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Waste Away

Notes on Beirut’s broken sewage system

A long time ago, about a decade after the end of the war in Beirut, I lived in a huge, crumbling house by the sea. Every foray into the heart of the city—to work, to the supermarket, to the cafés on Hamra Street—meant a trudge up a steepish hill. Not so steep a climb as in, say, Lisbon or Istanbul, but enough to make it obvious whether you’d been keeping in shape or not. One early morning after a hard rain, I was making my way up the hill when I saw a line of traffic stuck behind a stalled car and heard the frenzied shouting of men.

And then it hit me. The fell-you-where-you’re-standing stench of shit. One of the sewer drains had overflowed, blasting away its manhole cover, and a gleaming brown waterfall cascaded down the hill. It took me about a minute to understand what was happening: what this had to do with the stalled car, why there were about fifteen men gesturing hysterically, half of them yelling at the poor, broken-down driver to “Push on! Push on!” and the other half careering down the hill, warning the other cars to “Go back! Go back!”

The car’s tires, you see, couldn’t get a grip on the asphalt for the slimy effluence underwheel. They spun and spun in place, emitting an agonized whine, churning out fecal matter as the men screamed, and women craned their heads over windowsills and balcony railings, adding their own horrified shouting and instructions to the commotion. Occasionally there was a mighty string of curses as one of the men got too close and got splattered, perhaps with the remnants of the very same meal he had consumed at his dinner table the night before, and then unloaded into his toilet that very morning. The private become public in spectacular fashion. It was horrifying. It was hilarious. It was basically everything a great poop joke should be. After watching awhile from a safe distance, I took a detour up another hill, giggling the whole way.

The fifteen-year-long Lebanese civil war officially ended in 1990; soon afterward, the reconstruction project began. The common wisdom at the time, repeated wearily by taxi drivers and shopkeepers, was that the warring parties had finally realized that there was more money to be made through peace. A massive private holding company bought out the entirety of the downtown area—which had been the front line between the two divided halves of Beirut—promising to build a shiny new city out of its ruins. One that would look very much like the pre-war city, with its romantic, pale-yellow mandate-era buildings, but sleeker and more modernized. For a single private company to acquire so much prime land—most of which still technically belonged to the homeowners and shopkeepers and businesses who had waited fifteen long years to reclaim their holdings; some of which was public property and belonged to the municipality and hence the people—required certain zoning and property laws to be rewritten outright. There was very little outcry, except from those who had been swindled out of what they owned. At the time, too many people were invested, either financially or emotionally, in seeing the war come to an end to care about how the city’s future might be made to emerge from the rubble of its past.

The old warlords became the new government; private contracts replaced contract killers.

Downtown Beirut went from blasted wasteland to massive construction site overnight, with individual lots encircled by steel fences, upon which were digitally rendered images of the buildings that would sprout there, the apartments they would house, and the people who might live there (a vast majority of whom were inexplicably blond). There were also always a few lines of copy richly proclaiming the virtues of these soon-to-be dwellings. Some variation of “exclusive private luxury in the heart of the city” or else “luxurious private exclusivity.” Really, the most the copywriters could be bothered with was to scramble the order of these words, occasionally also throwing in promises like “haven” and “retreat” and “elegant” and “singular views.”

A general amnesty had been agreed upon as part of the peace accord that ended the war. All was forgiven; no one would be prosecuted or held accountable. The old warlords became the new government; private contracts replaced contract killers; the new city would leave the old war behind by erasing every last trace of it, by the cosmetic overhaul of its ruins. The holding company’s slogan, etched into the hundreds upon hundreds of cement barricades erected to mark the limits of its empire, declared Beirut “an ancient city for the future.” A rebranding of the old national myth, one predicated on continuous destruction: Beirut, the phoenix, the city that had been destroyed and rebuilt seven times over the centuries would yet once more rise, glorious and triumphant, from the ash.

(Some things that were accidentally exhumed during the reconstruction process: mass graves, weapons caches. These were brief blips in the news, immediately buried, or rather, reburied.)

