My Grandmother’s Housing Journey: A Tale of Orchards, War, Loss and Generosity
By Louai Kaakani, on 13 June 2022
‘Wayn el-Dawleh!?’ (Where is the State!?) is a very popular Lebanese saying, one I heard frequently exclaimed by every member of my family, especially when the power cut in the middle of dinner. I was born in 1993, three years after the end of 15 years of conflict that ravaged the country and devastated its capital, Beirut, which my family calls home. Lebanon today is a country characterised by the nepotism, corruption and neglect of its political elite. It is no wonder, then, that nostalgia and myth-making play important roles in Lebanese society, weaving stories of a glorious past to which the country could return. I grew up with stories of Beirut’s ‘Golden Age’ before the war, when it was still known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ But it was my mother who taught me those stories and she was only four years old when the civil war started in 1975. Whenever I went to my grandmother to ask about her life in pre-war Beirut, her memories were never accompanied by the same romantic nostalgia that my mother deployed.
Through my grandmother’s stories, I came to realise that the question of the State’s presence, or rather its absence, stretched beyond the country’s post-war narrative, and began with her experiences moving from home to home and adapting to a quickly changing space. By sharing my grandmother’s housing journey, this essay aims to provide an answer to the question ‘Where is the State?’ and critically examine the value of public intervention in her life. It will also investigate who and what was there in its place when the public sector was absent.
Growing Up in a Growing City:
Haifa, my grandmother, was born and raised in Ras el-Nabeh in 1944, one year after Lebanon had gained its independence from the French. She described the area in her youth as “nothing but farms and orchards, and a few farmhouses here and there.” Ras el-Nabeh, which is located south of Beirut’s downtown, was characterised at the time by its peri-urban agricultural landscape and the low-rise, one-to-two-storey buildings that sparsely dotted the neighbourhood. Haifa and her family lived in one such building, owned by the Nsouli family, who my grandmother explained were major landowners in the area before the war. She lived on the first floor of the building while members of their extended family occupied the ground floor apartment. This pattern of extended family members living in the same building remains a hallmark of Lebanese society to this day. My father similarly, grew up in a building where three of his eight siblings would later settle to be close to each other. My own family at one point even moved to the same neighbourhood to be close to our extended family.
“It was spacious and comfortable. Each child had their own room and we even had two ‘salons’ (social/gathering spaces) to host guests” my grandmother said. She then added that, while the house was large, the rent was relatively cheap for Beirut at the time. All of that changed once her father developed a cardiovascular condition that would permanently prevent him from working. Her mother, who I knew as Teta Nahla (‘Grandma Nahla’), became the family’s primary provider. While she was a gifted seamstress, she could not afford to simultaneously raise a family, care for her ill husband and pay the rent on her income, so they chose to search for more affordable housing. Luckily, the local Maronite church, ‘Sayyidit Al-Najat’ (Our Lady of Deliverance), chose to develop part of their ‘waqf’ land from orchards to low-rise housing units, to provide lodging for their priests and establish income-generating assets with which they could sustain their community-focused activities.
‘Waqf’ land describes land endowed to a charitable or religious institution. Authorities in Lebanon during the French Mandate, which began in 1920 and ended in 1943, deregulated the development, functional zoning and exchangeability of ‘waqf’ lands to liberate their economic potential and contribute to the national economy (Moumtaz, 2021). Before that point, when the Ottoman Empire still controlled the Levant, lands designated as ‘waqf’ were bound in perpetuity to specific individuals or organisations and to particular functions (ibid.). These changes in land law afforded Sayyidit Al-Najat Church the opportunity to develop their ‘waqf’ for housing, which in turn granted my great-grandmother the ability to relocate her family to a nearby and more affordable household.
