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Meeting along the rail line

Meeting along the rail lines

This story is included in our book Beirut Re-Collected, an anthology with 20 stories from Beirut. You can buy it in bookstores in Lebanon or order it online

Every morning for years, Bechara Hana Assi gazed at the moving landscape through a train window on his commute. Five days a week, he waited for the train at Hadath station, north-east of the city, and by 6:10 a.m., he had started his rotation at the traction control room in Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s former railway station.

One Friday in May 2012, I traversed the disused narrow gauge rail yards looking for him. His office door was shut, and when I asked of his whereabouts, I was told that the president of the Railroad Workers Union had retired last winter. I walked towards the SLM, a Swiss-made steam locomotive —perhaps the same one that first journeyed from Beirut to Damascus in August 1895. And there I paused, and nearly began to weep. I sat in the shade of a ficus tree, amidst butterflies and wild flowers, watching the railway disappear underground. I remembered how my story with the railway station began.

Our paths crossed one autumn afternoon in 2009, when Bechara took me for a ride on the pump trolley around the rail yards at the Mar Mikhael train station. It was through him that I discovered this hidden landscape, where nature coils around an obsolete infrastructure, as if to protect it from the passing of time. Ever since, the story of the railway began unfolding before me in layers. Through the years and the seasons, I gathered archives, stories, pictures, and maps in an attempt to reconstruct the narrative of a railway system that once was.

Reading the railways

Beirut, August 3, 1895. The very first train left Mar Mikhael railway station for a nine-hour and 147-kilometre journey to Damascus, across hilly terrain. With stops at Hadath, Baabda, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sofar and Dahr al-Baidar, amongst others, the 1.05-metre narrow gauge AB track railway descended into the Bekaa, stopping at Rayak Railway Station and Railway Works, where crowds had gathered in an official celebration to mark the beginning of railway history in the Levant. From there, the railway continued to Damascus, its final destination.

In 1891, the Ottoman Empire had granted the French established Société des Chemins de Fer Ottomans Economiques de Beyrouth-Damas Hauran a concession to build the first railway in the Middle East. Earlier, from 1839 to 1876, the Ottoman Tanzimat reform era had witnessed the establishment of the first post offices and the first telegraph network, part of a series of administrative and infrastructural reforms throughout the empire to secure territorial integrity in response to its slow decline.

The French envisioned the railway as an opportunity to connect Beirut’s port to the Syrian hinterland, thereby providing the city of Damascus with transit access and an opening onto the Mediterranean shores. This came as a response to the proposed British Jaffa-Damascus railway project. Had the plan gone through, Beirut would not have acquired the status of the primary port of the Northern Levant, ahead of Haifa, Sidon, and Tripoli.

Clearly, both French and British forces had foreseen the opportunity presented by investing capital in the region and constructing a railway network connecting strategic trade and pilgrimage routes throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Beirut’s urban geography witnessed a turning point in 1860, with the onset of a rural exodus after a brief period of sectarian unrest. It was a time of change. Beirut became an Ottoman provincial capital in 1888, and the port was enlarged in 1890, following the formation of the Compagnie du Port, des Quais et des Entrepôts de Beyrouth in 1888. Urbanisation was expanding eastward and westward into the surrounding suburbs, and beyond the city’s seven gates and ramparts.

The railway added yet another layer to the changing urban landscape. In the Bonfils photographic series on Beirut of the late 1800s, the coastal land east of the historical centre was rural, with mulberry plantations, orchards and olive groves.

Situated east of the Beirut souks and the Bourj Square (today Martyrs’ Square) — but also on a plain between the two hills of Ashrafieh and Ras Beirut; and in close proximity to the port, Karantina and the Beirut River — Mar Mikhael was chosen to serve as Beirut’s central railway station in 1895. The railway station, with its repair workshop and rail yards, extended over a surface area of 62 000 square metres, leaving a lasting mark on the neighbourhood.

Later on, the railway network expanded along the old routes of Beirut (the Damascus Road, the Old Saida Road and the Tripoli Road) shaping the landscape and connecting the hinterland to coastal cities. By 1906, another railway track was built and operated by the Société des Chemins de fer Damas-Hama et prolongements (DHP), connecting Rayak to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. In 1911, a standard gauge railway was built between Tripoli and Homs, and later, in the 1930s, the Orient Express arriving from Paris terminated at Istanbul. From there, the Taurus Express took over, terminating in Tripoli. Between the two world wars, the railways were profitable, with daily passengers and regional freight transport between Beirut and Aleppo, as well as two Beirut-Damascus return trips daily.

I remember asking my grandfather, who was born in 1906 and was a DHP shareholder, about his recollections of the train. He once told me: “On the way to Damascus, the railway grazed orange fields, and children would jump into the orchards to pick fruit and hop back on the train.”

