On the afternoon I visit Ramlet al-Bayda beach, a young bride and groom are having their photograph taken. She holds her white dress up carefully, the voluminous skirt hovering a few inches above the sand like a frilly spaceship. Their friends and relatives buzz around them excitedly, playing music from their phones. Other beach-goers sit on plastic chairs close to the water’s edge, chatting, smoking argileh (the Lebanese word for shisha) and taking in the scene. Nearby, children are making the most of a seesaw and swings.
Ramlet al-Bayda (“white sands” in Arabic) is Beirut’s only remaining public beach and one of the few spots in the city where people can mingle for free. Thanks to years of unscrupulous development and a lack of planning regulations, Beirut’s residents can claim a mere 0.8 square metres of public space each, significantly below the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of nine square metres. Cafés, marinas, hotels and beach clubs have been allowed to privatise large sections of the coast, closing them off for those unwilling or unable to pay the equivalent of $30 for sunbeds or $10 for a beer. In winter the beach clubs lie semi-dormant, largely empty but still severing the city from the sea. Even the view is blocked by cliff-top cafes and restaurants, which hog the sunsets for their well-heeled patrons.
Nazih El Rayess, a man with kind eyes and a ready laugh, has been the manager of Ramlet al-Bayda since 2003. We drink coffee while stray puppies bumble around us. In 2016, he explains, cranes appeared on the southern end of the beach as work began on Lancaster Eden Bay, a luxury resort which promises guests “the exclusivity of your own private community”. Locals and activists contested the development, but they couldn’t stop a chunk of the beach more than five square kilometres from being carved off by the private developers.
The stretch of sand that now belongs to the hotel is pristine and studded with palm trees. Just outside its confines, the picture is very different. The area where Nazih and I were sitting was clean, but as you wander in the direction of the resort, the sand becomes increasingly littered with plastic bottles, flip-flops and bloated dead rats the texture of medjool dates. According to Nazih the municipality used to provide cleaners every day, but when the previous cleaning company’s contract ended, no new contract was put in place. He and his handful of staff find it hard to keep the whole of the 1.2km-long beach tidy, so concentrate their efforts on a central section.
A little further along the coast is a craggy peninsula known as Dalieh, which is privately owned but free to access. Its rocky crevices and gentle slopes down to the sea make it popular with Lebanese families and Palestinian refugees from nearby camps. Like Ramlet al-Bayda, it is treasured by locals. A friend in his 60s squealed with delight as he recalled childhood memories of jumping off the rocks and into the sea. I headed there on another sunny winter’s day, and clambered down the steep path from the road trying not to disturb the couples canoodling in quiet nooks. At the shore’s edge I met a group of men who had been visiting Dalieh for decades. One of them owned a bakery in central Beirut. “This coast is for poor people,” he said, in between mouthfuls of salted peanuts. “It doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to the people.”
Dalieh too has been threated by development. In 2014 it emerged that Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, was working on a major project that was to stretch across much of the peninsular. Most of the area was subsequently closed off to the public. There followed a spirited campaign of civil action, involving demonstrations, performances and lawsuits. After protestors cut through the barbed wire that kept the public from the sea, talk of the development went quiet. Although Dalieh is open for now, its future remains uncertain.
Mohammad Ayoub, the head of Nahnoo, an NGO that advocates for the promotion of public spaces, is confident that what remains of Ramlet al-Bayda is safe from development. “There is a decree that describes this place as an area where nobody can build”, he says. But even if the beach itself is safe, he adds, it will probably be suffocated by surrounding developments. Another hotel is already earmarked for a plot next to Eden Bay.
Even though the sun has set, children are still playing on the swings at Ramlet al-Bayda. I head back up to the Corniche, Beirut’s coastal road. Seen from a higher vantage point, the bright lights of Eden Bay shine proprietorially over one end of the beach. The bride and groom are still having their pictures taken. Phone speakers have been replaced by a car’s sound-system, which pumps out pop music as the moon rises over fractured white sands.