He could easily have turned away like many others. But not Salman Abbas. Night after night and hour after hour, the 37-year-old sits at his computer responding to every one of the roughly 60 international e-mails he receives each day.
‘The Lebanese living abroad must know what is going on,’ he tells me with a determined nod. The e-mails are in support of his cause. To Salman, the ‘cause’ is obvious: Beirut has practically no parks to speak of, so why not turn the horse-racing track in the midst of a residential area into a public garden?
Beirut’s green areas are few and far between. Currently, the amount of public space per resident is as low as 0.8 square metres, 50 times less than the recommended healthy average under international standards. And those parks that do exist are small and cannot accommodate the area’s residents. As a result, children end up playing in the streets, dangerously close to speeding cars. The racetrack, which occupies less than half of a 210,000-metre-square green area, could serve as a much-needed recreational outlet for up to 1.5 million Beirut residents.
It wasn’t Salman who came up with the idea. In fact, an environmental organization, Green Oasis, was created by members of the community for the sole purpose of fighting for the conversion of the horse track into a garden. Salman was part of the group. Months of meetings, press conferences, petitions and negotiations with government officials, however, led nowhere.
In great frustration Salman would call me up. ‘What is wrong with these people in the Government?’ he said. ‘Residents of Beirut need parks. Children must play in safe areas and the elderly should have a place to stroll or sit.’
The voice of money, however, is much stronger than those of the children or the elderly. It’s certainly stronger than Salman’s.
The racetrack, valued at $800 million, is owned by the Beirut municipality. A considerable income comes from the Sunday races; a percentage is allocated to the municipality and a large amount goes to the Association for the Protection and Improvement of Arab Horses, which manages the track and is heavily supported by powerful politicians.
The municipality claims that it needs the extra income from the races. Environmentalists have in vain suggested various ways to generate income for the municipality: through public gardens with a café and recreational facilities or by taxing each of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Beirut an additional 60 cents. Each suggestion has been firmly refused.
In theory Green Oasis’ fight was against the municipality of Beirut, but in reality they were up against politicians who greatly benefit from the races. Faced with such strong opponents, many of the members of Green Oasis simply gave up. Except Salman.
An agricultural engineer, he frequently misses days at work to meet with various members of the municipality – explaining over and over again the importance of parks in the city. In vain, friends tell him that the powers against him are too strong. He doesn’t seem to hear them. ‘What if I go to all the households and have them sign another petition?’ he asks me instead.
An environmental organization he belongs to, Green Line, has already collected 16,000 signatures in favour of turning the racetrack into a public garden. The petition failed to impress the municipality. Instead, they offered to plant trees along the city’s streets.
‘Planting trees is fine,’ he explained patiently to the members of the municipality yet again. ‘But greenery doesn’t just mean trees. It means the social concept of making room for children to play somewhere and providing young and elderly people somewhere pleasant to sit, like in any other country.’
A recipient of the Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship at Cornell University in 1997, Salman could easily seek employment outside Lebanon and emigrate. He could settle somewhere where parks do exist. Two years ago, an international environmental organization offered him a prestigious job with good pay. It was tempting. His current job brings him a meagre salary and sometimes – thanks to the devastated Lebanese economy – no salary at all.
‘But if I join them,’ he told me, ‘then I would have to fight for their causes – which are fine. But right now I need to fight for more basic requirements in Lebanon like the need for trees and for parks. Or like stopping quarrying and preventing villages from incinerating their waste.’
And so Salman’s struggle continues. Despite all the odds against him, he strongly believes that change for the better is just around the corner.