Policy of Destitution has Led to Undignified Living in Lebanon’s al-Mankoubin District

2019-07-31    |   

Policy of Destitution has Led to Undignified Living in Lebanon’s al-Mankoubin District

It happened at night 64 years ago. Roaring water, cries for help, wailing. The people of al-Souaika and al-Hadid in the heart of old Tripoli emerged to find that the Abu Ali River was angry with them. It flooded and swept away their houses, killing dozens.

“I was young, six years old”, says Mahmoud al-Hamawi, who is in his 70s. At al-Lahama Bridge (al-Hadid), trees and garbage fell, clogging the bridge and causing the river, along with the gravel and dirt it brought from Tripoli’s heights, to overflow. “Our house bordered al-Tawba Mosque”, adds al-Hamawi. “The mosque was submerged and the stairs fell, so we could no longer get down.” Al-Hamawi, with his family and neighbors, jumped from the window overlooking the mosque’s roof: “We jumped and then sat in the center of the minaret, and the foundations of our house vanished. We were displaced to a house in al-Souaika, and after that, they gave us a cement-board house in al-Mankoubin”. The people of the city affected by the flood awoke to find themselves “neighbors, from al-Souaika, downtown, al-Zahriyeh, and the old quarter. They moved us from our beautiful sandstone and brick houses to Eternit (fibre cement) houses[1]. They gave every family a house”. That day, the area called al-Mankoubin – one of Tripoli’s most prominent informal settlements – took form.

Al-Mankoubin borders Jabal Mohsen and the Beddawi camp. Ownership of its lands traces back to the Lebanese State’s Construction Authority and, in part, to someone from the Abu Jawda family.


Tripoli: A “Haphazard” City

al-Mankoubin neighborhood is not the only informal settlement in the city. Architect Wassim Naghi’s work on architecture and urbanism entitled “Tripoli in 100 Years” is an in-depth study of the capital that  introduces us to another kind of informal settlement in al-Fayhaa: the residential apartments and rooms built without permits on the roofs of permitted buildings.

Tripoli, a serious nominee as UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is “a haphazard city as tin houses are spread above its old homes in the historical and Mamluk city, which should be a living museum rich with beautiful architecture per the global standards for heritage”, according to Naghi.

The informal settlement violations evolved from building more houses and shops to erecting new apartments without permits on the roofs of permitted buildings. This occurred at several stages during the chaos and wars that the city has witnessed: from the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War to the clashes its people dub “the Arafat-Syrian confrontations” in the early 1980s and the Bab al-Tabbaneh-Jabal Mohsen battles that they paved the way for and that continued until the security plan was applied in mid-2014. Of course, we should not forget the impact of the Islamic Unification Movement, which demanded the establishment of an Islamic province in Tripoli over two entire years (1983-1985). These stages are documented by researcher and regional advisor in ESCWA Adib Nehmeh in his interview with The Legal Agenda.

There are no answers to questions about numbers, and the Tripoli municipality has no studies or data. The municipality seems far removed from the concerns of the informal settlements’ residents, arguing that it does not charge the violators taxes and does not recognize them. The politicians, too, are not interested in these settlements except when it comes to attracting votes. They provide direct service to the residents that expires when the voting seasons end. All this occurs in the absence of genuine sustainable development or regard for at least ensuring Tripoli’s fair share of development, which reflects on the lives of its people, or preserving its archaeological treasure, which could be a tourist attraction that benefits citizens.

Hence, in the absence of government interest in these areas, visitors quickly discover how neglected these informal settlements are. Most lack effective sewerage networks. Some residents have no toilets in their houses, just a small pipe in the corner of a so-called kitchen under which cooking utensils could be found. There are no water networks, and the roads are narrow and full of potholes. Some alleyways are not wide enough for a small car, while others cannot accommodate even a motorcycle. The electricity grid does not extend to some neighborhoods; rather, their inhabitants hang illegal wires from the power lines of nearby areas. Moisture settles in dark rooms that sunlight does not reach. Most importantly, rates of education are extremely low and employment opportunities nonexistent. Here, a young man taps his chest to describe himself as “educated”, but when asked about his certification, his response – “I reached sixth grade” – is very telling. Poverty puts these people at the mercy of Tripoli’s many zuama [elite political leaders, sing. zaim] and into precarity that ties them to the de facto powers in anticipation of monthly assistance, a food carton, or a promised job that never comes and never in their wildest dreams surpasses the position of a building superintendent or sanitation worker. Diseases spread, and whoever has no connection to the “liaison officer” between the zaim and the public dies on the hospitals’ doorsteps as 76% of residents have no health insurance, according to the Urban Deprivation Index prepared by Adib Nehmeh in 2015.


Houses at Risk of Collapse

Some of al-Mankoubin’s houses were laid atop one another without pillars or even foundations. “With any jolt, we’ll be piled up on top of each other”, say the inhabitants.

