Unearthing Beirut

Walking in Beirut? This is a city where kamikaze drivers rule the roost and the so-called traffic police are more worried about checking out their own getup (think Erik Estrada-circa-CHiPs) than protecting pedestrians. Once you manage to actually get across the road navigation is still a nightmare due to entire blocks of the centre being cordoned off behind developer’s boards as the city’s facelift continues unabated. The soundtrack to a daytime stroll here is supplied by a crescendo of car horns and the staccato beat of construction drills. Who would ever think of running a walking tour – in Beirut – seriously?

I met Ronnie Chatah on a late Saturday afternoon, in the west Beirut suburb of Hamra, when the worst of the day’s sticky heat had been shrugged off the streets. “The Lebanese,” he cheerfully admitted, “don’t walk. This city though can be walked. Traffic is just a recent issue.” Never one to give up a chance to go where danger beckons I said a prayer to the gods of road safety everywhere and pulled on my sturdy walking sandals. Come on Beiruti taxi drivers. Knock me over if you dare.

Sightseeing has never played a big role in Beirut’s tourism promotion – a not surprising fact when you consider that most buildings regarded as ‘sights’ have been obliterated by years of war. Instead Beirut markets itself well as the partying playground of the Middle East; a place of bohemian cafes and ultra-cool nightlife. Modern, stylish and oh so up-to-the-minute, this is the Arab world at its most cosmopolitan and vibrant. Behind Beirut’s jazzed-up new high-rises and shiny glass office buildings though, there lies another whole side of the city that most tourists miss. “It’s so easy to walk by Martyr’s Square and the Holiday Inn and not know their stories,” said Ronnie. Even local tourists seem to misplace their memory.

This wilful amnesia, aided by the shiny veneer busily being slapped across their city’s ancient contours, is letting the Lebanese sweep away their capital’s cobwebs with a demolition ball. No one could blame them for wanting to. There are more skeletons hiding in the closet here than most. Street after street of bullet-scarred facades are a prominent reminder of the brutality of the civil war which ripped apart this city for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990. But as more and more of these buildings fall victim to property developers is the soul of Beirut being squandered along the way?

“Beirut is disappearing. Buildings that have served as landmarks, whole neighbourhoods have been bulldozed away,” Ronnie said as we stopped on the district’s main drag, Rue Hamra. I caught the scent of perfume and over-zealous hair-gel application from the promenading youngsters passing by. During the civil war, when this was the centre of Muslim Beirut, I’d have been as likely to encounter off-duty PLO fighters as strolling shoppers. Hidden away behind a row of new shop fronts is an abandoned cinema which stayed open throughout the war. This was where Yasser Arafat used to watch the latest Hollywood offerings in between skirmishes. The last movie to be played there, fittingly ‘Rambo 3’, (the ‘Rambo’ franchise being a particular favourite of the warring factions at the time, Ronnie told me) is still displayed in the disbanded projector wheel outside.

We threaded our way through Hamra, heading through the old Armenian district of Kantari, to reach the beginning of the infamous Green Line (the no-man’s land which marked the territorial split of the city during the war). On these back streets deserted mansions slumped and withered in a slow, genteel rot.  Most were abandoned when their owners fled the fighting. The few that have been fixed-up look like ornate architectural preening birds of paradise – fine examples of the grand Neo-Ottoman style which once dominated the city. The gutted frame of the old Holiday Inn building presides over the skyline here despite now nestling between modern steel towers. Opened in 1974, it was one of the first buildings to be taken over by the militias with its rooms soon stripped of their opulent fittings and the glamorous guests replaced with gun-toting guerrillas. Like most Beirutis Ronnie remains ambivalent about this battle scarred relic’s future but recognises the role it serves as a sad reminder of the city’s past. “Fascinating buildings like the Holiday Inn are going to disappear soon and once it goes there’s a chunk of history that will go with it,” he said.

Crossing the Green Line during the war would have entailed some fancy footwork to dodge sniper fire. The guns may be gone but the hurtling traffic on Rue Abdel Kader still requires a need for speed and agility. When Ronnie first designed this tour establishing a pedestrian-friendly route was his first hurdle. He admitted they haven’t been completely successful and the tour still criss-crosses a couple of main streets. Still, it’s all part of the Beirut experience and I stepped out onto the road determined not to look like a foolish tourist. Amid the speed and swerve of the cars, the fug of petrol-haze, and the extra annoyance of several curb crawling taxis which decided to try and offer me a ride, I managed, somehow, to make it to the other side without an ambulance having to be called and found myself in the construction ghost town of Wadi Abu Jamil which marks the western tip of the old Downtown.

 The central city is surely Beirut’s weirdest district. Completely levelled after becoming the front line during the war, much of the city makeover has been concentrated here. The redevelopment was the brainchild of the late Rafiq Hariri, twice prime minister of Lebanon, who was murdered on 14 February 2005. Although the real-estate company, Solidere (which was created solely to carry out this work) has been steadily mixing concrete and ploughing dollars into the project for 17 years, much of the old Downtown still has a film-set quality. As if the stage has been set up but the actors have yet to arrive. A lot of this seems due to most of the rebuilding being commercial rather than residential in the government’s hope that Beirut will become the next Dubai; a wish which has yet to be granted. I passed endless shells of empty, sparkling buildings, the padding of my feet echoing off the pristine pavement.

The buildings in Wadi Abu Jamil (the old Jewish quarter) have been finished for five years, Ronnie told me. But because speculative investors keep trading, and property prices keep going up, the buildings remain vacant as there’s no need to rent. The only other people we met were bored looking policemen stationed here due to the presidential palace being down the road. An unexpected sight is the perfectly restored Maghen Abraham synagogue. Beirut once boasted 17 synagogues and a vibrant Jewish community. The city’s Jews upped sticks and left during the war (most heading to Montreal and Geneva rather than Israel) and not long after, the synagogue became yet another architectural victim of the conflict. In 1982 PLO arms dealers in the city used it as an ammunition store believing that Israel wouldn’t dare target it. They did, destroying it completely. When the owners agreed to sell their empty properties to Solidere one of the conditions placed on the sale was that the synagogue be rebuilt. Now it stands as a lonely and unused reminder of one of the city’s many lost communities. 

The streets radiating out from Place d’Etoile, the core of old downtown Beirut, have benefited from painstaking stone-by-stone restoration work. Yes it’s impressive but as we wandered through, it felt more like a historic theme-park than a lived-in city. I took a quick peek into the Solidere office where a scale map of the ambitious master-plan for the city is on display. The entire project isn’t set to be finished for another 30 years. Just beyond, Ronnie showed me the memorial to the journalist Samir Kassir. Assassinated in 2005 (it wasn’t a good year for public figures in Lebanon), Kassir was known for his long running war of words with Solidere; accusing them of the reckless erasing of Beirut’s history. ‘Beirut, outward in its wealth,’ Kassir once said, ‘the city that is also outward in its ruins.’ Ronnie told me that Kassir’s writings played a large role in inspiring him to begin these walks. “In Lebanon there’s a lot of conspiracy fetish and myth. Samir Kassir was one of the few journalists who tried to search out the truth. He opened up debates and questioned our collective amnesia and was an inspirational figure when it comes to Beirut’s past.” 

The groan and clang of construction cranes in a nearby boarded up development area greeted my arrival at Martyr’s Square. Once the beating heart of Beirut it is little more than a sprawling, neglected patch of gravel today. Marooned within this wasteland is the city’s most famous landmark. Pockmarked from sniper bullets, the Liberty Statue is now dwarfed by the colossal new Muhammad Al-Aminne Mosque across the road.  Although little more than an ad hoc car-park (the square’s rejuvenation is part of the last stage of Solidere’s plan) its importance as the symbolic meeting point of their city in the hearts and minds of Beirutis is safe. It was here, on the 14th of March 2005, that over one million Lebanese (about one third of the population) chose to converge to demonstrate over Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and demand full Syrian withdrawal from their nation.

 Dusk was beginning to fall. The slowly fading light an apt companion as we crossed into the spooky dereliction of what was known as ‘deep trench’ or ‘sniper’s alley’ during the war. At the heart of the city’s brutal urban warfare, this ill-fated Bachoura street block formed a frontline where only a couple of metres separated the various Christian militias from the Muslim factions. The yellow light of a street lamp exposed the raw wounds of the buildings around me. Scabs of brickwork oozed plaster, scarred walls revealed glimpses of blackened innards. The whole place dripped a horror movie creepiness which set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

Rumbles of ricocheting gunfire may have been blasting over the centre during the war but the residents of East and West Beirut never stopped partying. The music at the clubs was just turned up a bit louder to tune out the noise. We crossed a road and arrived in East Beirut’s Monot district; a world-apart from the gloom and tattered dying buildings not more than a few steps away. This is the Beirut of the tourist brochures, known for its cafe culture and nightlife scene. Ronnie’s walk delves below this superficial modern surface to unearth the stories beneath. “It’s about bringing the city to life, making people laugh and taking them on a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. Despite the traffic, the constant construction, and the bland high-rise facade, you can walk in Beirut. And you might just find a hidden narrative to this city which lies beyond the bottom of your cappuccino cup.

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If you’re going to Beirut don’t miss Ronnie Chatah’s Walk Beirut tour. Tours are four hours long and cost US$20 per person.

5 thoughts on “Unearthing Beirut

  1. Pingback: Fueling the Wanderlust: A Look at Travel Blogs on WordPress.com — Blog — WordPress.com

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