In the spring of 2009, I traveled to the Middle East, starting in Jordan, then to the West Bank and Israel, then Syria and finally by taxi! up to Beirut. Before traveling I had become quite fascinated with the history of Lebanon, starting years ago with Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, then Robert Fisk and “Pity the Nation” along with a few shorter pieces and film (especially “Waltz with Bashir”). I have been working on a dense but brilliant book, “Constructing Lebanon: A Century of Literary Narratives” published by the University of Florida, a book I may or may not get through it in this lifetime.
Coming into the City
Very green after Jordan and Syria
I am sitting on a curb in Beirut in the working class neighborhood at the very start of the Green Line, that famous division the Christians and Muslims of this city used for so many years as their bloody ‘line in the sand.’ I am a wanna be history nerd and curious traveler, spending my last day in this city exploring. Walking through the maze of streets, semi-lost for the last couple of hours, I finally ask someone with a bit of English for directions, he says “Yes, yes…Green Line,” nodding vigorously and pointing. But first a falafel shop entices me to pause in front of a window display of those wonderful crusty brown balls of chickpea delight and the men assembling the falafel sandwiches beckon me inside. I’m too hungry to resist and with sandwich in hand I move across the street for curbside dining just in front of a typical Beirut building—shot up and abandoned!
There are only men out and about here. This is usual, even in relatively liberal Beirut, once you get away from the city center and into a Muslim sector. It feels lopsided. The men treat me with great respect and share pleasantries because I’m too old to threaten their standards of womanly propriety, but still I feel denigrated on behalf of my hidden sisters.
It is hot, but bearably so, nice here on the curb in this quiet street, with tahini running through my fingers, feeling grungier with each messy bite. But a falafel sandwich tastes very fine after an entire day walking the streets of this strangely pleasant, accommodating, bullet-riddled city. I’m tired and hungry and very happy exactly where I am at the moment.
To walk along the waterfront is a good way to get a sense of the beauty of and damage to “The Paris of the East.”
The damage still shows
Near the waterfront is the famous Holiday Inn of Beirut. Here are some news flashes from a blog by Tim Fitzsimons, “Little Stories, Big Picture.”
BEIRUT LEFTISTS SEIZE HOLIDAY INN IN HEAVY ASSAULT; Hundreds Led by Armored Vehicle Capture Symbol of Rightist Defiance AT LEAST 43 ARE KILLED Other Heavy Fighting and Shelling Said to Continue in and Outside Capital BEIRUT
LEFTISTS TAKE HOLIDAY INN
By JAMES M. MARKHAM Special to The New York Times
March 22, 1976
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Monday, March 22 Hundreds of Muslim and leftist gunmen, backed by armored vehicles yesterday drove right-wing Phalangists from the towering, battered Holiday Inn, gaining an important military and psychological victory.
And here are my not-your-typical-Holiday Inn photos:
I’ve always been fascinated by Beirut and its civil war. I guess it’s the surreal quality of a bunch of Christian and Muslim militias, resembling LA street gangs more than anything else, destroying “the Paris of the East” for the hell of it. Seeing with your own eyes something you’ve read about but couldn’t quite fathom, feeling righteously tired from serious street tramping and assuaging your hunger with the middle eastern version of a good burger—it is a perfect travel moment.
The guys going in and out of the falafel shop stare at me briefly before deciding I’m a harmless eccentric and moving on. Otherwise it is so peaceful here. I try to picture what it must have been like back then. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of bullet holes today, most notably at the multi-story shell left after the 1976 “battle of the Holiday Inn” and at the Place des Martyrs where the bronze statue of the martyrs could better be described as the bronze lacework of the gunmen. I sit here thinking of what I’ve seen today. All those bullet holes from all those men shooting, shooting, shooting in the names of God and Allah, but really for power and money, or because they are too damn dumb or terrified to stay out of the game.
On a street not far from here, men and bulldozers are busy rebuilding a section that resembles Rodeo Drive in LA in terms of exclusivity; obviously expectations of peace and prosperity are high. I think about the toys of our little boys; in the sand boxes of the world they tear down and build up and crash and dig. I know I am stereotyping and I know I am not saying anything new, but there does seem to be something true about boys not really growing up—but rather trading up—for more dangerous toys and powerful playthings as they age. Beirut is a world-class example of what happens then. Sorry. I’m mad. You can’t NOT be mad at men in Beirut.
Silly me. Philosophizing on the curb when I still have to walk the Green Line before catching a plane to the normalcy of Uganda!
