Beirut notebook

This clip contains one of my earliest media memories of international politics. I remember the hostage crisis in Iran just a few years earlier than this, and I seem to have some vague memory of soldiers kissing the ground on their arrival back from Vietnam, a few years before that. I remember talk, at least, of the OPEC oil crisis and its fallout: “inflation.” But the sheared-off face of the US Embassy in Beirut? That one struck hardest of all.

Of course I had no context for it: no understanding of the civil war that had been ongoing in Lebanon since 1975; no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or its origins; no understanding of how the U.S. and Europe had been scheming over Middle Eastern oil fields for decades. Even if I had these ideas would have been filtered through the right-wing, pro-Israel vocabulary of my Cold War, millenarian childhood. I knew the letters “PLO,” but I have no memory of “Sabra and Shatila.” But a day after I got back from Beirut last week, Ariel Sharon was dead, and Sabra and Shatila were on the tips of everyone’s tongues. The Butcher of Beirut had spent most of the year prior to the bombings of the US Embassy and army barracks laying siege to the city, and in September 1982 had allowed Christian militia to slaughter thousands of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians.

Last week was my first trip to Beirut. What an exhilarating city. I was headed to a conference at AUB and had been looking forward to it for months. Then, just before I was supposed to go, a few new bombings — one of them in the downtown neighborhood where I’d be spending most of my time — led the state department to issue travel warnings. Don’t congregate in hotels, they said. Stay away from places where Americans gather in groups. And of course that’s exactly what I’d be doing, with a hundred other people doing transnational American studies. But my friends there seemed unfazed and the conference proceeded as planned.

I couldn’t be more glad that I ignored the warnings and went. What to compare it to? I don’t know — Istanbul meets Brooklyn? The area I spent most of my time in was pretty hip: plentiful bars, whose bathrooms sported the work of Bushwick-based graffiti artists. There were soldiers, of course, intermixed with cops. Machine guns. But I’d seen all that in New York, too. I did see abundant evidence of crisis in Syria, as we had in Jordan last fall: kids on corners selling Chicklets, displaced families sitting outside mosques asking for food. Mostly I saw people walking the beach-front Corniche with their kids, men and women smoking shisha in outdoor cafes, shops designed for tourists like me, and high-end shopping districts that seemed to target Gulf Arab tourists. (Billboards thanking the benevolent KSA — probably paid for by KSA — seemed to be the dead give-away.) I ate very well all week.

photo 2On my last morning there I set off for several hours on my own, without a map, just intending to wander streets downtown and get lost a little. I took a loose loop along the waterfront, then up to the monument in what’s known as Martyrs’ Square (left), then zigzagged back a little until I reached my starting point, a mix of residential, business, and government sites along the way. I’d been a little tense on arrival but a week with more experienced travelers than I had worn off the edge a little, and the city and its people were so damn inviting. My knowledge of Beirut’s recent history, let alone its distant past, is still so rudimentary that I was only half aware of most of what I was seeing. Here and there I’d run across a major security operation and realized I must be near government buildings. Once I turned a corner to confront signage for “Starco” and realized I was at the site of the assassination of Former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah a few weeks earlier. I snapped photos as I went and later relied on the GPS-tagging and Google to tell me where I’d been and what I’d seen.

I’m fully aware that my picture-taking on this walk participates in a slightly voyeuristic version of disaster porn. I gravitated to the bombed out or broken down, though to be frank it was tough to tell, especially in the waterfront areas that are being hyperdeveloped into luxury retail and tourism districts, where the destruction of war ends and the destruction of development begins. Ruins everywhere. Cranes everywhere. I focused mostly on ruins, probably because I wanted to know more about these wounds the city continues to wear, the evidence of how messed up our planet can be at times, even as I was falling head-over-heels in love with a city I’ll gladly return to as soon as I get a chance.

If you follow me on Instagram you’ve already seen most of this and more, but anyway, here goes, fully conscious that this is a tourist’s notebook, not an expert’s or resident’s perspective:

photo 5

Much of Western Beirut has this look: international style and newer skyscrapers lining the waterfront, older villas and apartment buildings tucked away inside. Lurking in the back of this photo is the infamous Holiday Inn, a 5-star hotel that had opened just months before civil war broke out in 1975. It was the partial site of what has become known as the Battle of the Hotels and has been abandoned since the war ended in 1990. The Phoenicia InterContinental, in the foreground, was rebuilt in the late 1990s.

photo 4

Near the St. George hotel on the waterfront, the site of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was killed by a 1000 kg truck bomb. Stencils of Hariri’s face are among the most ubiquitous graffiti I saw in Beirut. There’s a big tent near Martyr’s Square with memorials to him and his bodyguards, who were also killed.

photo 3

Hanging from the hulking shell of the St. George, a banner denouncing Solidere, the development company charged with rebuilding this district. The line below, announcing that you’re in St. George Bay, rejects the new name the developers are promoting — Zaitunay Bay. This is, according to legend, the place where St. George slew the dragon, and those resisting the upscale rebuilding project apparently propose to slay him again.