When he took the train in the 1920s and 1930s, it stopped at every village and merchants would run to the windows with fruit baskets, labneh (strained yogurt) and markouk (bread). When I asked him if he used to read on the train, he answered, “Yes. There were also children selling newspapers, magazines and translated novels, and if I remember correctly, an Arabic version of Sherlock Holmes.”

In the 1940s, the allied troops extended the railway from Tripoli via Beirut to Haifa. A direct link was envisioned by the British, between the standard gauge railway (from their base in Haifa) and the northern Syrian railway, terminating in Tripoli. And as of 1942, regular military traffic began on the Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli line. Today, an inscription from 1942 commemorating the historic event still stands on the coastal railway viaduct at Nahr al-Kalb River, north of Beirut.

From Haifa, passengers could continue their journey to Cairo; rail travel between Europe and Africa had become possible. As of 1948, the NBT railway station in Furn el-Chebbak, east of Beirut, served as the terminus for the Naqoura-Beirut-Tripoli line. With the onset of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Haifa connection was discontinued and trains no longer crossed the border, instead terminating at Naqoura, south Lebanon.

The guardian of the railway

In the 1950s, a young boy from Jezzine, a village south of Beirut, stepped into a railway station for the first time. It was Bechara’s very first visit to the city. He accompanied his uncle Karim during his daily chores as a railroad worker at Mar Mikhael railway station.

That day, Bechara discovered a magical place bustling with movement, life, people, goods, cattle, children, fumes, and noises. It was then that he decided to train as a railroad worker and follow in the footsteps of his uncle. Therefore, in 1963, at the age of 15, Bechara began working at the Office des Chemins de Fer et des Transports en Communs (OCFTC), a semi-autonomous subdivision of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. Back in 1961, the Lebanese state had acquired the entire railway network and Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais (CEL) had been established.

During the 1960s, freight transport between Beirut and Damascus was highly profitable. Bechara recalls that the coastal railway transported around a thousand tons of fuel daily between the Zahrani power plant south of Lebanon and the Beirut power stations. Cement also arrived daily from the plant in Chekka to be distributed in Beirut.

Although passenger numbers began decreasing with the advent of cars and buses around that time, the OCFTC still operated a daily passenger train between Beirut and Aleppo, and two return trips a day between Beirut and Damascus.

The railways later witnessed the onset of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. Local newspaper archives offer a detailed chronology that portrays severe sabotaging of the railways. In 1975, the Beirut-Damascus line stopped running, and in 1979, the coastal railway suffered a bomb attack. Militia groups occupied railway stations, using them for torture; they vandalised railway property and used locomotives as barricades across conflict zones. As the war lingered, and Beirut’s city centre gradually became a no man’s land, the OCFTC moved its administrative headquarters to Mar Mikhael.

Over the years, Bechara and his fellow dedicated railroad workers continued their daily rotations at Mar Mihkael, where they strived to restore and repair parts of the damaged railways and to sustain its operations. The war went on, but the train kept on running throughout the 1980s, albeit with an increasingly intermittent service. Even with the end of the Lebanese civil war in the early 1990s, the railways were gradually silenced with illegal construction, severe damage to the tracks and a total absence of political decision-making. According to Bechara, the very last train took the journey from the Chekka cement works to Beirut in 1997.

Since then, Bechara and the remaining railroad workers have become the guardians of the railways and the keepers of their secrets. Today, Bechara also remembers the numerous nights spent in the bunker of Mar Mikhael, as he and other railroad workers took shelter amongst the locomotives, waiting for a truce. In recent years, I have taken those wishing to listen to railway stories with me to Mar Mikhael. Every time, Bechara would proudly point at a photograph of the Peace Train that has hung on his office wall since 1991.

That day in October 1991, to mark the end of the civil war, the OCFTC repaired the coastal railway between Beirut and Jbeil. For Bechara and his peers at the OCFTC, this marked the realisation of a dream, one they had long wished for: to witness the rebirth of the railway network throughout Lebanon and the region. Sadly, their dream was short-lived. The Peace Train took a single journey, and rail transport infrastructure was not integrated into the national reconstruction and economic policies of the 1990s.

A walk in Mar Mikhael

Today, green prevails in the Mar Mikhael station. Suspended in time and pending rebirth, railway stations across Lebanon have transformed into wild gardens, and their rail yards into natural green corridors.

Bechara is the perfect guide to that hidden landscape. The walk starts at the former ticket hall building where he points to the station clock, still in perfect working condition. It is a 1929 design by Paul Garnier, the renowned French clock and watchmaker, whose speciality was railway clock making. He also takes the visitor inside the different station buildings, and teaches railway terminology to whomever wishes to learn it. He explains that the travellers’ hall was constructed in 1889, based on drawings designed by the Paris Lyon Railway Company. Every once in a while, he interrupts his technical description and recounts a few anecdotes that took place in the station’s café.