Teta Nahla had a good relationship with the local church. Though she and her family were Muslim, she was welcomed as a tenant. Like much of Beirut at the time, Ras el-Nabeh had a mixed sectarian community of Muslim and Christian households (Sadik, 1996), including my grandmother’s. In the early 1950s, my grandmother and her family moved to the ground floor of 83 Rue Des Muriers (now called Abdul Karim el-Khalil Street), two doors down from the church that owned their home. The church always renewed my great-grandmother’s rental agreement with minimal increases, despite the local currency’s devaluation through the war years, and she called that house home until she died in 2011.
As my grandmother grew, so did Beirut. The city rapidly urbanised to accommodate the large and rapid influx of foreign and local migrants who came seeking better employment. “Between 1960 and 1970, Beirut’s population more than doubled from 450,000 to 940,000” (Sadik, 1996; p.99). The Nsouli family, on whose property my grandmother grew up, took advantage of the rising demand for housing to develop a new mid-rise apartment building just across the street from my great-grandmother’s. That is where Haifa would find her first home as a young bride.
From Renting, to Owning, then Fleeing:
Haifa married my grandfather Zouheir in 1966 and moved across the street from Teta Nahla in the Nsoulis’ new development. My grandfather at the time was working as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company, while my grandmother had her job in the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL). As my grandmother already had a good relationship with the family, they were able to negotiate a comfortable rental agreement for their new apartment. Beside their building, the development of another mid-rise apartment building began just a few years later, but this one provided only apartments for sale. Despite the good relationship they had with the landlord, in 1972, my grandparents purchased an apartment in the building next door. To her, renting was only a temporary solution. She asked me “Why would you place your neck beneath the hand of someone who could change the price of your home as they want whenever they want?” Her concerns about the precariousness of the rental market did not prove to be unfounded.
Lebanon has never adopted a public housing strategy (Sadik, 1996). In fact, masterplans developed for Beirut were “essentially little more than road plans” (ibid.; p.94). Planning policies that aimed to control or manage land development were never established, nor were policies regulating the rental market or housing-for-sale (ibid.). Rents in Beirut, as a result of public absence, could “claim 48% to 97% of household income” (ibid.; p.103). My grandparents covered their purchasing costs through a loan from a company named ‘American Life’, in which my grandfather had also taken up life insurance. My mother heard rumours that American Life’s office building was also shared by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), though my grandmother does not corroborate this. The rumours gained more weight as, allegedly, the office building was never damaged during the war, and my mother suspects that the gossip made American Life loans more desirable, given their perceived security. I could not find any documentation for such a company in Lebanon. Of the 65,000 Lebanese Pounds (LBP) needed for the house, which equated to 20,700 US dollars (USD) at the time (Banque Du Liban, n.d.), 21,000 LBP were secured by the loan. By 1974, only 17% of Beirut residents were homeowners (Sadik, 1996), my grandparents among them. One year later, in 1975, the civil war began.
As communities migrated within Beirut and Lebanon, traditionally mixed-sect areas began to homogenise. It was in this period that the division of Beirut into a ‘Christian’ East and a ‘Muslim’ West began to materialise (Sadik, 1996). My grandmother told me that because Ras el-Nabeh was geographically located between both halves, it “saw the worst of its brutality”. Despite the clashes, they chose to stay. The Nsouli family by then had converted one of their building’s basements into a community shelter, in which my family repeatedly sought refuge from the violence. “Even when the Israelis invaded in 1982, we did not leave. But one day, in 1984, the shelling was so severe that I went up to your grandfather, told him we were leaving and that there was no conversation to be had about it.” Early one morning, they packed their belongings and fled to Raoucheh, a neighbourhood on the western shore of Beirut. For a short period of time, they lived with distant relatives. Eventually, they moved to an apartment they received free of charge from my grandfather’s employer, who was also a very good friend. They would live in that one-bedroom apartment with their three children until 1991.
