In his book “Those Were the Days Ras Beirut,” the late Kamal Rbeiz published a series of interviews, the ones historians call “oral history,” as he profiled a dozen Beirut notables. Himself a native of Ras Beirut, Rbeiz succeeded his father Jirji as mayor, and ran an office on his family property, a stone throw away from the American University of Beirut (AUB).
As a longtime resident of Ras Beirut, yet not registered in the district, I once visited Rbeiz for official business. He peppered me with questions in an attempt to profile my ancestry. When he failed to recognize any common acquaintances, he refused to stamp my papers.
Samih Shatila, the once star goalkeeper of Lebanon’s football team in the 1950s and 60s, coached our teams at IC and AUB. When I accidentally told him that Rbeiz was giving me trouble, he recommended that I use his name as reference. When I did, Rbeiz immediately approved my business. Because “Captain Samih” was my sponsor, Rbeiz gave me a free copy of his book.
In his book, Rbeiz mentions Shatila as a great goalkeeper and a “pigeon trainer,” a traditional hobby among Beirut’s elder male generation.
Though not a work of history, Rbeiz’s book debriefs Ras Beirutis who came of age in the early and middle part of last century. Their parents were the ones who sold AUB its land, who built its buildings and who staffed its faculty and administration. Ras Beirut was an empty land filled with cactus trees. Even after AUB built its first buildings, the locals were scared to venture toward Hamra for fear that a witch, according to tradition, used to live somewhere in Hamra’s bushes, according to Rbeiz’s book.
I grew up in Ras Beirut, but in accordance with the long-honored Arab tradition, new comers in any city remain foreigners forever. It was thanks to Samih Shatila that I won recognition with Rbeiz.
Shatila was more than a coach. He was related to the Ras Beirut families of Labban and Nsouli, all of whom lived in two buildings across from each other, next to the once famous sandwich shop Abu Khodor. Shatila’s son, slightly younger than me, along with his relatives the Labbans and the Nsoulis, who were my age, also went to IC, and all of us played on the same football team. When we were not playing, we were doing what young guys do, standing in front of Abu Khodor.
Despite the domineering presence of AUB and its international profile, Ras Beirut maintained its local character. A changing world brought layers of immigrants. But there they settled in smoothly.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, many Western families moved with AUB to Ras Beirut. Some returned home, but others stayed and were naturalized. Elizabeth Summerville, wife of Victor Sadaka, the late pastor of the First Baptist Biblical Church on Makhoul Street, told me how her father was a contractor who helped build various AUB buildings, including the Main Gate.
The dear late historian Kamal Salibi often recounted his first impression after his family had relocated to Bliss Street from Bhamdoun. Their apartment was on the top (fourth) floor of the building where the Socrates restaurant once thrived. “It felt like a skyscraper and was the only high rise,” Salibi used to say. “Every morning I could hear the beautiful chanting (call to prayer) coming from the nearby mosque.”
By mid-century, many Greek Orthodox Palestinian families — Nassar, Zwaneh, Abu Diyyeh, and Saba among others — had moved to Ras Beirut, where they bought property. They intermarried with Ras Beiruti Greek Orthodox families, such as Rbeiz, Bakhaazi and Majdalani, and maintained successful businesses.
Ras Beirut’s Sunni families were not displaced though. Shatila, Labban, Itani and Shehab, among others, still owned vast property and offered an army of laborers, especially fishermen. The Druze too had their share in Ras Beirut. The families of Oud, Sleit and Rawda owned property, though theirs was closer to the waterfront, especially after the Druze Hamra family and the Talhouks had been mostly bought out.
During the civil war, Ras Beirut came under the influence of competing militias. Hamra was split between the Druze, a limited Shiite (Amal) presence and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The waterfront Jall El Bahr was Druze territory.
Yet despite the militias, Ras Beirut remained peaceful, except during episodes of “random shelling” between East and West Beirut.
After the war, the landscape and architecture of Ras Beirut started changing from mid-century four or five story buildings into a jungle of concrete with high rises of over 10 floors. Contractors found a lucrative way to transform old buildings into new ones. They offered owners replacing their old buildings with brand new ones, in return for the contractor becoming half-owner. The aging owners saw an opportunity in upgrading their living, splitting their real estate titles that they had mostly inherited as single units from their ancestors.
Samih Shatila was one of those whose buildings was transformed. On top of his old building, he could be seen from the street training his pigeons. With a high rise, Captain Samih and his pigeons became out of sight.
In 2009, Rbeiz died. In 2011, Salibi. This week, Samih Shatila died at age 85. Meanwhile, Ras Beirut is transforming into a concrete jungle choking with traffic and pedestrians. The once small neighborhood now faces stresses on its infrastructure as it is being repeatedly invited to compete with regional powerhouses like Dubai and Doha. At least AUB is in the race, and perhaps winning it, as Ras Beirut gets connected to the world, losing its borders and its once defining character.
Rbeiz, Salibi and Shatila are gone. Only their stories live. Their memory will still make many smile.