Failed Bureaucracy

Mousbah Rajab interviewed by Joyce Joumaa on the Rashid Karami International Fair in Tripoli and the shortcomings of city management and planning

Could you tell me about yourself as an urban planner, architect, and scholar, and about how you happened to conduct research on the Rashid Karami International Fair?
Everything started when I was studying in France. After I finished my architectural studies in Lebanon, I went to France and obtained my PhD on the subject of Old Tripoli. When I returned from Paris, I was asked to take part in a committee on the old city, alongside the municipality. This work spanned over two or three years. We worked a lot on cooperative projects with Mediterranean cities.

At that time, we had established a conservation centre at the Lebanese University. But as soon as the first students graduated, we realized that this was not enough, that heritage should be part of a master plan and that all action for development is a political decision in the first place. It is not enough to have the know-how or the experience in conservation and restoration. There needs to be a political decision on the subject.

When we started talking about planning in Tripoli, we could not deny the existence of the Fair, or that of the port and the railway station. At that time, I was working on several projects in Tripoli, the most important of which was the Cultural Heritage and Urban Development Project launched in 2001. The other important project was the strategic plan that was launched by the president of the municipality of Tripoli in 2008.

In 2004, halfway through this work, I was contacted by George Arbid who, together with Joe Nasr, was putting together a team dedicated to the Tripoli Fair. He asked me if I wanted to join them. From then on, we started working on this project, until the opening of the restored fairground on 12 February 2005. At that point, things were taking off for the fairground.
Last time we talked, you mentioned that you did some work on how the Fair was portrayed by the press. What did you conclude from the way it was being looked at?
When it was originally announced that the Fair could be built in Tripoli, the local press was very active on the subject. Many columnists wrote weekly articles for newspapers, in addition to other stakeholders such as economists and economic organizations. There was a big and dynamic campaign pushing to have the Fair in Tripoli. But after it was decided to be built, the discussion shifted to the choice of location and then to when construction could begin.

The idea of the Fair took form in 1959 during the mandate of President Fouad Shehab and his prime minister, Saeb Salam, though it was first proposed during the mandate of President Chamoun. By the time the cornerstone of the Fair was laid in 1963, a feeling of triumph prevailed in Tripoli. But after that, work slowed down. Unfortunately, no overall budget was dedicated to this project. Instalments were paid as resources became available and work was done within the instalments’ limit. This is how it went until the 1970s, when they were able to finish the foundations and masonry work. This should have been followed by organizing, furnishing, and operating these buildings, but the civil war started and things did not proceed as planned.
From an urban planning perspective, what were the urban changes that were triggered by this project? According to what I found in the archives, the planning of the Beirut-Tripoli highway came after the decision to build the Fair in Tripoli.
Several locations had been suggested for the fairground. Some people suggested building it where the Olympic stadium lies today, at the southern entrance to Tripoli. Others wanted it closer to the Abou Ali River. Others still wanted it on the hills, which are the areas that we call today Al-Qobba and Abou-Samra. The compromise that was reached in the end was to locate it in what we call Al-Saqi Al-Gharby, in Basateen, straddling the area between the port and Tripoli.

In order to do this, they had to carry out expropriations. They issued an expropriation law and expropriated lands. The first expropriation was exactly in the dimensions of Oscar Niemeyer’s design, which is this rectangle of 400,000 square metres. Then the people of Tripoli complained that it was too small and more land was expropriated. Today, we like to say in Tripoli that the fairground is one million square metres, but in fact it’s approximately 600,000 or 700,000 square metres. The rest is infrastructure.

The way these expropriations were conducted caught the attention of people with money and of the owners of properties surrounding the expropriated land. This caused real-estate speculation. When construction started on the Fair in 1967/68, Tripoli was developing towards the west, but had not quite reached that point yet. Already in the beginning of the twentieth century, rich families started leaving Old Tripoli and moving in the direction of what became the Fair. They went and bought land. Buildings multiplied on this side of the city, turning it into the most expensive neighbourhood of Tripoli.
For a city like Tripoli, which has a complicated political, sociological, and even sectarian fabric, do you see the Fair as a piece of infrastructure that was expected to do something for the city and its functioning but that failed to perform its duties?
I’m interested in the Fair as a symbol of lack of management in the city. I started by telling you how I reached the conviction that any development plan requires a political decision. For me, the failure of the Fair is on par with the failure of other large projects and facilities in Tripoli, and is due to the absence of centralized public policies to develop the peripheries, and to the politicians’ own political interests.

