customers from distant neighborhoods and areas, especially on Sunday morning.

“Where to? Where to?” the drivers hassle passers-by, since transportation and its means are the soul of the square. Whether they are steering cars, buses, or vans, they do not spare anyone with their random despotic questioning, which makes you ashamed when you answer, “Nowhere.” You would often feel guilty as the drivers start bellowing, “To Saida (Sidon), to Tripoli, to Damascus, directly to Aleppo,” or when they say, “To Ghobeiri, to Autostrade Sayyed Hadi, to Hay Al Sellom (a southern suburb of Beirut).”

There is no specific schedule organizing the passengers in the quasi-traditional and almost random station, so drivers vie for a reputation ofprestige to woo customers. And holding onto such a reputation requires band solidarity between the groups of drivers, marred by covert verbal and physical violence. While it only appears on some occasions, violence remains ever present as a specter haunting the crowded and disputed chaotic place, where transient human relations are suffused by persistent tension and feelings of insecurity.

“Some self-styled lords control sections of the square. Until they get toppled, they will keep taking a fee from the van drivers to park their vehicles for a few moments.”

Some self-styled “lords” control certain sections of the square, typically the space occupied by randomly organized vans heading to the southern suburb and the southern coastal road leading to Saida, Nabatieh, and Tyre. Until those lords get toppled, as one of the van drivers explained, they will keep taking from them a fee to park their vehicles for a few moments to be able to catch some passengers. Some drivers had been severely beaten for trying to park. The van driver also added that those who don’t own a red (public transportation) license plate can work in Cola and that no one would dare interfere with them. They intimidate others with guns if need be, but mostly with canes. Ever since their use began proliferating for transportation to Beirut’s southern suburbs, you would rarely find a van devoid of a cane, which is a driver’s traditional weapon.

***

How and why did this square become the important transportation hub it is today?

In brief, we are quick to say: by coincidence – the coincidence of many roads converging in one place. Coalescing and intertwining factors took shape unexpectedly over a period of 75 years, painting Cola in its current image.

In the period between the 1920s and the 1950s, Cola was a neglected and unnamed area, blanketed with sand dunes. It was almost desolate and deserted, were it not for some cement and wood factories nearby. Sometime during that period, right after the French Mandate over Lebanon began, Tareeq Al Jadeedah began developing, gradually and slowly, into a residential area.

This happened following two initiatives by the Mandate authorities, whose imprints are still apparent today. First was the construction of a road from Raouche and Chouran on the western coast of Beirut, alongside the French army barracks. (Some are still being used by the Lebanese army near the UNESCO Palace and Wata Moussaitbeh.) This route eventually reached Tareeq Al Jadeedah, the Municipal Stadium, and Al Raml Prison, where BAU is located today.

The second initiative involved extending this road to Qasqas and Shatila, the location of the graveyards of French soldiers who died in World War II and not very far from La Résidence des Pins, which once housed the French High Commissioner. Of the traces and landmarks still visible today, from UNESCO to Qasqas, are the remains of aging eucalyptus trees planted by the French on both sides of the road. The initiatives were followed by two more, in the 1950s and 1960s, this time by the independent Lebanese state. They were the construction of a road from the Mar Mikhael Church in Chiyyah, all the way to the Kuwaiti Embassy, and then to Cola. It passed alongside the old airport in Jnah, whose passenger hall became the campus of the Teaching Institute across the street from the Camille Chamoun Sports City. The road aimed to link the towns and villages of the southern coast of Mount Lebanon with the old airport in Jnah. The second project involved another road, the old coastal highway from the Khaldeh traffic triangle to the Kuwaiti Embassy. Before that, the only road from Saida, in the south, to Beirut was through Saida’s old inland road, which passes through Choueifat and the Damascus Road. This road aimed to link southern Lebanon with Beirut though a coastal road to the old airport and the outskirts of Tareeq Al Jadeedah.

This network of roads met and connected near the Coca-Cola factory. It became a link between many areas of Beirut and the southern and mountain suburbs, on one hand, and the various facilities constructed along the way: the old airport (later the Teaching Institute), the Camille Chamoun Sports City, Beirut’s municipal stadium, Beirut Arab University (formerly Al Raml Prison), and the Coca-Cola factory.

However, all these factors combined did not lead to the creation of a public space at the Cola crossroads, neither as a formal transportation hub nor from the architectural and urban point of view. It remained just a place where cars and buses meet and cross, until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 changed things. The blocks of crowded residential buildings around BAU focused their residents’ activities inward, not toward the square whose only function was for cars to pass. While the project to build the Cola Bridge and Salim Salam tunnel leading to Beirut’s commercial center began in 1971, the onset of the war in 1975 left it unfinished until the beginning of the 1990s.

