Elegy for gentrification. Yes, you read it right.

There are a few words as laden with meanings, almost entirely of negative connotation, as gentrification. Say it and your mind will conjure images of invading toffs, an irresistible volkswanderung of genteel professionals with no fear but for white carbs, descending on the last redoubts of affordable real estate prices in a motorcade of Volvo SUVs. Type the cursed word in your search engine of choice and you’ll be spoilt for choice on which article to read, all inevitably telling the story of those pushed out from their neighbourhood in Brixton, Brooklyn or the Bay Area. After a while, the irony that these articles are published by the very papers favoured by the gentry – Guardian, Independent, Washington Post, New York Times – will hit you. As far as absurdities go, it’s up there with the sight of Nantucket harpooners engrossed in academic journals on the effect of mass whale hunting on the marine ecosystem.
My attitude towards gentrification has, to borrow from a former leader of the main Italian Communist party who later in life joined a militant Catholic organisation, “changed slowly”. Had you been stupid enough to ask my opinion a few years ago – on gentrification, not on Commies-turned-Catholics – you’d have been in for a tirade on unscrupulous developers, professionals’ lofts and grad pads. However, these days my view has become a bit more nuanced, along those wishy-washy Centrist lines that go “when done properly, gentrification can be useful”. This turning of coats has happened because of one thing, and one thing only: King’s Cross.
It can be argued that the best boost to the reputation of King’s Cross has been JK Rowling. Had she not chosen it as the departure point of a trainload of little wizards en route to Hogwarts, it’s doubtful whether any visitor would ever have noticed King’s Cross (even the Eurostar just sort of skims it). Instead, in one of the great mysteries of modern-day tourism, this mere fact – and a luggage trolley wedged into a brick wall – has put King’s Cross on the map of thousands who’d be willing to line up to snap a photo of themselves in front of said wall, through which Harry Potter walked on to Platform 9 ¾ and, arguably, the one and only train that has ever left London in time since 1954. Whilst today’s station looks arguably great, only the most strenuous wearer of a pair of rose-tinted-glasses can deny that, had Harry Potter asked around for platform 9 and ¾ a decade ago in the station’s environs, he’d get anything – robbery at knifepoint, a foil of crack cocaine, a quickie in exchange for a tenner – but an answer.
If there’s a conclusion for this rather convoluted introduction, it’s that, 10 years ago, King’s Cross rhymed with decay. Those less merciful than yours truly would define it as an open-air latrine or, in the immortal words of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom, “one big pile of shit”. I remember walking around Pentonville road with my dad in 2003 through a parade of boarded-up shops. Prostitutes loitered outside a hostel, waiting for clients, whilst junkies ambled about. A discarded shopping trolley sat atop a mound of rubble that descended into a no man’s land towards the skeleton of the abandoned gasworks.
If you were to do the same walk today, you’d have trouble believing that this is still the same town.
Where the post-industrial wasteland dragged on, a new city sprouted out of nowhere. KX, as it had been dubbed, glittered under a sky that had very little of London and a lot of Mallorca. A street market led, through a terrace where a multitude sunbathed and watched the latest from Wimbledon on a giant screen, to the canal and a set of locks operated by a tattoed punk. New homes had been built within the gasworks’ pantograph structure: cylinders with an obviously eye-watering price per square meter, enclosed within elaborate brise-soleil of honeycomb metal. They looked both futuristic and ancient, the kind of buildings one would expect to gaze at in Ray Bradbury’s New Texas City.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The tell-tales of gentrification were plain for everyone to see. Waitrose, second best in Britain’s caste system of supermarkets, had installed itself in a former sweatshop next door to a covered market where prints of whales, bikes, owls, bees – an entire hipster iconography – were on sale. The London University of Arts held classes in a warehouse abutting granary square, serving as ground zero for a veritable epidemic of signs typed in Helvetica. Landscape was carefully engineered to be pollinator-friendly.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Yet, KX wasn’t just a playground for techies darting out of Amazon’s HQ on their fixed-wheel bikes. A community had lived here throughout all this: the crack-dealing years, the demolitions, the reconstruction, and still did. Local youths worked at the Skip café, an establishment that could be defined as an optimist’s take on Budapest’s ruin pubs. And, in the fountains in Granary square, the sons and daughters of KX frolicked together, a colourful mixture of toddlers dressed in expensive gear bought at Trotters or in Primark knock-offs. Their future, dictated by the different avenues made available by their schools, was already running on ever diverging tracks but today, under this strangely warm sun, gentrifiers and gentrified were one and the same.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Posted in Europe, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A good day to be in America.

