A woman walking her employer’s dog in Beirut, Lebanon. A small band of Beirutis are trying to drag their city into the modern world of poop-scooping. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

A Legacy of Lebanon’s War: ‘Land Mines’ Left by Beirut’s Dogs


By Anne Barnard

BEIRUT (New York Times) — Ask anyone here about canine excrement and the conversation moves quickly to concepts of citizenship, nationhood, belonging, Lebanon’s sectarian political system and ultimately the civil war that reshaped the country from 1975 to 1990.

Civic activists say those years of sectarian violence and lawlessness, and the ensuing mistrust, destroyed Lebanon’s sense of shared public space, whether physical or political.

During the civil war, “people were afraid of the streets and the sidewalks,” said Jad Chaaban, a university professor who is a member of Beirut Madinati — Arabic for “Beirut, My City” — a group that made a stir last yearby taking the radical step of running in municipal elections on a platform of improving public services.

After the war, reconstruction was carried out with “almost total disregard” for public streetscapes, he said.

“People don’t feel that they own anything,” he said. “They don’t own the street. They don’t belong. The sidewalk is a very nice metaphor for the Lebanese situation.”

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In spite of that, or because of it, a loose-knit coalition — an underdog movement, dare we say — has sprung up to battle the problem of soiled streets. It includes just a few people: Babikian and other neighborhood boosters, animal rights activists, a veterinarian and the politician son of an assassinated president.

What they shared, at first, was a tenuous hope that dog droppings — unlike, say, government corruption or the war in neighboring Syria — might be a problem small enough to solve. What they found instead was that it contained nearly every classic Lebanese problem.

Lebanon’s weak government has failed to deliver public goods that it should be able to afford, like sewage treatment, clean water, consistent law enforcement or reliable electricity. Clean sidewalks are not even on the agenda.

So about two years ago, Babikian and several other advocates, all of whom had gotten used to feces-free streets while living abroad, took matters into their own hands. Parallel efforts began in the largely Christian east side of Beirut and the largely Muslim west, a divide that itself is a legacy of the war.

On both sides, they hit fierce resistance.

Babikian said officials told her neighborhood group, Achrafieh 2020, which pushes for pedestrian-friendly streets in east Beirut, that working with it might anger people in the west. That exasperated the activists, who wondered, why not work with both?

A brief collaboration with trash collectors died during a contract imbroglio that left mountains of garbage nationwide in 2015.

And advocates struggled to enlist foreign domestic workers, often underpaid and overworked, who do much of the dog walking in a city where pets are largely a luxury.

“It was a total fiasco,” said Dr. Maher Yehyia, 42, a veterinarian who had started his own campaign in western Beirut. I had found his number on a box on a lamppost. It was supposed to contain free plastic gloves for dog walkers, but it was empty.

When Dr. Yehyia returned in 2006 from Canada, where he had moved as a child during the war, he set about picking up after his Chihuahua.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said.

He did not proselytize much at first. Fouled streets were a bigger issue in the Christian east, since most traditional Muslims do not keep dogs in their homes. Veterinary patients on the west side are 80 percent cats, he said, while in the east they are 80 percent dogs.

But with growing secularism and returning expatriates, the number of dogs in his practice tripled, a trend he saw reflected underfoot.

So, Dr. Yehyia started to clear the “land mines” outside his clinic. Then he hung 300 glove dispensers around town. Fellow vets started calling — not to join him, but to accuse him of self-promotion for printing his clinic’s name and number on the boxes.

A city official arranged a meeting, then canceled. The gloves vanished; Dr. Yehyia saw vendors on the seafront using them to hand out roasted corn.

For the veterinarian, the whole episode was a reminder of why there is no law requiring cleaning up after dogs in the first place: the lax enforcement and rampant use of bribes and connections that doomed other recent public-minded laws, like those requiring seatbelt use and banning smoking in restaurants.

“The war made it so no one respects the laws,” he said. “If you stop at the red light, they will shout at you and say, ‘Do you think you are in Europe?’”

He did find sympathy in one quarter: Babikian’s group. They had added poop to their agenda as they held street fairs promoting walking and biking.

Her group has more political connections, and a bit more traction. It was founded by a member of Parliament, Nadim Gemayel, the son of the assassinated president.

The neighborhood group released ads on social media showing a bearded hipster, first cursing, “I stepped in it,” then holding his head high on a cleaner street.

Lately, Beirut’s city government has posted some signs urging people to scoop the poop. But Babikian has pushed in vain for “a real campaign” — sustained, high-profile, on television.

The most obvious solution — a fine, like the one that transformed New York City’s sidewalks in 1978 — would be pointless here. Those for smoking and traffic violations are routinely ignored.

Another problem, said Gaby Ferneine, a city council member, is that Beirut has no real city police, only a tiny municipal guards force.

But there was a glimmer of hope in Sioufi, the district where Nawfal walked his German shepherd. The next pair to pass were Josine Pacaro, 46, and Bruno, a miniature Doberman. Pacaro, a house worker from the Philippines, wore a pink uniform and plastic gloves.

Asked if she scooped, she said: “Yes, of course. We are the ones to step in it!”

She became a convert after a single misstep “on the kaka.”

“Enough,” she said. “I pick it up.”

She gazed down a line of dog deposits, of various vintages, leading to one of the city’s few public parks. Flies hovered, gleaming in the sunset.

“I try to convince them,” she said. “But, you know — stubborn people!”

(To look into rescuing animals from Lebanon, visit http://animal.rescueme.org/lb or https://betalebanon.org/)

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