Beneath every city, its underground twin. Its dark heart; its churning guts. This is no metaphor: I’m talking about the sewer system. A network of pipes connecting to every shower drain, every kitchen sink, every toilet, disappearing a household’s dirt and grease and vomit and urine and feces down the gullets of small pipes that flow down into the ground, that then feed into bigger pipes, and ever bigger pipes, all our shit merging: the organic, fibrous roughage of the rich, the nutrient-deficient poop of the poor, and all the middle-class crap in between, all democratically flowing together in a single system, ideally powered by gravity, ideally leading to the great bowel of a treatment plant meant to deal with all this waste, turn it clear again, so that it can be safely dumped into rivers and seas.

We felt innocent of the past, and therefore not doomed to repeat it.

Alongside this system, another one. The storm-drainage system that receives a city’s rain and rushes it back from whence it came. A rhythmic cycle, as nature intended: from river to river, lake to lake, sea to sea. This water is also used to feed the groundwater supply, some of it piped back into wells and tanks. Soil absorbs rain, feeding it into the root systems of crops and flowers and trees; asphalt, concrete does not. As such, streets must be designed to be ever so slightly convex, so that rain may flow to either side and rush down into the storm drains meant to line every one of them. Streets also ought to be kept clear of garbage, not just for aesthetic purposes, but because this water picks up pollutants and trash along its journey and brings them back to our crops, our waterways, our homes. Storm pipes are bigger than sewer pipes: the deluge from above is faster and more powerful than any faucet, any flush.

Ideally, a proportional amount of money is invested in maintaining this invisible city in such a way that it keeps pace with whatever is taking place aboveground. As the population grows, so, too, must the sewer network. As the rains change, becoming rarer, or else more brutal, so, too, must the stormwater system keep up, with storage designed to compensate for the deficits of the dry season, or more expansive pipes to accommodate the assaults of the wet. In some places, these two systems, circulatory and digestive, are combined, both supplies detoxified by the same organ before being released. In others, where they are not, their networks must be kept strictly separate throughout, and any rupture can be as serious and poisonous as poop getting into your bloodstream. Ideally, in both cases, the treatment plants actually work, and the sewage is not just dumped as is into the sea.

A billboard in Beirut depicts the future view toward the Mediterranean. | William Tracy

In that heady first decade and a half after the end of the fighting, before the massive car bomb that would kill the former prime minister and twenty-one other people besides and plunge us into a new era of national strife, there were many who, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, continued to believe that Beirut’s face-lift meant that the infrastructure of the old war, too, was being dismantled and renovated. I was of that generation who were too young to have helped make the war, but who now felt old enough to participate in unmaking it. We felt innocent of the past, and therefore not doomed to repeat it.

I remember an immense sense of freedom—we had grown up confined to an indoor world, to interior corridors and underground shelters, and now all we wanted was to roam the city endlessly, to cross its sectarian lines again and again, no longer hindered by checkpoints. Every meager public space was ours for the taking. We clambered over the railings of the seaside Corniche to sit on the moss-slippery rocks and feel the spray of the waves on our faces. We picnicked on Ramlet el-Baida beach, the only public beach in the city, undaunted by the garbage strewn on the white sands—used condoms and used needles, plastic bags and rotting food waste—because there were also paper-winged moths and candy-colored butterflies, a riot of green plants and small, pink flowers, all watched over by the nodding heads of bulrushes, and on clear, windless days, when the sand lay still along the seabed, hundreds of translucent little fish nipping and darting in the filtered sun. As for the fishy, sewagey smell, well—that was just the smell of the sea.

One night we took supplies of wine and beer down with us, as so many others did. Drunk, we ran into the waves stripped down to our underwear beneath the moonshine sky. I remember splashing around giddily, then leaping away, screaming nervous laughter when I imagined something might be brushing against my legs.

