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This Sea Is Mine: A Review

[ ["This sea is mine." Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch.]

Dictaphone Group, This Sea Is Mine. Beirut, Lebanon, 28 August - 8 September 2012.

A familiar feature of the Beirut waterfront is the ongoing struggle between Beirutis who want access to the sea and the barriers erected to precisely prevent that on the part of a constellation of powers – private and public. (And who can tell the difference between the two sometimes?) The waterfront is nearly entirely privatized, and what is not private teems with fishermen and fisherwomen, families grabbing a narrow strip of rocky beach and defiantly having fun in the face of powers that want to charge them exorbitant amounts for any kind of enjoyment of and on the Mediterranean shore. I discovered through a wonderful little performance, part live art piece, part rousing political polemic, that even Ramlat al-Baida–the sole strip of sand in Beirut that is used as a public beach–is now privately owned by real estate companies registered in all sorts of complicated ways to the Hariri family.

This wonderful little performance is called “This Sea Is Mine [Hatha al-Bahru Li].” Its mixture of theater, expertly researched and provocatively presented material, and audience participation make it one of the most fascinating and effective ways of learning what has happened to the Beiruti waterfront and how. The performance is put together by the Dictaphone Group, comprised of Abir Saksouk (an architect and urban planner), Tania El Khoury (live artist and performer), and Petra Serhal (a performer and producer).

[Left to right: Abir Saksouk, Adnan El-Oud, Tania El Khoury, and Petra Serhal. Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch.]

This Sea Is Mine—which has been performed daily since 28 August, and will continue until 8 September—requires its tiny audience to show up at the ‘Ayn al-Mraysseh fishing port, which is located on the “wrong” side of the autostrade that separates the increasingly Dubai-like residential towers from the seafront. The fishing port is connected to the sea via an inlet under the autostrade. The audience is given a research booklet (or a performance program, about which more later), and climbs into a rickety fishing boat captained by Adnan El-Oud who – as he navigates the boat out into the open sea – tells his five passengers about how as the reconstruction of Beirut began, the Solidere[1] dumped the debris of fifteen years of civil war from the areas it was rebuilding, into the sea – affecting not only the topography of the area, but also the livelihoods of the people who depended on their access to the sea.

At this point, as the audience is settling into Adnan’s narrative, he suddenly declares "This sea is mine," and Tania El Khoury joins us for the rest of the trip. I will not reveal too much about how she joins us, or some of the other appealing, funny, and to-the-point theatrical elements throughout the rest of the performance. The element of surprise, of the unexpected, is part of the pleasure — and pain — of the performance. The audience is engaged by being made to read the text of so many laws and regulations that promise the use of waterfront to the public -- a promise forever left unfulfilled -- or provide regulatory loopholes through which construction machinery can drive, or provide special legal dispensations whose passing is lubricated with so many under-the-table exchanges.

[Tania El Khoury in Mgharat al-Watawit. Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch.]

As the boat slowly navigates around Ras Beirut, it becomes clear that ordinary Beirutis have to fork out anything between ten and thirty US dollars to swim in the sea, unless they are willing to brave about one-hundred meters of rocky waterfront between the American University of Beirut (AUB) Beach and the Riviera Hotel Beach. Some of the cafes that dot the seafront do not even have any legal right to be there, and more often than not their political “connections” have acquired them their eventual legal status. One wonders – now that Ramlat al-Baida beach is owned privately by real-estate companies of various sorts (named variously Sakhret el Bahr, el Bahr, and Sakhret el Yamama) – how long it would be before the shabab who hang out there, or the families that purportedly have their iftar meal there during Ramadan, would be booted out so that another monstrosity of a residential tower would spring up on that coastline.

What becomes clear is that before the civil war a laissez faire attitude towards usurpation of seafront spaces by ostensibly “public” institutions — foremost among them the military itself — was facilitated by Statute 4810. The process became intertwined with militia economies during the civil war. This means that the map of the waterfront — to which El Khoury and the Dictaphone Group are our reliable guides — reads like a palimpsest of power configurations: this place comes into being “protected” by the then-occupying Syrian military; this one is bought up by people rumored to have ties to one za‘im, another by another za‘im. The sheer scale of thievery — even for people as jaded as all of us audience members were — is staggering when you look at it from a small boat from the sea. This is what the bastard child of neoliberalism (taken to its logical conclusion) and a kind of elite-bargain across sectarian lines look like.

[Fisherman Adnan El-Oud. Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch.]

I am compelled to make a final comment on the “research booklet” (i.e., the performance program) we were given at the start of the show. It is an extraordinary document (designed by Nadine Bekdache). It is beautiful to hold, and the material it contains is immensely useful to think with and think through. The booklet includes maps, legal texts, descriptions of developmental trajectories of beaches and waterfront spaces, and oral history accounts rendered in the vernacular. This juxtaposition of disparate, indeed conflicting, voices has an amazing effect: here is the seemingly cold legal language of ownership and access, here a seemingly neutral narrative voice, and then the voices of fishermen and waterfront residents displaced by the development, with all their humour, frustration, and anger. Reading these ordinary people’s account of their own displacement alongside the text of the planning permission for Mövenpick resort—with its litany of saunas, steam-rooms, baths, salons, showers, Jacuzzis, and the like — is a profound and visceral lesson in the workings of class configurations and consumption patterns in Beirut.

Video Highlights of Performance


[1] For more on the reconstruction and Solidere, see Aseel Sawalha, Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).

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