Beirut's Garden of Forgiveness

By Janet Nicol

The Garden of Forgiveness, a unique public park in downtown Beirut, has risen from the ashes of Lebanon's sixteen year civil war.[1] A work in progress since 1998, the Garden's completion is now jeopardized by political conflicts. But Alexandra Asseily, a Beirut resident who envisioned the healing site after witnessing the pain of war, remains hopeful.

"Many people are beginning to feel the necessity of some form of space, where reflection can take place," Asseily says in an email interview from her second home in London. "Many religious leaders and political leaders now talk of reconciliation and forgiveness, whereas before, this was seldom the case."

Asseily suggested the Garden of Forgiveness, called "Hadiqat As-Samah" in Arabic, following the end of the civil war in 1990. Solidere, a redevelopment agency, provided the financing and hired American landscape artist Kathryn Gustafson and architect Neil Porter. Tree-lined walkways, water fountains, sculptures, and benches are all part of the blueprint. The ruins of several past civilizations are also carefully preserved on the ancient grounds.

But construction was brought to a dramatic halt when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in the summer of 2006. There has been no progress since.

"The Garden was not damaged by the bombs of the invasion," Asseily explains, "but rather by the results of the war. This was followed by an almost total shut down of the centre of Beirut, when forces of the opposition, mainly Hezbollah, took over the area and camped out."

Asseily says the shutdown continued until the spring of 2008. "By this time, an army camp was well installed on about a third of the Garden space in order to protect Parliament," she explains. "The general upkeep of the site, and the archaeology of the Garden since then, have been neglected."

Asseily says the Garden is far from finished. It is difficult to predict the date of completion, she adds, until soldiers move out.

Prior to 2006, people were able to stroll through the site. Two former Lebanese militia commanders and families of slain politicians planted trees as a gesture of forgiveness. Many visitors from other countries also made the pilgrimage to the Garden, including three American women whose husbands and sons died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Surrounding the area are three mosques and three cathedrals, reflecting the two dominant religious affiliations of the Lebanese people. The site also straddles the notorious green line, an invisible border dividing east and west Beirut during the civil war.

Asseily, a psychologist, believes fear is at the root of war.

"In my work and in my own life," she says, "when I have ironed out a grievance and let go of a projection on to another, I become happier and easier to be with. I am more creative and the world looks less threatening. When this happens, we create less fear. As we create less fear, we create fewer reasons to fight or to become 'a victim'."

Asseily is of Russian heritage and is well-aware of the impact of war and displacement. She is married to George Asseily, a Lebanese businessman, and they have five grown children and eleven grandchildren. She explores her diverse family history, and that of others, to better understand the root of grievances and the ways they are passed down.

"We are the active, visible people who connect our ancestry and the future of our children," Asseily believes. "So we are the ones who need to do the good work of clearing up and releasing the pain of our own immediate families, our ancestral past and our collective past, in order that our children might be freer."

During the civil war, the couple established a Centre for Lebanese Studies in England[2], providing another forum for contemplation.

"It is always easier it seems to forgive someone who has admitted an error, either large or small," Asseily acknowledges. But she believes it can be a mistake to wait for an apology. "We are trapped within our grievances," she warns, "and will carry the burden of hatred, anger, and vengeance if we allow ourselves to insist that `the other' has to be the one who admits to a fault first, before we let go of our own burden of angry feelings."

Asseily says faith and trust have moved her forward in the face of war and despair. "The original vision at the root of the Garden has given me the courage to show up, to talk, to write, to work and to keep going, in spite of so many setbacks," she says.

Asseily is humble, despite her ambitious dreams, stating she only wants "to do little things which I pray will make a difference and bring us a little closer to peace."

Janet Nicol is an educator and peace worker in British Columbia.

Notes

1 A virtual tour of the Garden is available on Solidere's website at http://www.solidere.com/

2 http://www.lebanesestudies.com/

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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