The Price of Peace and Returning Home:
Despite the severity of the clashes and instability brought by multiple crises, my grandparents chose to invest in real estate. In 1982, just before the Israeli invasion, they purchased a flat in Ain Jdideh, in the mountains south of Beirut. Later in the 80s, they purchased another flat in Aramoun, in the mountains to the south-east. Both purchases were facilitated by my grandmother’s access to loans from the Central Bank that were granted specifically to BDL employees at low interest rates (2.5%). While both apartments were kept for their investment potential, they were not purchased initially for that purpose. My grandparents felt a need to build a new home outside of the city, where the clashes at the time were not as violent.
Both apartments were purchased prior to their respective building’s completion but my grandparents never had the chance to enjoy their new properties once they were built. The first apartment in Ain Jdideh was looted during the Israeli invasion, and the second apartment in Aramoun became too dangerous a location as clashes in the south of the country intensified toward the end of the 1980s. Despite these challenges, my grandparents retained ownership of both apartments as they believed it better to own something they could potentially profit from later.
In 1990, conflicts in most of Lebanon, namely in Beirut and the north of the country, had finally ended. It is in this chapter of my grandmother’s journey that, for the first time, she mentions public-sector intervention. When my grandparents decided to return to their original home in Ras el-Nabeh, they found their building devastated and their apartment burnt down. The government’s newly formed Ministry for the Displaced provided them a grant of 2,000,000 LBP (worth 1,333.33 USD by this point) to repair their home. The ministry gave out 47,000,000 USD worth of grants to 16,000 households by July 1993, but their success in covering repair costs and encouraging families to return to their original homes was never measured or monitored (Sadik, 1996). For my grandparents, the grant was inadequate to cover all the costs, so they had to pay the rest of it out of their own savings.
The government ended up taking more from my grandparents than it gave. The reconstruction of the Beirut Central District began in the 90s. The government appointed Solidere, a private development company established by soon-to-be Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to regenerate the area and gifted the company the entirety of the downtown to redevelop as long as they compensated existing renters and owners (Vloeberghs, 2012). My grandfather was one such renter, with a documented claim to a shop in the central district. Solidere complied with the need to compensate claimants, but it did so by granting renters and owners shares of their stock instead of direct financial compensation (Vloeberghs, 2012). The stocks my grandfather received rarely returned any dividends and, when they did, the sum was meagre. “We keep them now as souvenirs”, my grandparents told me.
The two apartments my grandparents owned outside the city proved their usefulness at the time. The apartment in Aramoun was gifted to my uncle and his wife, who would later sell it and buy a house in Ras el-Nabeh to raise their children closer to family. In 1999, the apartment in Ain Jdideh was sold for 20,000,000 LBP (13’333 USD) to Jihad Al-Arab, a developer with strong political ties to the post-war government who has also been repeatedly favoured for public contracts in development and infrastructure. Most recently, he has been sanctioned by the US Treasury on grounds of corruption and “contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon.” (US Department of the Treasury, 2021)
As the post-war government prioritised rapid reconstruction and economic growth, the public sector did not change its pre-war prioritisation of luxury development and increasing land/real estate values (Sadik, 1996). Real estate prices after the war swelled rapidly and “[in] 2008, the average property sales price was up 26.8% to LBP 116.3 million (US$77,500)” (Global Property Guide, 2009), more than five times what my grandparents had received for their Ain Jdideh apartment. My mother also told me that the area was converted by Jihad Al-Arab into an urban complex of villas and luxury apartments. Amid a backdrop of increasing land and housing financialisation, my grandparents gifted the profit from the Ain Jdideh sale to my parents, who in turn purchased their own new home. In 2000, my family moved to a spacious apartment in Ras el-Nabeh, which I would call my childhood home, a five-minute walk from the homes of grandmother and great-grandmother.