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Of all the burned-out shells I saw, this one loomed largest — literally — and seemed the most mysterious. A phalanx of soldiers gathered near the base, inside barbed wire fences. It’s the Burj el-Murr, a 40-story tower built in 1974-75 but never completed. Snipers occupied it during the civil war. It was built to withstand bombs and can’t easily be torn down. I really enjoyed this post from someone who’d like to see it overgrown with green space until it finally decomposes.

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These are a first-timer’s impressions, again, and I’m still reeling from the trip’s sensory overload. Being there took me back to those early media moments and asked me to rethink them from another perspective, with a little more context. And it helped me see how many blindspots still remain, gaps in my historical understanding. I’m eager to be schooled, especially if I can do it in a place this rich, with plenty of arak and kibbeh nayeh. Join me next time?

5 responses to “Beirut notebook”

  1. T-Mo says:

    Thanks for this travelogue! A fascinating snapshot of what remains a very intriguing and complicated city. I’ve never visited and still don’t know much about it. I’d love to join you the next time; just give me about 6 months’ notice.

    Mostly what I remember of the civil war there are news reports in the 1970s, delivered by Walter Cronkite, who was the most trusted news source (the *only* real news source, in fact) in my childhood home. A Marine from my town was killed in October 1983 in the barracks bombing, also attributed to Islamic Jihad. By that time I was away in college, but it was devastating to our little village, and brought a theretofore little-known international conflict to the attention of a lot of people who otherwise would never have paid it any mind. Unfortunately, except for the mother of the Marine (who happened to have been my Cub Scouts den mother) nobody really questioned what US Marines were doing in Beirut in the first place.

    A great little movie you might want to watch (it appears to be on YouTube in its entirety), is West Beirut, from 1998. The beginning of the conflict in 1975 is presented from the viewpoint of an early teen and his friends. As I recall, it doesn’t give clear details of the ins and outs of the politics or history, but provides an interesting and compelling slice of life as violence and mayhem intrude on the life of a kid obsessed with girls and cool clothes.

  2. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Wow, Lebanon. Cool post. You know, Bryan, it’s a place I never imagined I’d ever ever visit. But you make a really good case here. (Although your instagrams of Beirut North of Lebanon are gorgeous. Definitely more enticing images. Those pines! Those hilltop churches!) One of my problems thinking about Lebanon is a deeply ingrained musical jingle from the 80’s. Did any one else here watch the HBO original comedy series Not Necessarily the News? Maybe like me, you watched it at a friend’s house who had cable and HBO back then. They did a parody of travel video boosterism with a fake travel commercial about Lebanon (in the height of its self destruction) featuring footage of bombed-out buildings and that bleak landscape with a feel-good jingle with the pleading lyrics “Come to Lebanon!…” (I searched in vain for a YouTube.) But I can still sing the ridiculous melody with those plaintiff lyrics and make myself laugh. Ah, the strange sustainability of comedy songs. So weird. Lebanon is forever a comedy song punch line for me. God damn this mediated world we live in. I’d love to visit someday and excorcise my brain. Tell me when…

  3. Bryan says:

    Hey T-Mo and FF. So yeah, I think you’re both getting at part of what was clogging my pores about this, even though I knew in my gut that I would like the city (expectations waaaay exceeded). I wanted to exorcise my brain, in FF’s phrase, and it worked just fine. And seriously, what a crime that a vibrant, cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean (or any place, really) like this has been reduced to rubble over and over — or at least partially. Part of what made it seem so interesting were the juxtapositions of bombed-out shells and vibrant night spots, old mansions and villas tucked in crevices here and there, windy streets full of cool old apartment buildings with wrap-around terraces, vines, palm trees — what a cool place. I could have taken or posted pictures of all that — I have a few decent shots on my phone — but they didn’t pack the dramatic punch of the sniper hotels, which really were overwhelming hulking reminders of what had transpired there from the ’70s on. It would be great to visit again when the weather was actually right for beach in the morning and skiing in the afternoon.

    Reading this novel right now, which I totally recommend. One of the best novels I’ve read in a long, long time, and it’s making me mad it’s his only book available in English so far because he’s an awesome writer. It will make you very hungry. And it really captures the pull of the place: why you’d stay, even when the bombs are going off, and the toll that can take on you too.

    Being there was really just another step in an ongoing process I’ve been in for the last 18 months — experiencing the Arab world, broadly conceived, from the inside, rather than from American TV. The longer I’m outside the US the more messed-up US foreign policy and the history of the West’s interactions with the middle east seem.

  4. Bryan says:

    Conde Nast, predictably, does a better job than I did selling it as a tourist destination. No disaster porn there. Here’s another. Leave it to the historian to go for war over glamor.

  5. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Wow, those Conde Nast links are so delicious. I want to get on a plane tomorrow and visit. So much energy and style. Now I see better what you mean by Brooklyn meets Instanbul. So many hip new places/so much old architecture and street grids. Kind of overwhelming how much there is to see and do. I’m totally on board with Beirut. And knowing from your instagrams who gorgeous the Lebanese country-side is, and how accessible too, it adds even more icing to the cake. It’s a shame Damascus is in such turmoil. It seems like a quick visit to Damascus (just 60 miles away!) would be such an interesting pairing. (Doesn’t it make travel even extra fun when you can compare TWO major cities to each other? Right?) Thanks for opening my eyes to another fascinating Middle East destination Bryan. Strong leadership, captain. Keep it coming!