By Mohamed Nazzal
Is the story of al-Dalia’s fishermen over? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Financial kingpins succeeded in dividing the fishermen, promising them compensation while bulldozers came to destroy another piece of Beirut’s cultural heritage. Al-Dalia’s fishermen mourn the loss of their port but what more could they have done after no one came to their side? But all is not lost. Al-Dalia still has people willing to fight for it under the banner of the right to public space.
The scene was depressing. Al-Dalia Port, across from the famous pigeon rocks in Raouche, is not the same any more. Some of the fishermen’s kiosks that were built decades ago have been flattened after bulldozers went to work yesterday to remove the rest of their kiosks and houses. Yet most of al-Dalia’s fishermen preferred to remain silent. What Beirut’s notorious contractors failed to do in the courts and through threats and intimidation – that is remove the fishermen from the land which they inherited from their forefathers – money succeeded in doing.
Rafik Hariri’s family, through negotiators, was able to seduce the fishermen – who have made a living at that port for over half a century – through the promise of financial compensation. Some of the fishermen have already been paid, others are still waiting while still others continue to object. They were able to divide them after they had struggled together, blocked roads repeatedly and blared their voices in front of the Palace of Justice over and over again. They were in the news more than once over the past few months.
A veil of sadness covered the faces of all the fishermen yesterday, those who accepted the deal and those who did not. They realize that they are bidding farewell to priceless memories. Some of them were were born and raised at al-Dalia. They still show visitors the shacks where their mothers gave birth to them.
This is the stark reality that many advised them to accept before it is too late. It is one of many messages given to them from business, political, and even security figures. Months after they burned a boat at al-Dalia at night, announcing the beginning of their rage at all those who want to uproot them from their land, the head of the Beirut police, General Dib Tbaily, suddenly appeared on the scene. At their last sit-in, when they blocked the Raouche main road, Tbaily showed up with a large number of policemen. They succeeded in ending the sit-in after promising the fishermen to negotiate with them, assuring them: “Nothing will happen except to your liking.”
In whose name was the general speaking at the time? This is a question that no one has answered even though it had been raised before. But when one knows that Tbaily is close to the Hariri family, the answer becomes clear. When there is money involved, all questions become dust in the wind in this country.
Tbaily did not summon the fishermen to his office as a unified delegation. He summoned them one by one. He offered some of them money from Hariri’s office in Kreitem and everyone entered into bargains that are still being negotiated. The fishermen would whisper among each other, sometimes for their own interest and at other times against each other enabling those behind this nefarious plot to succeed in dividing them. It is the power of money, the oldest weapon used to tame angry subjects.
Only Aida Saleh remained steadfast. She refused to go to Tbaily’s office even though he asked for her several times because she had refused compensations at first. But when it was discussed, she knew that she was going to be unfairly treated even in terms of the amount of the compensation allocated for her.
Aida spoke yesterday in front of the bulldozers with tears in her eyes. She remembered the past when her siblings were young and she raised them there by the sea when the only work they could do was fishing. The bulldozers could not touch her house or her fishing rod because she has not signed any deal yet. It is expected that in the coming few days, she will reach a compromise with those involved allowing her to attain all her rights. Otherwise, “I will remain opposed, even if they want to kill me here in al-Dalia and destroy my house over my head. At least I would have died on the land that I loved and I will always love.”
The fishermen received threats in the past, to the extent that the judicial officer who came to inform them about the court date did so with a gun. Today they appear weak after many people abandoned them and after they stood alone raising their voices high.
Even the judiciary was afraid. In an unprecedented scene, members of the Panthers, a special team within the Internal Security Forces attended one of the court sessions. It is money that made all this possible. Beirut’s corrupt business class used their money to divide the fishermen. It was an unequal confrontation between a powerful business family that has its hands in politics, the judiciary, and the security forces, and a group of fishermen who had nothing but their voices to defend themselves with.
The case is still pending before the courts. There is a hearing before the Court of Urgent Matters next Monday in a lawsuit filed by three companies owned by the Hariri family against the fishermen. If some fishermen already received their financial compensation, others – although they agreed to the principle – have not and they are still negotiating. Some of these people are Hassan Nabha and others from the Itani family. Nabha says: “Some media outlets said that the issue of al-Dalia is over. This isn’t true. I am still here and I will remain here until I get proper compensation.”
But is al-Dalia the fishermen’s problem only? Not at all. This piece of land concerns the memory of generations that passed through it, that public space par excellence, Beirut’s waterfront and its lung with which it breathes and with which many of the poor – who have nothing but this free space – breathe. And because it is a matter of public space, according to some people who have followed the issue. A number of associations and activists met yesterday to devise a plan to protect al-Dalia as one of the last pieces of public space available. Practical steps will be examined to “prevent erecting any projects on it that would lead to changing its identity or people’s ability to use it freely.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition. Published Thursday, March 13, 2014