The organization Akkarouna works to renovate the houses that pose a danger to their residents. Mahir al-Ali, the organization’s director of projects, explains the difficulty of entering al-Mankoubin: “Nobody was entering the area. [The inhabitants] were saying that some people [NGOs] get funding in their names but don’t give them any of it”. According to al-Ali, “There are 767 houses in al-Mankoubin, and 90% are roofed with tin or Eternit. The residents suffer shortness of breath, chest diseases, and epilepsy because of the noise of the rain on the tin roofs. We’ve observed a great proliferation of epilepsy”.

After obtaining the security forces’ permission, Akkarouna replaces the tin roofs with iron ones: “We install it over the cement board or tin to keep the rain off [the residents], and we place insulation to protect them from dampness, cold, frost, and air. We also reinforce the walls to protect their homes from collapse”.

The needs of al-Mankoubin and Tripoli’s informal settlements are “countless”, according to al-Ali. “There is a lack of water. They get it from wells dug by the residents, not the state, and there are folks selling water for LL5,000 [US$3] a month via an external network”. To give the inhabitants a sense of security, Akkarouna placed solar lighting in the alleys and the main street.

There are approximately 5,000 people living in al-Mankoubin and a similar number in Wadi al-Nahleh, including approximately 2,500 Syrian refugees, 200 Palestinians, and less than a dozen Egyptians and Iraqis.


Al-Mankoubin: Temporary Became Permanent

Al-Hamawi denies that the land of al-Mankoubin is state property: “That’s untrue. The area was built up with the money of benefactors. We told Rashid Karami to register the houses and land in our name. He said, as long as I’m alive, nobody will come near you. Rashid Karami died, and they began to consider us trespassers on state property. We want to ask them, where’s our property? They didn’t pay compensation, nothing”.

With time, and in accordance with the phases of chaos – both in terms of the insecurity resulting from clashes and the chaos resulting from the collusion of those in a position of power in Tripoli, whether zuama or people contending to be zuama, as the zuama provide cover for violators who vote for them – the families sought to secure homes for their next generation, whose size steadily grows in communities wherein the average family consists of at least seven members. Given the lack of income, it was only possible to expand in the direction of more illegal buildings. Hence, with time, the Eternit or tin houses transformed into four-story buildings. Chaos would prevail after a given clash or when the election season arrived, and the residents would capitalize on the lack of direct monitoring by the security forces to lay cement over the Eternit or tin and build an additional story that they then roof with tin or Eternit, and so on.

Sixty-four years passed from 1955 to 2019 without the state turning its attention to the residents of al-Mankoubin, residents whom it “temporarily” housed in tin, putting them in a precarious situation that impacts all aspects of their lives.

The people of al-Mankoubin, as well as the secretary of the Wadi al-Nahleh municipality Hussein Saif, say that the construction of informal settlements in the area rose approximately 30% with the Syrian crisis and before the security plan for al-Fayhaa was applied in mid-2014: “Syrian demand arose for all the informal settlements, including al-Mankoubin and Wadi al-Nahleh, because of the cheap rents and modesty of the area and its prices. All the people alike are poor ”.

Saif and the inhabitants consider the security plan’s application a key turning point in the course of the informal settlements’ expansion as the clashes that were previously occurring in Tripoli were preventing the security forces from entering the affected areas to suppress construction violations. Today, the security forces enter all areas.

Saif believes that a 2013 raid by security forces on an informal construction site put a dramatic end to the informal settlements’ expansion: “Unfortunately, there was a confrontation with the security forces that killed two people from Wadi al-Nahleh and one from the security personnel. Since that day, nobody builds illegally”. Some inhabitants consider this talk exaggerated: “Some people continued to get construction violations through, especially in election season and before the security plan”.


“Legitimizing” the Violator

Despite the painful reality of these informal settlements, they, like other areas, are also subject to supply and demand.

Al-Hamawi talks about the wealthy families who were evacuated from the old city following the flood: “Abu Murad, Makari, al-Imari, al-Samidi”. In the early 1960s, years after the flood, they sold the Eternit houses to people from outside Tripoli from Akkar or al-Dinniyeh, or they rented out their houses and returned to the heart of Tripoli. This is still occurring today, which reflects the constant evolution of the informal settlements’ economy: “Before the Syrian crisis, the rent for a good house ranged from LL50,000 to 70,000 [US$33 to 46]. Today, it costs LL200,000 to 300,000 [US$133 to 200]”.

But how are the houses or shops in this area relinquished, whether entirely or by renting them out? There are multiple documents signed to conclude these transactions, and this is what the residents consider ownership when they say, “This property is mine”. They do not apply to leases, which remain verbal, with the principal usufructuary – who considers himself an “owner” – retaining the main usufruct document that declares his right to the property, be it a room, small apartment, or storehouse. In this case, the only guarantee is the presence of two witnesses when the verbal lease agreement is made. Some say that they formalize the lease with the mayor of Wadi al-Nahleh or even the notary public. The landlords and renters share a clear fear of presenting any documents that prove capitalization on the informal settlement for fear that they – especially the usufructuaries – will be prosecuted. However, the Syrians registered with the UNHCR are given a receipt of rent payment so they can obtain their reimbursement.