As the walk progresses and the visitor goes past the bulletspeckled steam locomotives, a romantic ruin is unveiled: a watercooling crane, the foundations of a railway turntable, a pile of abandoned steel rail and concrete sleepers — the debris of the past life of this magical place.

Last winter, I took a stroll through the train station’s neighbourhood. I followed the rusted railway bridge off Armenia Street, the main artery of today’s gentrified Mar Mikhael, and continued along the railway track. I walked through shrubs into a residential area, following the narrow gauge track going slightly uphill. Through the years, construction had mushroomed both downhill and uphill, and the railway, disappearing and reappearing into the ground, had become a sort of waste dump for neighbouring houses. I kept going until I hit a highway and a desolate scene: the end of the railway, shattered and suspended in the void.

That same day, I bypassed the 400-metre-long concrete wall that surrounds the station site, and, as it was getting late, I decided to drop by Bechara to say hello. By the time I arrived at Ibrahim Pacha street, where the station entrance is located, I saw him putting on his beret and getting into his car. It was the last time I saw Bechara in Mar Mikhael before he retired.

To find him, I followed the course of the Beirut-Damascus railway and went asking for him in the neighbourhood of the former Hadath station. In the 1970s, during the civil war, Bechara was asked to move his personal residence there to protect it from vandalism. Ever since, he drinks his morning coffee looking out at the rail tracks. The day Bechara retired was a sad day. He drove to his native village in Jezzine, spending weeks there. For a long time he did not want to speak to anyone.

Today, Bechara longs for the train station. He still drops by once a week to find silence and peace amongst its rusting locomotives. When I think of him, I hear these words: “Railways run in my veins.” To him, being a railway worker was, and remains, a way of life.

A railway to go where?

Bechara wonders how a railway system can simply cease to exist, and what the reasons are behind the oblivious response of stakeholders. To him, the answer to these questions is straightforward: it’s a matter of land ownership. The OCFTC owns 401 kilometres and about eighty million square metres of railway in Lebanon, he says. He is aware that people wonder why the OCFTC still exists today. They inquire about the daily tasks of the remaining 40 railroad workers. An absurd situation, he agrees: railway personnel with no railway.

There has been no legislation by the Ministry of Transport to terminate the operation of the railway, or to dissolve the railway authority. Bechara suspects that such a move could create land property issues, since the heirs of those from whom the land was expropriated to construct the railway network in the 1800s, would be able to claim ownership of the land.

A laissez-faire approach and corrupt institutions have allowed railway land to be developed illegally, starting the late 1970s and especially along Lebanon’s coastal line. Concrete sleepers and metalwork have been ripped up and some locomotives have been sold on the black market. Bechara says that, over the years, the OCFTC has filed around 2300 legal complaints against owners of developments that have infringed on railway property, but the status of the complaints is still pending.

There are pages and pages of research investigating the state of the railway, and proposals to rehabilitate the network. All aspects have been studied and carefully documented repetitively over the span of the last 30 years. We hear of a plan here, an idea there: a line for freight, another for sightseeing.

Bechara believes that rehabilitating a section of the railway is not the solution; it is not what he has been striving for and dreaming about for the last 30 years. It’s a simple equation. To him, the railway story is a metaphor; a mere reflection of the confused identity and status of Lebanon. He asks: “A railway to go where?” From Mar Mikhael train station, today, it is unimaginable to go anywhere in the city, let alone to cross any border. There have been forbidden landscapes in the South for a long time, and recently, the North too has become challenging. Bechara is certain that with tense affairs with neighbouring countries, a railway in Lebanon cannot be envisioned. He believes that an inter-Arab, inter-Middle Eastern railway, would be a sign of peace, diplomacy and economic growth.

In the 1960s when Bechara started working, the Railway Workers Union had 3000 members; today there are barely 40 members, who simply guard the old sites, attend to administrative tasks and await a meagre pension. Bechara often wonders what will happen to the railways when the remaining railroad workers retire, as the OCFTC has stopped recruiting new employees. Who will then guard Lebanon’s railway heritage? Can it be left to oblivion just like that? Derelict railway stations across Lebanon constitute an exceptional industrial and architectural heritage, and with time, they have evolved into wildlife habitats and grazing sites, as nature takes over in the absence of human activity. City planners and landscape architects envision these sites evolving into temporary public spaces: museum-parks.

Meanwhile, Bechara remains the guardian of the railways. He will forever strive to keep its memory alive. Today, he is working on a publication and a documentary film, while he awaits — like his fellow railroad workers and all Lebanon’s citizens — a modern railway system.

Time has passed and the rail tracks have become Beirut’s hidden landscapes. Meanwhile, Bechara and other rail enthusiasts strive to conserve the railway stories.

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