The war and earlier armed clashes between Palestinian resistance factions and the Lebanese army, since 1968, marked the area and its square with actual and symbolic violence in a fashion that cannot easily be effaced. When the war transformed Beirut’s urban city center into a battleground, its functions and central role in commerce, shopping, and transportation, based in Bourj or Martyrs Square, were dispersed and moved to either side of a city divided by sect. Cola and Tareeq Al Jadeedah came to life throughout the 1970s until 1982. It was an abundant vitality, organically linked to the activities of the Palestinian resistance groups and local, regional, and international networks. The area became a “regional capital” of Palestinian activities, attracting bands of “revolutionaries” and leftist Arab intellectuals fleeing their countries into Lebanon.

The disappearance of the central role of downtown Beirut had a triple impact on Cola and Tareeq Al Jadeedah. A commercial market was developed in the latter area, Afif AlTibi market, linking Corniche Al Mazraa and BAU. The popular market sold readymade clothes from China and Turkey, attracting customers from Tareeq Al Jadeedah  and the Palestinians living in refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila or Fakhani, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was headquartered. Another consequence was moving part of the functions of the vegetables market from downtown to Salim Salam tunnel, the construction of which was interrupted during the war and which was still blocked in the direction of Beirut’s center. Vegetable sellers from the center moved to the location, which sheltered them from artillery shells.

The third outcome of Beirut’s lost center was converting Cola into a hub for local and regional transportation during the war. The presence of Syrian workers in the square and its vicinity started to grow slowly from 1977, but it stopped with the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Beirut. They would return in force when the Syrian army returned to the capital in 1978 and the square became the main center for transportation between Syria and Lebanon up until 1995, when the Charles Helou Station was inaugurated.

***

The discernible decrease of traffic in the square and its vicinity after 1995 was the latest chapter in its tumultuous history and role. It became what it is today: the main hub for transportation in the capital. Syrian passengers, artisans, and workers are still to be found in the many stores in and around the square. In addition to travel agencies with trips to Syria, transportation becomes an axis for other types of activities: money exchange and transfers from workers to their families in Syria; restaurants selling fast food, refreshments, pastries, and fried food, such as falafel, eggplant, potatoes, and cauliflower.

The smell of cooking oil is mixed with that of urine in the part of the square near the taxi and van parking lot bordering Wata Al Moussaitbeh camp. In the memory of Tareeq Al Jadeedah doyens, the camp is linked to incidents in the period between the two world wars, which led to an influx of Syrian Druzes who lived alongside fellow members of their sect from Mount Lebanon. They encamped in the lowland (Wata) of Al Moussaitbeh, which had become the residence of middle segments of the Druze sect, west of Corniche Al Mazraa. The Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp was later to be established next to the Druze camp.

A chain of shops flank its sides and form a kind of bazaar for cheap goods: shoes, clothes, travel bags, military uniforms, car tires, paintings, and cell phone recharge cards. But the multitude of kiosks selling alcohol on the perimeter of the camp and its back, which overlooks the square, deserve a special look. It is a small market for low-priced alcohol, remaining open until two o’clock in the morning. Its customers are not limited to Cola’s passengers and travelers. Instead it provides alcohol to a wide swath of poor areas in Beirut where it is “forbidden” to be sold or handled in public, such as Tareeq Al Jadeedah and Sabra, and on to Barbir and Noueiri. It is likely that these kiosks also attract customers from the southern suburbs who pass by Cola. These areas, and many similar neighborhoods, enact an “implicit convention” which bans the sale of alcohol. So the Druze locality and its camp in Wata Al Moussaitbeh ensure that it is sold, since the Druze are spared from this convention or taboo.

The exemption was sustained by the proliferation of leftist party headquarters members and residence of its cadre (especially Christian communists) in Wata Al Moussaitbeh during the war. This “alcoholic role” was also played by Rmeil, the Christian coastal town south of Beirut and a refuge for communists who fled south and the southern suburbs once the Amal Movement and Hezbollah took over these areas. Restaurants, beach resorts, and alcohol shops mushroomed around Rmeileh, attracting customers from nearby Saida and those traveling to the different cities, towns, and villages of the south. However, the alcohol kiosks of Cola also cater to late-night drivers, as well as transient addicts who wander its dark corners at night or collapse in a drunken stupor along the sidewalks.

In the late hours of the night, Cola becomes a place haunted by the ghosts of daytime human tumult. The absence of human patter multiplies the ghostly darkness in the corners oozing with the muck of daytime transportation, from the gas station to the car, van, and bus parking lots. The air around the petrol station and parking spaces adjacent to the square is thick and heavy with a stench emanating from the garbage bins, the station’s toilet, and the parking lot, where men urinate alongside walls inscribed with words damning those who relieve themselves in this manner. Over there, where the bridge meets the paved ground, is a corner inhabited by a homeless man who inspired Syrian workers, employed and unemployed, to sleep under the bridge in the nights or days before finding work or shelter. One day, the homeless man disappeared for several months, then reappeared in the same place, as if he was a forgotten monument witnessing the misery of the place.

 

Translated from French to Arabic by Youssef Zbib

Translated from Arabic to English by Ghassan Makarem

  
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