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Martyrs’ Square – Al-Borj by Kenneth Mortimer

 

 
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Martyrs’ Square – Al-Borj by Kenneth Mortimer
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Joined: 09 Mar 2007
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Perhaps now it is only the older generation who remember Martyrs’ Square as it used to be. Known in French as Place des canons and in Arabic as Saht al-Borj, or simply as Al-Borj, it was unique in the world for the compression of business activity in such a small space.

Wherever you wanted to go, in Lebanon or abroad, to Antelias or to Tokyo, first you went to the Borj. From its center taxis went to every part of the country. An American seminarian visiting Lebanon was told that he should go and see the Latin bishop, who at that time was an American Franciscan. He ‘phoned up the bishop’s house for an appointment and was given one for three in the afternoon next day. He was told to go to the Borj and ask for a taxi to Hadeth and he would arrive in a quarter of an hour.

He went down to the Borj with about twenty minutes to spare and was immediately hailed by a taxi driver who asked him where he wanted to go. “Hadeth,” he said and was immediately pushed into the seat of a vehicle. They drove for quarter of an hour, for half an hour and for an hour and they still had not arrived. When after some three hours they did arrive at Hadeth (the present high roads did not exist then), they found that nobody knew of a bishop’s house. The reason? The seminarian had been taken to Hadeth Jibbeh in North Lebanon, whereas the bishop lived a short distance from Beirut at Hadeth South Metn!

Every hole in the wall where a man might sit to sell cigarettes was a precious heirloom inherited from the time of the Ottoman Turks. There were Sudanese who sold peanuts heated over embers in a box on stands. One cannot say that they did a roaring trade, but it was said that they were police informers paid to keep their eyes open.

Amidst all the extraordinary animation one might see a man with a hefty wooden box camera planted on a tripod with which he took instant portraits for identity documents. To take a photo he would cover his head and the camera with a black cloth, slide in a plate and follow with a long washing in a tray of chemicals, all part of the apparatus. The result was a smudgy picture that did bear a remote resemblance to the subject.

Kurdish porters were ready to take the heaviest boxes and trunks on their strong shoulders, tough, but very honest fellows. On the east side of the Borj was a small maize of narrow streets occupied by ladies whose profession was, if not exactly the most honorable, at least the most ancient. They had special identity cards provided by the Morals Police at the adjacent General Security headquarters which obliged them to be indoors at their premises after 5 o’clock in the evening. Much of their existence was spent in the Qarantina hospital being treated for venereal disease. The services they provided were cheap at one, two or three dollars, but not likely to attract anybody with a subtle sense of romance. Behind them was the school of the Christian Brothers. Boys at the classroom windows and the ladies would often wave to each other, to the despair of the Brothers. The latter tried by every means to obtain the removal of this official red light district but in vain. Only the destruction of the war of 1975 came to rescue virtue.

On the west side there were the open offices of money changers. Foreign performers at the theatre of the Casino du Liban near Jounieh would be paid in Lebanese money and then advised of a money changer who was of course very honest. The artists did not know how to find the exchange rates for foreign money in the French newspaper and were thoroughly plucked, and a kick-back would be passed to somebody at the Casino.

A number of cinemas were to be found in and around the Borj, showing English, French and Arabic films, not so blue as those that had been projected under the French Mandate. There was a small shop owned by a pork butcher that has now developed into supermarkets far and wide.

Two electric tramway lines crossed in the Borj. Down one the trams clanged down from Furn esh-Shebbak before turning left to trundle off to the Lighthouse (le Phare, El-Minaret) beyond the American University, while another line ran from Gemmayzeh in East Beirut and at the Borj turned up to Basta. A tram with a cheering happy crowd passing along this line symbolized a joyful end to the troubles of 1958.

Needless to say, these trams were often greatly overcrowded. Early in World War Two a doctor of Maltese origin, British citizen, was trying to board a tram to get to the British Embassy and join the British Army. He was accidentally pushed off and a wheel amputated one of his legs. He later held several professorships with great distinction in the French Faculty of Medicine.

The old Borj was something that can never be recreated. Let those of us who have memories of it treasure them and pass them on!
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