The air changed this week – its still cold at night, but the chill is less wintry. The air smells like spring, and it feels like it, too – slightly heavier and more humid. And with the change in air has come an evolution in our weather-related sports conversations: from skiing to beaching.
I hear that before the war everyone went to beaches in Ouzai, H said to me the other day.
We paused for a minute to absorb that idea. Today’s Ouzai does not scream “beach club”. It is a lower-class suburb of Beirut, largely populated by poor Shiites who fled from the south during the Israeli occupation (and overlaid with waves of other internally displaced refugees).
My only experience in Ouzai was quite positive: I bought my first set of pillows and coverlets there – big thick traditional ones that feel incredibly cozy on cold nights.
It was February 14, 2006 – the one-year anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination – and I had just arrived to Beirut from a conference in Kuala Lumpur. I was moving into a new apartment, and I had nothing – just a set of sheets that I had purchased in Malaysia. And because it was the first year anniversary of Hariri’s death, everything in Beirut was closed.
As I contemplated the unhappy prospect of camping out in my own apartment, sleeping under a sheet and my winter coat, my landlord took pity on me.
I’ll take you to Ouzai, he told me. They aren’t mourning Hariri there.
He was right – all the shops were open, and I slept in warmth and comfort for many nights in my Ouzai bedding.
But before Ouzai was known for its inexpensive, handmade “shaabi” furniture and conservative ways, it was known for its beach resorts.
My 1965 copy of Travel Lebanon lists them among the city’s “swimming clubs”: Saint Michel, Saint Simon, Riviera, Acapulco, Sands, Coral Beach, and the Beach Club. A day pass could be had for 2 or 3 Lebanese pounds, and cabanas, apartments and even houses could be rented for the season, for 700-7000 LL. My, prices have changed :).
The beach clubs boasted restaurants and bars as well as swimming facilities, and most offered surf boards for rent as well.
The area around Ouzai has been inhabited since ancient times, and has been the subject of several archaeological studies. But its name comes from a Sunni (I assume) religious scholar from Baalbek:
Among the residents of Beirut during the Medieval Period who became well known was Imam Al Aouza’i. Bom in Baalbeck in 707 or 712, his personal name was Abd er Rahman bin Omar. A learned man of his day, well versed in Islamic technology and law he moved and became stationed in Beirut were he practiced and distinguished himself. He became a world- famous Moslem jurisconsult of the first and second centuries of the Hijra, and was regarded as the Imam of Syria (Jidejian 1993:12). He died in 774, and the Moslem shrine on the south coast of Beirut was erected for him.
It is said that the Imam Al Aouza’i was extremely fond of the Hantus village and that he often expressed the wish to be buried beside the tiny single-domed mosque, in which he taught (Conde 1955:20). After his burial in 774 Hantus was virtuallv destroyed by an earthquake and when it was reconstructed and reinhabited, it was name after this holy man and benefactor, Al Aouza’i (Conde 1955:20). Since than, Al Aouza’i has become Lebanon’s second holiest shrine. Imam Al Aouza’i’s original 7th century needle-like white minaret mosque building is the small room with a low dome which adjoins the minaret on the east (mountain) side. The mosque marks the resting-place of its famous namesake, and has since become the name for this region.
I took the information above from a May 2000 Council for Development and Reconstruction report on “The Beirut Urban Transport Project”, sponsored by the World Bank. The full text is available online, and it is extremely comprehensive, covering developments from Roman times to the present for most of Beirut’s neighborhoods. It has this to say about Ouzai’s beach resort days:
Only with the opening of the Beirut International Airport, in nearby Khaldeh, did one witness the intensive development of the beach area, and the unmistakable southem expansion of Beirut toward the red sand dunes in the back of the beaches … In 1955 the Al Aouza’i sector remained a sleepy summer resort for Beirutis who still preferred the traditional ways of the country over the foreign-style further north beach resorts of the St. Michel and St. Simon.
To be honest, suburban Beirut geography is not my strong suit. What I understand from the above report is that Ouzai proper had “traditional” beaches while today’s Bir Hassan had the chi-chi beach resorts. But I could be wrong
There are some very sweet photographs posted online by Beirutis who do remember the old resorts, including a few childhood ones posted by Gus Ramadan on flickr. You can see pictures of a young Gus at St. Simon with his father and cousin here.
Thanks to its beachfront property, Ouzai has also been the unhappy recipient of military strikes over the years, including the 1982 Israeli invasion. I found the Saint Simon beach mentioned in this context in a letter sent from the “Permanent Observer of the Palestine Liberation Organization” in Beirut to the United Nations Security Council as the Israeli attacks continued, asking for UN support in condemning and stopping the attacks. The full report is available online here (the UN maintains a wonderful online archive of its Palestine-related documents); and below is what the PLO had to say about Israeli attacks on West Beirut and its beach suburbs:
In the early morning hours of today, 26 July 1982, less than five hours following the night attack on the refugee camps of west Beirut, the Israeli forces renewed and escalated their attacks against the besieged western sector of Beirut. For more than two hours, commencing at 1.30 a.m., Israeli land and sea-based heavy rocket, artillery and tank fire indiscriminately hit the areas of west Beirut: Ouzai, Ramlet al-Baida, the Fakhani district, Bir Hassan, Bir al-Abed, Haret Hraik, Mar Elias and the airport vicinity. The three refugee camps, Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh, were shelled once again.
Under the cover of that fire, which continued until 3.30 a.m., Israeli naval units attempted to approach the Saint Simon beach shore in the Jnah/Ouzai region. Our defiant Palestinian and Lebanese defenders were able to repulse the attempted Israeli sea-borne landing.
At 10 a.m. today, 26 July, Israeli artillery, rocket and naval shelling of west Beirut resumed. For two hours, the Israelis pounded the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital and concentrated on the Ouzai and airport region as well as the refugee camp, Burj al-Barajneh.
“Defiant defenders” sounds a bit melodramatic, but I imagine that writing in between bouts of shelling makes one less interested in understatement.
H remembers hearing that the US marines landed on the beaches of Ouzai, where the mixture of men in fatigues and girls in bikinis caused mass confusion on both sides. The marines wondered: but isn’t there a civil war on? while the sunbathers wondered: is there a movie being filmed here today?
I can’t find anything online to back up that story, although I can tell you that googling “marines Beirut beach landing bikini” sure does produce some interesting results. But if anyone else knows more, we would love to know! It sounds almost too good to be true – too typically Lebanese! – but it could be :).
Ouzai was hit during the 2006 war, and its population may be hit in a different way by Hariri-led plans to tear down the slums and build beachside condos, if this dated but fascinating LF forum debate is still accurate. I probably won’t be going there in my bikini anytime soon, but I like knowing about this other side of Ouzai.
And for those of you who might be interested in seeing photos of Saint Simon and other Ouzai beaches in their heyday, Skyscraper City has a wonderful collection of old photographs from Lebanon. Try pages 32-35 for beach resort images.