Benghazi’s Reconstruction: Memory, Identity and the Future of the City Center

.”بعد الافطار في حمأة ليال رمضان أتمشى ، في مدينتي بنغازي ، من حى البركة ، حيث أسكن ، مخترقا شارع جمال عبدالناصر ؛ الاستقلال سابقا ، حتى ميدان الشجرة ؛ شجرة الأرز ـ التي ماتت ـ ما حمل الميدان اسمها فبقي الأسم رغم موت المدلول ، في ركنه ثمة نخيلة عجفاء تحتاج لمسبار لتتبين وجودها. في هذا الميدان محل أحذية يقف أمامه صاحبه مثل شجرة ، منذ تجرأت في مقتبل العمر وخالفت الوالد وزحفت من حى الصابري نحو قلب المدينة النابض المتلألئ”

– احمد الفيتوري, سيرة بني غازي

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Benghazi’s ‘Plaza of the Tree’ in 2018 after the end of the armed combat

In downtown Benghazi a few weeks ago, the historic Jumhouria Hospital witnessed the demolition of one of its damaged buildings, as part of the municipality’s attempt to begin reconstruction in the war-torn city’s central Al-Sabri district. This act was met with widespread outcries by many of the city’s residents, who believe that historic buildings should be renovated rather than demolished and rebuilt. It is the latest incident in the reconstruction debate that has divided the city since the end of the conflict.

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‘Plaza of the Tree’ renovated in 2019 by a local organization through volunteer efforts and donations (Picture source: https://www.facebook.com/benghazi.alamal.foundation/)

Al-Sabri is one of the areas that was hit hardest by the fighting during the 2014 conflict, and has only been accessible to civilians for the past year. Mines and unexploded ordinances concealed in the rubble of destroyed buildings still pose a threat to displaced residents  who are trying to return to the area, and the sheer extent of the destruction to buildings and infrastructure has slowed the pace of recovery. For the municipality, the renovation of Jumhouria Hospital will not only bring a crucial health center back to service, but will also revive the district.

But unlike Benghazi’s other health centers, Jumhouria holds significant historic sentiment for the city. Initially built as a military hospital under Italian colonization during the early 1900s, it became a civilian hospital post-independence and has served all of East Libya, offering a number of crucial services such as pediatrics, gynecology, psychiatry and radiology. The Jumhouria complex consists of several buildings, making it one of the largest hospitals in the Eastern region. Ask any Benghazi resident where they were born and the answer will most probably be Jumhouria.

It is perhaps for this reason why there has been such a strong vocal response to its demolition. Many are worried that the historic colonial design of the building will be lost. Others fear that corruption is involved, as rebuilding costs significantly more than renovation. It is also a process that will take more time to complete, leaving Benghazi’s other tertiary health centers under continued strain. The main fear is that the hospital, once demolished, will never be rebuilt, following the legacy of other incomplete construction projects across Libya. Another legacy, that of the destruction of heritage sites – both under the Gadhafi regime and most recently by extremist groups – underpins these fears, and residents fear that Benghazi will not be left with any of its historic landmarks.

However, many people have spoken out in favour of the demolition, including the hospital staff. Taking to social media, proponents of the rebuilding have said that the hospital has been neglected for years and was in disrepair before the war, due to its age and lack of constant maintenance. The damage caused by the conflict, they say, has given the institution a chance to completely refurbish and bring the hospital up to the latest standards. They also brought up the permission granted by the Historic City Authority (HCA), which is responsible for all construction and demolition permits in downtown Benghazi. After inspecting the buildings, the HCA consented to the demolition of the most damaged structures, provided that the “historic architectural integrity” of the hospital complex isn’t affected.

This debate has been playing out on different levels since the end of the conflict, and is part of the most pressing question in post-war cities; should we rebuild to preserve what had existed or use the destruction as an opportunity to forge a new vision? Cities such as Aleppo, Mosul and San’aa face a similar challenge, in politically-charged environments where deciding what counts as “historic” is hotly contested.

