BEIRUT– The public pool in front of the Samir Kassir Memorial in Downtown Beirut was drained just one day after footage of children swimming in it went viral on social media.
A video circulating online showed three children jumping into the pool and splashing water. Although an ordinary and innocent scene in any part of the world, those who initially shared the video did so in outrage.
“Samir Kassir Square turns into a lake of chaos! … ‘Here is Lebanon’ camera captured a scene of a group of Syrian children jumping and swimming in a pond in the middle of Samir's Kassir Square,” said one Twitter user in a now-viral Tweet.
#خاص ?? - برسم بلدية بيروت.. ساحة سمير قصير تتحوّل لبحيرة فوضى!— هنا لبنان (@thisislebnews) April 19, 2023
التقطت كاميرا "هنا لبنان" مشهداً لمجموعة من الأطفال من التابعية السورية وهم يقفزون ويسبحون في البركة وسط ساحة سمير قصير.
هذا المشهد يطرح تساؤلات حول دور #بلدية_بيروت في حماية هذه الأماكن من العشوائية.
يذكر أنّ ساحة… pic.twitter.com/SfI0py5DNm
Th racist tweet sparked backlash online as many social media users were quick to question the assumptions the video made. Some said there is nothing wrong with children appropriating public space.
this is what public spaces are made for anyway https://t.co/oUaDZF1lae— Samer el Khoury (@SamerELKhoury11) April 20, 2023
Others questioned the implication made by mentioning the children's supposed nationality.
If the kids were Lebanese, they will pick on them being poor, if they weren’t poor (enough), they will pick on the being from a certain sect/area. These people don’t have their priorities straight, that’s how we have reached to our crisis. https://t.co/uaxznqxSwg— AbdulRahman Deeb - عبدالرحمن ديب (@AMDeeb90) April 20, 2023
Thursday morning, just one day after the video circulated online, the reflecting pool had been drained entirely. Nothing but chalky limescale residue remained at the bottom.
It was not immediately clear if the draining of the pool was related to the video or not.
Workers at the scene told L’Orient Today that the fountain is emptied every month for cleanings that last for a couple of days. While they did not indicate if this was related to the video, they did say that this time the cleaning was being done in a rush for some reason.
Both the governor and the mayor of Beirut did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the outcry from the public was immediate.
The square is a memorial commemorating the late Lebanese-Palestinian journalist Samir Kassir, who was assassinated in 2005. It is adjacent to the Annahar newspaper offices, where Kassir worked as a columnist. Kassir was also editor of L'Orient-Express, a monthly supplement of L'Orient-Le Jour.
Kassir’s widow, journalist Gisele Khoury responded to the dialogue on Twitter: “Samir Kassir Square is for all the people, for all the children.”
“It's tiring to keep witnessing municipal action only to restrict the public domain and to prevent people from using their rights to the city,” Mona Harb, a professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut, told L’Orient Today.
She added that it is the municipality’s duty to protect shared spaces and facilitate access to all city dwellers “including most vulnerable groups, especially youth and children.”
The question of who has access to public space has taken a prejudiced turn in recent years. Countless incidents of Syrian children not being allowed to play inside some of the city’s parks have been documented across Beirut.
There are no public pools in the city and much of Beirut’s coastline has been privatized. With resorts charging steep access fees, there is almost nowhere for the public to cool off when the heat kicks in. Beirut recorded an unusually high temperature of 28 degrees celsius at noon this Wednesday compared to a high of 21 celsius recorded on the same day last year.
According to Nahnoo, an NGO that advocates for preserving public spaces, the private development of Beirut’s coastline is illegal under a 1925 law establishing “the seashore — extending to the farthest point that waves reach during winter, as well as sand and gravel beaches,” as public property.
Nadine Khayat, a senior lecturer at AUB’s department of landscape and ecosystem management told L’Orient Today that “Lebanon has a long history of encroachments on blue landscapes including seafronts, rivers, and streams, constituting vital spaces similar to green spaces.”
She noted that this practice has resulted in the eradication of vital public areas in Beirut including fountains such as Sakieh, Ain el Mreisseh and Ras el Nabeh.
“All spaces that still have water in their naming but sadly have lost the practice of water source collection and meetings that had long been a part of our history.”
This was echoed by podcaster Ronnie Chatah, who for 15 years led a tour group around Beirut. Chatah said: “in an ideal situation the city would have plenty of pools to calm down and wind down from the heat, in an ideal world Beirut would have fountains where kids would splash themselves endlessly.”
“Since we are not in an ideal situation and since we have gone so far away from a refreshing city that can naturally cool itself in the heat, the last thing on anyone’s mind or anyone’s concern should be removing children from that fountain, weather they’re Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian or from Mars, it doesn't matter, let those kids jump around, let them cool down and let’s focus on everything else that’s going wrong.”
Additional reporting : Stephanie Khouri