But still in Beirut:
IF YOU ARE AT ALL INTERESTED IN BEIRUT YOU WILL ENJOY THE FOLLOWING BBC ARTICLE.
Beirut struggles to survive peace
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut
“Beirut is an ugly city.” This statement would infuriate plenty of proud residents of the Lebanese capital, but veteran architect Assem Salaam stands by his words. He points to the evidence: a jungle of grey concrete that towers over his garden, hiding what used to be a spectacular sea view.
“ Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman ”
Assem Salaam Architect : It is not the loss of the sea view that Mr Salam mourns. And, he says, it is not the commonplace nostalgia for the old and familiar that drives his bitterness about an extraordinary pace of construction in his city. “Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman,” he says. “Take London, for example. It has changed immensely since I first visited in 1942, but I can still take the same bus route as I did then, or walk the same streets. “Beirut, on the other hand, has changed beyond recognition,” he says.
Captured hearts Sprawled on the hills that roll down towards the Mediterranean, Beirut was once known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. Over the years, the city’s sophisticated charm, its winding streets and the mixture of French colonial and Ottoman architecture had captured the imagination – and hearts – of countless visitors. But from the mid-1970s onward, as Lebanon descended into a two-decade-long civil war, much of Beirut was reduced to rubble. The war also changed the demographics of the city, Beirut’s once mixed religious and ethnic neighbourhoods became increasingly divided and hundreds of thousands of people left the country. Today, the legacy of the civil war still mars Lebanon’s divisive and turbulent politics but the city itself, it seems, has moved on. Beirut’s skyline is dotted with cranes and the skeletons of half-finished high rises. On every corner, it seems, there is a construction site. For plenty of people, this building boom which is turning Beirut into a chaotic glitzy metropolis is a sign of better times. For others, it is a disaster.
Surviving the peace? “They have destroyed my city,” says Joe Kodieh, resident of Beirut and theatre director whose latest play deals with the loss of the city’s architectural heritage.
“ What’s happening is very sad, but it’s not in our power to stop it ”
Rasheed Jalekh Beirut municipality “Beirut survived the war, but it’s not going to survive peace. What survived two decades of war, we are destroying now, in the name of modernity,” Mr Kodieh says. Across Beirut, hundreds of high-rise buildings have replaced old buildings. The city’s architectural heritage is being wiped out because there is no legislation to protect it. “What’s happening is very sad, but it’s not in our power to stop it,” says Rasheed Jalekh, representative of the Beirut municipality. “The municipality can only stop construction if we own buildings, but we don’t and we don’t have the money to buy them.” Mr Jalekh says that a handful of buildings could still be saved, if only parliament passed legislation that would protect them. But for decades Lebanon’s leaders have been preoccupied with political wrangling and crises, and issues like architectural heritage have struggled to get attention. Politicians have also failed to come up with a comprehensive urban development plan for Beirut, which has resulted in chaotic and disorganised construction.
Beyond reach The only neighbourhood of the city that is being rebuilt according to a plan is the downtown area. Its renovation is entirely in the hands of Solidere, a company which was founded in 1994 by Lebanon’s then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. His son, the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has recently moved into his new palatial residence in the city’s newly-rebuilt centre. But Mr Hariri does not have many neighbours – the buildings, used mostly for offices and shops, are far beyond the reach of most Lebanese. Solidere has often been criticised for destroying historic buildings that could have been saved, and for turning the colourful historic centre, which used to be a meeting point of cultures and religions, into a glitzy but soulless area for the rich. “The neighbourhood has lost all its character, no-one can afford to live there,” says architect Assem Salam.
‘Build parks instead’ Beirut is losing not only its architectural heritage, but also open space. Although the city never had many public parks, thousands of gardens that surrounded old houses had once provided Beirut with plenty of green space. Today most of them have turned into parking lots for the brand new high rises. “There isn’t really a place where I can take the kids for a bike ride or a walk,” says 30-year-old Amir, who, like most Beirut residents, brings his three-year-old son to play on the Corniche, a boardwalk along the Mediterranean. “They should build parks instead of building apartment blocks that most of us cannot afford,” he adds. But with plenty of demand from the wealthy members of the country’s huge diaspora and Arabs from the Gulf, construction companies are reaping profits and they have no incentive to stop building in Beirut. According to Assem Salam, it’s not the lack of building regulation that is destroying Beirut, but what he describes as the government’s total disregard for public good. “The real problem is that the existing regulations are set to benefit real estate companies and the government, but not people,” he says. Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/middle_east/8665696.stm Published: 2010/05/10 23:59:39 GMT
© BBC MMX