One of the catalysts of this debate is the lack of definition of this ephemeral ‘Benghazi identity’. Is the identity of the city preserved in the historic buildings, reflections of the city’s past, with Arab-Islamic buildings sitting next to Ottoman-era houses next to Italian apartment blocks, each infused with elements of a Libyan localism – from the ‘boukhoukha’ doors to the religious talismans written on the facade? Many people speak of the memory of living in the downtown, before Benghazi’s rapid urbanization, or the memory they inherited from their parents, a memory captured in time. But can a city thrive in the stagnation of memory alone?

For its part, the Benghazi municipality sees the downtown area – with its strategic seaside location – as a lucrative investment opportunity. There has been notable foreign interest in the reconstruction process, including by Solidere, the company notoriously responsible for reconstructing downtown Beirut after the Lebanese civil war. But this type of profit-driven reconstruction – absent of a vision that preserves the heritage of the downtown – poses a major concern for the Historic City Authority and the people of Benghazi.

This latest act of destruction-for-reconstruction has undoubtedly sparked a panic over what will be lost in the process of rebuilding Benghazi – which can be seen in the current activity around the cathedral and lighthouse – but it has also started a dialogue on preserving Benghazi’s cultural heritage and identity; a topic that would have been impossible to discuss a year ago when the city was still reeling from the aftermath of the conflict. Civil society groups have already mobilized volunteers and are leading grassroots efforts to revive the downtown, utilizing the narrative of Benghazi’s city center as an intrinsic part of the city’s identity. To ensure the protection of this identity, all these different circuits of repair should converge to ensure a holistic reconstruction process.

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A Call to Benghazi’s Architects and Planners: Don’t Repeat the Solidere Experience

Benghazi is in a time where critical decisions must be made, a moment at the fork in the road where we can determine the future of the city. What happens now will stay with us for a long time to come.

I’ve been involved in one of the many reconstruction projects in Benghazi during the past two years with a non-governmental non-profit organization, and we have been trying to implement an enabler approach. What we’ve seen after the conflict is that the citizens of the city themselves are the best builders, and this was what we wanted to support. We worked with the municipality, university and civil society to lead the reconstruction process. It’s slow, and it’s definitely not easy to promote institutional cooperation, but this is a process that will ensure that everyone is involved in the reconstruction of the city.

But now we are seeing a worrying development with the numerous visits by international companies who are all eyeing the very lucrative contracts to rebuild Benghazi. Unlike the local institutions, these companies care less about the historic and cultural value of the city and focus instead on maximizing profit, which will definitely come at the cost of Benghazi’s identity. One of these companies is the infamous Solidere, responsible for the controversial reconstruction of Beirut’s city center after the Lebanese civil war.

It only takes one visit to Beirut to see why this company has received so much criticism. The city center, a place normally bustling with activity and acts as the heart of the city, is a ghost town. Vacant store fronts stare blankly at empty streets, and the few restaurants there are struggling to stay open because of the lack of customers.

But it’s not just the economic challenge of renting or buying in the city center. The building facades, while pretty, are devoid of the eclectic charm and the mixture of styles that reflect the passing of history. They are lifeless and soulless, a monolith that represents the control of one entity rather than the inclusion and diversity of many. The area also suffers from bad infrastructure, with citizens relying on water trucks during the summer. The reconstruction of Beirut was a process that was riddled with corruption and injustice, with a few politicians profiting at the expense of citizens’ land and property ownership. Lebanon is now the 3rd most indebted country because of this mismanagement. But hey, if you don’t want to take my word for it, I invite you to read the countless criticisms of this process.

Many people will counter this claim with what is often repeated about Beirut: if it wasn’t built like this, it would have never been rebuilt. Better a bad reconstruction than no reconstruction at all. Given the political instability that both Libya and Lebanon share, a “proper” reconstruction process is nearly impossible. I can understand the desire of citizens in a war-weary state to accept any solution, but we have to remember that we will end up having to fix whatever project is implemented now for years to come. It’s better to build something good now than spend the next 50 years suffering from a bad reconstruction process.

Whether it’s Solidere or any other big multi-national corporation, a vision for reconstruction that comes from outside will never meet the needs of the people and help the city heal after the conflict. Indeed, it will only exacerbate the economic crisis in Libya further and lead to the creation of a city where most citizens will feel marginalized. It is now up to the architects, planners and city-makers of Benghazi to stand up and demand to have a say in the city’s reconstruction, to put forward their image of the city and hold the municipality and government accountable in implementing it.