Sometime later an architect friend showed me a satellite image that had been taken of Beirut, in such high resolution you could zoom in on the dense patchwork of tightly packed blocks and see the individual rooftops of buildings, see who could afford satellite dishes and who still kept pigeons. The image had been taken from space, and so from space you could see the two dark lines on either side of the Ramlet el-Baida beach extending out beneath the deep blue of the sea. Outfalls of raw sewage flowing straight into the water; you could literally see our shit from space. When I swam there, I had been afraid of sea monsters lurking beneath the waves. I did not know that the things I should have feared were much, much smaller, measured in parts per million: monsters of our own making.

The reconstruction did not stop at the downtown area, it did not stop at reconstruction. More and more buildings are being torn down to make way for towering leviathans that have made the city unrecognizable. There is less of the sky (they cast long, stifling shadows), less of the sea (they block all views, often all access), less of the earth: none of the plans for this new city include parks, or public squares, or spaces for those who cannot afford entrance fees to the private, exclusive luxuries being built all around us. The streets are filthy with construction debris; the din is constant, maddening.

Nor do these plans include any real overhaul of the other city that lurks beneath our feet. And what we have beneath our feet is a rotting, disintegrating, barely functional sewage infrastructure. Some of the pipes date back to the 1940s. No one knows how old it is. It is notoriously difficult to get any clear “whole network” maps from the municipal offices; many activists—many of them nonpartisan urban planners and architects—have tried. That there is a decided lack of access to information is already a type of information about what sort of city we live in. In the news, it is occasionally announced that engineers have been called in to reroute old systems, build pumping stations at the different outfalls, revamp old treatment plants or build new ones. But the pumping stations remain silent; the treatment plants as well. Running them costs money, eats into profits, withholds the reward of generous bribes for the municipal authorities. Also, there is the fact that the city’s sectarian divisions, its original rotten infrastructure, extend all the way down into the underground. There are squabbles about who should host the treatment plants, how to route the sewers, through whose area. Each refuses, literally, to take the other’s shit. So they send it to the only place without a sectarian scumbag to claim it: the sea.

When it rains that hard the streets flood; people drown in the refugee camps or else are electrocuted by the exposed wiring that turns streams into liquid lightning.

However, here’s the thing: it is not merely the city changing at an alarming rate. Every year now it rains less—but harder and harder. In a few days the sky will dump down half the annual average in one ferocious storm. The soil, parched from a long, seething summer, cannot handle the violence of the deluge. The water does not feed the crops but washes away the very soil that sustains them. The soil can find no purchase—the trees that once held it in place grow fewer each day. For the mountains, too, have become unrecognizable; bulldozers have carved great quarries into their sides making way for new developments, the exposed red soil like an angry wound from afar. When it rains that hard the streets flood; people drown in the refugee camps or else are electrocuted by the exposed wiring that turns streams into liquid lightning.

When it rains that hard the sea becomes invisible in the distance; the horizon is a single gray wall of water from earth to sky. It is not hard to imagine that the sea itself is falling upward, roused out of its bed to roar vengeance down upon us: the poison of our shit, our garbage, our waste, the collective punishment of our carelessness both innocent and deliberate having mutated it into a monstrous thing.

A postcard depicting the Bay of St. Andrew in Beirut. | Fouad Debbas

In 2017, the real estate behemoth Achour Development broke ground on yet another new luxury seaside resort—right on Ramlet el-Baida beach. Civil society activist groups and local NGOs had been campaigning for years to save the city’s last public beach from private development, stepping it up desperately in those last few months: demonstrating, holding press conferences, filing lawsuits against the municipality, loudly warning of irrevocable damage to the social and natural environments. The president of the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects compiled a report detailing every violation that had been undertaken to allow the construction to go ahead, including the illegal sale and rezoning of land that had been classified as unbuildable, the erasure of the limits of what is, by law, considered the public maritime domain, and the outright forgery of permit material.

None of it made a difference in the end. There is a long precedent here of bulldozing over the laws, of rewriting them to suit private interests. Today, the ghastly, oversized monstrosity, unironically and unimaginatively named Eden Bay, dominates one end of the beach, smugly looking out over the water, its back to the city.

