The filth and the fury: A mountain of rubbish is blighting Lebanon's once-beautiful beaches


The wretched of the earth high above turquoise blue seas; take a face mask with you before you clamber up the Jabal al-Zbeleh – the 'Mountain of Rubbish' – and just imagine the beauty of the beach that still exists six storeys of muck below you. These days, you might need the face mask when you observe Lebanon's politics, but the moment you see the middle-aged Palestinians of this place, filthy and gaunt, their shirts and trousers pasted with the detritus of Lebanon, you can only feel compassion. They work high atop this vile garbage heap, to ferret out old plastic and leather and metal and still-ripe tomatoes amid flies and rats and wild dogs and rotten food and used hospital syringes and torn-open sacks of household rubbish and methane gas.

To the south stretch some of Lebanon's finest beaches, white into the heat haze approaching the Israeli frontier. To the north are the public beaches of Sidon and Beirut, littered with plastic bags and tin cans and those dreadful syringes each time the southern wind blows and another part of the 'Mountain of Rubbish' slides into the Mediterranean to stain the beauty of Lebanon with its ordure. Way below the mountain, you can still see the costly stone water barriers which the good burgers of Sidon once placed above their beaches, the great white sands which are – were once – the pride of a city in which Christ supposedly walked. From the crown of this hill of offal and dirt, you can glimpse the Crusader Castle of the Sea, the Great Mosque of Sidon, the roof of the ancient Khan. There are Sidonese – if that's the right word for them – who say that at this rate, all these antiquities will be overwhelmed with the same garbage in three or four decades' time.

Well, anything is possible in Lebanon. Abdul Rahman al-Bizri, who was the city's mayor and a supporter of Hizballah, once blamed the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri – now itself in opposition – for punishing the people by allowing this almost 30-year-old mountain of filth to grow. In fact, Hariri's assassinated father, billionaire Rafiq Hariri, came from Sidon; so did Saad's last prime minister, Fouad Siniora; and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal long ago offered $5 million to build a waste disposal plant in a nearby quarry. Local people objected. So the mountain went on growing. Deep within its base is the rubble of buildings destroyed by the Israelis when their forces swept through the city at the start of their 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Even the fishermen have been infuriated by this monstrous excrescence whose garbage sometimes drifts as far as Cyprus, Syria and Turkey. Haj Mohamed Bauji, 69-year-old vice president of the local fishermen's union, sipped his coffee opposite the old port, the Crusader castle shimmering in the heat haze, and counted his losses. "The rubbish doesn't just float – it moves through the sea at depth and we all get our nets caught on metal, and plastic bags rap themselves round our propellers and ruin the gear shafts," he says. "New nets cost $400 each and I can't afford a new engine or propeller when they get entangled four or five times a year. So I buy spare parts at $100 a time. We have good crabs here, and prawns, but we want to fish in clean seas."

Clean is a word you can never apply to the top of the mountain. There I meet Samir, his face lined beyond his 50 years, scavenging for metal since 1989, lying in the shade of a grubby cloth tent close to dozens of stinking cow hides. "As long as it stays here, I will work here," he says suspiciously – for Palestinians in this kind of work live in ambiguous employment, as potentially illegal as, I suppose, any job in the Third Circle of Hell. "I came from a family of peasant farmers in Safad in northern Palestine," Samir says. He was born in Lebanon. "Then my family were forced by the Israelis to leave in 1948. What a path, from Palestine to this place. What a catastrophe!"

Abu Ali is raking through piles of rotten tomatoes, 69 years old with rheumatism, digestive problems, blind in his right eye, working on the dump for almost half his life. "Journalists came here over the past 35 years – but they never made any difference," he says, and looks at me with the face of a man of 90. "I look for Pepsi tins, cans, and people come each day to buy them from me for $6 for the day."

Behind me, a dust storm precedes a municipal truck; the Sidon authorities have another load of garbage for their mountain. I have a suspicion where some of this comes from. So I drive to the first public beach north of the city where a 'green' community has provided family sands next to waters in which the ghost of the mountain moves slowly towards the shore. There are black plastic bags and boxes floating gently past child bathers. Parents watch from beneath parasols. And one of the men on the beach – Rabiah Hneihne, who is 33 – turns out to be a policeman, bronzing beside a

shoe-maker, a baker, a retired civil servant, all, as they put it, "children of the city of Sidon".

"I come here every afternoon," the cop tells me as we walk towards the Mediterranean waves. "This is a scandal, of course. Everyone knows it's a scandal. We go into the water and find bottles, rotting meat, soiled babies' nappies. But we try to keep it clean." And he picks from the water a sharp-edged empty tin of baking powder and places it reverently into a trash bin. And who, I ask, empties the trash bin? Why, the municipality, of course. And what does the municipality do with it, I ask. The cop smiles. All the men laugh. So do two families sitting next to us.

"They take it and dump it on top of the Mountain of Rubbish," the policeman replies. I get it. They build up the garbage until it collapses into the Mediterranean and then they wait till it comes to the beach – unless Samir or Abu Ali have taken it – and then they take it back to the mountain. I am mesmerised. The midday heat embraces Sidon, where once Phoenician and Roman galleys rowed home to haven in sunny Palestine, where knights of France awaited Salahadin.

And the garbage heap? Well I know what I'd do with it. Hire a brass band, stick it on top of the Mountain of Rubbish and order it to play the Lebanese national anthem. Its title? "Everyone for the Nation", of course.

Suggested Topics
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn