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.
On 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?