And despite this failure, these politicians keep getting re-elected through what our colleagues the sociologists at the university call the “culture of poverty,” whereby poor residents are trapped in a closed circuit of monthly food rations or promised jobs. In the meantime, those who have money go and invest it outside Tripoli, in places where they find there are more opportunities for them. The failure of the Fair is somehow normal, like the failure of the refinery, the Olympic stadium, and the railway station, which we don’t know what to do with.
Could you explain the legal concepts of annexation and sorting, and how they were applied in the case of the Fair?
Annexation and sorting are included in Lebanon’s Civil Planning Law, first issued in 1963 and updated in 1983. The idea is that when the city becomes dense and needs to expand, annexation and sorting are tools to reclaim land in order to make it buildable by regulating the boundaries of real estate, creating infrastructure, roads, and green public spaces, installing facilities, etc. This is the concept.

When the location of the Fair had been determined and construction started, it was decided to build a south/north highway that would provide access to the fairground and would supposedly continue north. Usually, the state needs to expropriate the land on which the highway will be constructed, but because the state usually has no money, they figured out that they could use the annexation and sorting tool instead. In that law there is something called the “free quarter” that stipulates that the government can take a quarter of any piece of land in the area for infrastructure, roads, planning, or public spaces. They did not restrict annexation and sorting only to the area through which they wanted the highway to pass, but decided to extend it to the area south and west of the Fair, covering an area of 3 million square metres. For a city like Tripoli, this was madness. It could house the entire population of Tripoli at the time.

From a city planning point of view, this was totally illogical, because all this required resources and a lot of work and planning. And where would they have gotten all those people? They didn’t even consider the rate of population growth. Another reason to be skeptical of this planning is that when you put large building areas on the market, it downgrades the value of the land.
I often thought about the people who lived around the fairground area before its existence. You said there were orchards?
Yes, lemon orchards. Tripoli thrived on these orchards. When they started expropriating, voices rose against that saying the orchids were Tripoli’s economic livelihood, but when they started explaining that it was an international fair and that it would benefit Tripoli, people accepted. But in fact, the Fair came and changed the way of life in this place completely, from a farmland life, a farm logic if you will, to a city logic par excellence.

View of the Fair and surroundings, Tripoli. Research footage for كیف لا نغرق في السراب / To Remain in the No Longer, 2022. © Joyce Joumaa

But also, did the city experience succeed? I mean did it develop like downtown Tripoli? Does it have a vital use for the city?
It does. First, there is a lot of housing. People enjoy living in the Fair neighbourhood, even if they don’t have a direct view on the Fair. Those who do have a direct view are said to be kings of the castle. There are many activities as well, like cultural centres, restaurants, and coffee shops that were built in the area. Recently the King Fahd Park was created and, before that, the Safady Foundation. The Fair became an economic attractor for the eastern district near it. But if the question is whether this benefits Tripoli as a whole, I don’t think so.
From the time the project was an idea until its actual execution on the ground, do you think it was the start of something that plays on the feelings of the people who worked on it? That Lebanon’s economic direction should not only be agricultural and industrial, but that it should go towards services?
Agriculture was a good business in Tripoli, but life changed gradually with the arrival of technology and economic progress. But I circle back to the point that the Fair was, how can I say it… was the awaited saviour for the people of Tripoli. It was a thing that they waited for, and here it came to them as a promise to save Tripoli from its problems and give it back the vital role that it had in the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century. It would return to Tripoli its pivotal economic and regional role, with its port and its direct links with Syria’s interior.
In your view, was the failure of the Fair to play this role due to a wrong vision from the start that this would be the solution, or is it in its administration and implementation?
At the time, it was not wrong. On the contrary, for them the project was an economic locomotive intended to pull the area forward. But in the research I did around the memoirs of Salem Kabbara—a minister in the government of Rashid Karamy—I learned that Karamy actually objected to the idea to have the Fair in Tripoli because he feared that the Syrians would consider it a competitor to their own fair in Damascus. Like any other project, the Fair needs a political decision as well as public policies to sustain it.

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