The copy on Eden Bay’s website reads, in part: “This luxurious retreat by the sea boasts exquisite accommodation, superior amenities, unmatched hospitality and the exclusivity of your own private community in the city.” In all the intervening years the copywriters have learned no new tricks. Why should they? They know what the rich need, what they have always needed: to live in Beirut without living in Beirut, to float above its filth and rot in their own private bubbles, enjoying their singular views, untouched and untouchable.

But what, you might ask, did they do with the outfalls gushing raw sewage into the sea just yards away from Eden Bay’s superior amenities? Why, they did what any shortsighted, profit-minded, cartoonishly evil corporate villain might do. First, they stoppered that shit up with concrete. Then, they rerouted it into a storm pipe. And then the rains came.

In November 2018, I was away from Beirut, briefly, for work. One morning I woke up to find a deluge of WhatsApp messages from various friends and relatives, all forwarding the same few videos. There had been a terrible storm. At one point, hail the size of fists had fallen. In one of the videos, shoppers run screaming as it smashes into the courtyard of a fancy mall. In another, a woman holds up a plastic chair on her balcony, so punched through with holes it looks like Swiss cheese. There are brutalized cars, felled trees and electricity poles, a man water-skiing on the northern coastal highway, mudslides in the quarries. The last was of the boulevard overlooking Ramlet el-Baida beach. The water was almost hip-deep, if the drowned cars parked on the side of the road were anything to measure by.

But it wasn’t water: it was shit. Exploding so forcefully up from the depths that the sewer covers danced atop the flumes, like in a cartoon. Yes, Eden Bay, and all its enablers, had caused a literal shitstorm.

In every home, there is a place of horror, a place in which we must daily encounter the fate none of us can escape. I’m talking about the bathroom; more specifically, the toilet. The toilet, whose gaping maw is supposed to lead things away from our bodies and from our homes, to flush them away and carry them to some unknown place, to keep the shameful secret of our body’s vulnerable materiality hidden and thus manageable.

To say that we’re drowning in our shit—the shit we all made together—is no longer a figure of speech in Lebanon today.

Occasionally, however, it fails to do so. Who among us hasn’t endured that moment of flushing the toilet and then, with dread, watching the water not go down as it should in one mighty swallow of the cistern, but rise up, slowly, trembling at the lip of the toilet bowl, threatening to overspill? It is the stuff of nightmares. Not because of the prospect of having to clean that shit up (though there is that, too). No, it is the true stuff of nightmares, the actual thing we try to keep from ourselves. An archetypal monster forged of the life-giving material of the everyday world, but transformed to reveal the awful truth that lurks always just beneath its surface. Which is the knowledge that the lives we live are built both atop and out of the decaying material of the past; that our bodies, too, will one day putrefy and be reduced to rot; and how close that rot is, always, to flooding out of the underworld and into the everyday.

Perhaps that is why, then, the truest sign of unbridled, irrevocable disaster is when the figurative becomes literal, when the destruction is so large scale it erodes the distance between fact and allegory. The metaphors we’ve borrowed from the subterranean world of the unconscious, that help us shed a different light on reality so that we might see it better, become the actual reality we have to contend with. When the border between this world and its underground twin collapses, we have no choice but to live with the monsters of our worst nightmares. All that shit we tried to hide, forget, reroute, ignore, is out now, flooding the streets for all to see. The corruption of our politicians, the rotten sectarian infrastructure upon which our system is built, our failure to deal with the past before burying it: that’s the shit we’re living in now.

To say that we’re drowning in our shit—the shit we all made together—is no longer a figure of speech in Lebanon today. We’re materially drowning in our shit. We’re swimming in our shit. We’re eating our shit perpetually now, as it flows back untreated into the groundwater, as it contaminates our crops and seeps into our wells, coming back out of our faucets and gushing over our faces, our bodies, and then back down into the drains, in the endless cycle that  nature intended. Because it turns out that in the end, the lesson was right there in everything all along. All the shit you don’t deal with? It all comes back in the end.

A slightly modified version of this essay will appear under the title “The Funniest Sh*t You Ever Heard” in the anthology “Tales of Two Planets,” edited by John Freeman, published August 4th by Penguin Books.