Manufacturing Destitution in Order to Exploit It

The population records of al-Mankoubin’s residents have made them a target of politicians and Tripoli’s zuama. “We have more than 2,000 voters; we can bring down an MP and get one elected”, says one of the area’s youths. But their votes have not helped convince those in charge in Tripoli to develop their area or resolve their historical problem and their right to be compensated with decent housing 64 years after they were evacuated from the old city. Instead of development, the process of tying them to the zaim is readily apparent. As soon as someone with a notebook and pen appears, the residents think a census is occurring for the provision of assistance in an environment where there are no opportunities for work and production. Many of the families live off the stalls spread through al-Mankoubin’s main streets and alleys, which sell carrot and orange juice, roasted and boiled corn, custard, or just a cup of coffee. Here you find many “coffemen” selling a cup for LL 250 [US$0.17].

The main street of al-Mankoubin paints an accurate picture of the real situation of the people who live there. In front of the houses’ entrances, you always find chairs and, when owning a chair is difficult, hollow bricks that the neighborhood’s men and youth turn into seats during their morning, daytime, and evening walkabouts. They chat with each other and wait for anyone coming into the area looking for a day worker: “We work in all capacities, but nobody employs us. They employ Syrians as it’s cheaper for them”. These people speak about the promises they received during the 2018 elections: “I was promised a job in the garbage company by Mikati”, “Karami will employ me in the Islamic Hospital – may God give him long life”, and “Hariri’s man in the area promised me that I’d work with them in security”. Supervising a building, security, and sanitation are the extent of their occupational dreams. “But nobody keeps their promises”, some say, heartbroken. For them, the kilogram of meat that some zuama distribute makes a difference in feeding their children, albeit once a month. “Today, I borrowed from my brother the cost of a bundle of bread”, says a young man, a father of two children who do not find food to eat every day. And so we understand why, when someone calls out, “There’s LL10,000 [US$7] to distribute – who wants some?”, dozens gather to stand in line.

Why do you elect them, we ask? “We take US$100 per vote. They’ll win anyway, so let us benefit”, say multiple people. Another says, “One of the zuama was clothing my children for me. After the elections, he wasn’t impressed by the percentage of al-Mankoubin votes, so he stopped the assistance”. This zaim owns the only health center in al-Mankoubin. “We pay LL5,000 and get medicine from a center belonging to him in Tripoli”, someone says, “but they don’t give us the expensive medicines”.

During the discussion, some bring up their basic rights: “We’re not beggars. We’re workers and we’d do anything if they’d just provide us with work opportunities”. A neighbor replies, “If you worked, then you wouldn’t need the zaim. You wouldn’t fit in the palm of his hand and he wouldn’t be able to control you. So we have to stay unemployed and in need of them to feed our kids, to stay under their control in the hope of a modest job”.

With the consolidation of the culture of destitution and perpetual need for the zaim, these areas also seem to be the most vulnerable when the sectarian discourse in Lebanon intensifies. Hence, one of al-Mankoubin’s youths goes on to discuss how the situation of some of the area’s youth was exploited, both after Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was killed and during the Bab al-Tabbaneh-–Jabal Mohsen incidents all the way through to the Syrian crisis.

Likewise, approximately ten young men from al-Mankoubin have joined extremist groups: “Two from the Eternit neighborhood, and from the al-Imara neighborhood (the area mixed with people from Akkar and al-Dinniyeh) about seven or eight youths carried out suicide operations both in Lebanon [two youths] and in Syria”. Multiple people confirm that 40 to 50 young men are missing in Syria.


Children Become Orphans

More than 20 families from al-Mankoubin sent children to the orphanage of the Islamic association – linked to the Karami family – not because they have lost their father or mother but because they are “livelihood orphans”, as they say. Ahmad has five children, fifteen years old and younger,  living in the orphanage: “I can’t feed them, and my wife left me and the poverty I’m in. My father gives me LL 30,000 [US$20] to bring them for visits on Saturdays to see them”.

Jihad was not “lucky” like Ahmad. The orphanage only accepted three of his six children: “I can’t educate them or feed them”. He works at a stall selling lupine: “I make about LL10,000 [US$7] during the day. It’s not enough for the expenses of the three children as well as me and their mother”.

Amina, a senior, cannot bring her five grandchildren to her every weekend: “I need the taxi fare – LL20,000 [US$13.5] – to bring them, and I have to feed them”. Hence, her neighbors take pity on her and help her: “They know that they were left behind by my son and they have nobody but me”. Their father was killed in Syria, and those who encouraged him and recruited him disappeared: “We didn’t see anyone after the mourning ceremony”.

In al-Mankoubin, the food carton, which contains canned food, cereal, rice, sugar, mortadella, and a bottle of oil, makes a difference in the lives of those deprived of any mentionable income. “Even these [cartons], they only dispatch occasionally and at election time”, the inhabitants say.

As you leave and bid farewell to the people of al-Mankoubin, many stop you to ask: “Could you change something in our lives? Will you tell the state that we exist? Maybe they don’t know where we are? Maybe they think we all drowned in the flood”.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords: Lebanon, Tripoli, Al-Mankoubin, Informal settlement


[1] Translator’s note: “Eternit” was the name of Lebanon’s major asbestos importer. The company closed down in 2000.

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