Conclusion: Concerning the State, its Absence and those who Filled the Void
My grandmother would certainly agree with the conclusion that “to talk about housing policy in Lebanon is to talk about the consistent nonintervention of the state in housing” (Sadik, 1996; p.88). Except for the most recent chapter in her housing journey, the State has been effectively absent from her life, despite her and her family’s need for affordable housing. That said, my grandmother’s employment at the Central Bank, a public authority, did grant her access to low-interest loans through which she was able to secure new properties she eventually benefitted from in the decade following the war. But the privilege of employees accessing public funds cannot be equated with public sector action. Actions taken by the public sector, at best, had little positive impact on my grandparents’ access to land and housing, like the grant they received, or, at worst, dispossessed them of their ownership and rental claims for the purposes of elite development.
That said, the void left by the government was not left empty as a variety of different agents stepped in at key moments in my grandmother’s life to provide aid and support. The church provided her family affordable rent in her youth, then a private landowner who valued her friendship gave her easier access to rent a home of her own when she married. Friends and family supported her through the war years and, eventually, she adopted that role for the sake of her children and grandchildren. The significance of community and family ties in Lebanon is heavily expressed in my grandmother’s narrative. Today, she and many other members of my family participate in a Facebook group called “Initiative Ras el-Nabeh”, which is dedicated to keeping the neighbourhood’s history alive and encouraging other members of the community to participate in charity works happening in the area. Her housing journey also reveals the value of new questions of increasing relevance as the 2022 parliamentary elections approach and considering the country’s ongoing financial crisis. My grandmother was certainly lucky given her employment at BDL, her homeowning friends and family members, and her relationship with the local church. Many others would not be as fortunate. Suppose a reformed Lebanon State were formed, how can it contribute to the development of a broader network of communally-led and privately-led supportive initiatives in such a way that it can be regionally or even nationally impactful and accessible? Could such an institutionalisation initiative strip these grassroots operations of their flexibility and enshrinement of empathy?
References and Bibliography:
Banque Du Liban (n.d.). Statistics. [https://www.bdl.gov.lb/webroot/statistics/table.php?name=t5282usd] (accessed 10 April 2022)
Deguilhem, R. (2008). The Waqf in the City. The City in the Islamic World. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1: The Near and Middle East, Volume 94, pp.929-956. Brill.
Global Property Guide (2009). How Long Can Lebanon’s Real Estate Boom Last? [https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Middle-East/Lebanon/Price-History-Archive/how-long-can-lebanons-real-estate-boom-last-1204] (accessed 10 April 2022)
Initiative Ras El Nabeh – Beirut. Facebook Public Group. [https://m.facebook.com/groups/658627484182798?group_view_referrer=search] (accessed 10 April 2022)
Moumtaz, N. (2021). Waqf and the Modern State, Capitalism, and the Private Property Regime. Islamic Law Blog. [https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/04/22/waqf-and-the-modern-state-capitalism-and-the-private-property-regime/] (accessed 10 April 2022)
Sadik, R.L. (1996). Nation-Building and Housing policy: A Comparative Analysis of Urban Housing Development in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon. University of California at Berkeley.
United States Department of the Treasury (n.d.). Treasury Targets Two Businessmen and One Member of Parliament for Undermining the Rule of Law in Lebanon. [https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0440] (accessed 10 April 2022)
Vloeberghs, W. (2012). The Politics of Sacred Space in Downtown Beirut (1853–2008). Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East. pp.137-168. American University in Cairo Press.
Maps 1-3: American University of Beirut (n.d.). Historic Maps of Beirut. Heritage Buildings of Beirut. [https://aub.edu.lb.libguides.com/c.php?g=1090674&p=7967484] (accessed 13 April 2022)
Map 4: MAPSTER (n.d.). Digital collection of Cartographic Materials. [http://igrek.amzp.pl/maplist.php?cat=TPOTHERS&listsort=sortoption11&listtype=mapywig2] (accessed 13 April 2022)
Map 5: Extracted from Google Earth.
Thanks and Acknowledgements:
I would like to thank my grandmother, Haifa, my grandfather, Zouheir, and my mother, Dania, for their help in completing this essay and their willingness to share, with me and my instructors, their photographs and the details of their experiences living through such a turbulent period of the country’s history.
This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.