Waking up at silly o’clock in a corporate hotel room (describable by the colour “beige”) on the 25thfloor of a Magnificent Mile high-rise in Chicago, I felt a genuine, good-spirited sense of excitement. It was a cocktail, I decided as I slipped in the few non-business rags I’d brought, made of ebullience at the idea of having the time to see the place I was in, and of sheer expectation for a day that, I decided, I was to pass by myself.
It might sound a tad egotistical, and perhaps even a bit socially awkward, but I was yearning for a day with me, and myself only, to deal with. I was savouring, as I rode the elevator to the lobby, the freedom of going left if it pleased me, or right if I fancied it. Latitude to go ahead to my heart’s content, or to stop where I wanted, without having to deal with social courtesies, embarrassed compromise or the inane chit-chat that are the stalwarts of when people with different personalities and interests are forced together by the bonds of a contract: I didn’t want Sunday ever to end.
I had one suggestion for the day, by the incredible Julie at Wish I Were Here: Andersonville, somewhere up in the long brush stroke of streets, railway lines and infrastructure that unravelled northbound from the Loop. So I set off, aiming casually northwards, free to go and to deviate only three blocks in, waylaid by an inconspicuous sign that read “Navy Pier”.
There is something, for me, in visiting what normally is a hive of activity at its quietest. Victoria Station at 4 AM. St. Peter’s square at 5 in the morning. Navy Pier at 6.30 AM on a Sunday. Bar for a couple of joggers and a truck patiently refilling a tour boat – a rather eerie sight, for there were no humans in sight to supervise the operation – I had the pier to myself, the only one to hear the lament of seagulls and the clinking of hoist ropes against flag poles: much to my surprise, a dozen rainbow flags flew in the wind, together with the Stars ‘n’ Stripes, the State and City banner, looking out to what felt very odd not to be able to call ‘sea’.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
My initial impression of Lincoln Park – wide avenues, condos with concierge and fitness centres, no one but the homeless on the street – fizzled and disappeared as soon as I started weaving in and out of the grid of smaller streets that led to the north. Whilst the larger arteriae drowned everything with their impersonality, the roads feeding them nourished me with their quiet floridity. I walked in the shade of a continuous canopy of trees, past homes in wood, stone or brick, flags dangling from poles and newspapers on the doormat. At times, the residential texture broke to reveal a commercial high street, where Starbucks might be sitting shyly in a corner and individually-owned businesses took pride of place. Dry cleaners were out in force, an activity that – together with standing on the kerb dressed in Lycra, watching your French bulldog stare at another, identical, specimen held by a fellow Lycra-clad person – had to be North Chicago’s favourite past-time.
Pushing northwards through streets so quiet that I could hear my blood rumbling into my ears, I found entertainment in the all-American tradition of putting slogans on car number plates. Used to the impersonality of Europe’s ones, I’d always found this habit deeply fascinating, and today I could add a few more examples that I hadn’t, so far, seen before. “Land of Lincoln” was obviously out in force and, by the time I read it 30 times, I began finding it quite reductive for Illinois which, in the 150-or-so years between then and now, must’ve produced somebody else worth being proud about. I giggled at the mild bitterness of DC’s “Taxation without representation”and felt a sudden urge to hug the owner of the car that read “America’s dairyland”. You cannot claim to have a heart and not feel for Wisconsin, who must’ve thought long and hard about what defined it and couldn’t come up with anything better than the liquid squirted out of a cow’s udder.
It was by then 10:30, and I was still halfway to Andersonville. My plan had been to find a suitable café on the main road, where to have breakfast and multiple cups of coffee, perhaps a place where they’d call it “joe”, but the progress so far suggested I might be late for it. Faced with what looked like failure, I did what anyone would’ve done. I cheated.
The Red line of the L delivered me in 10 minutes of air-conditioned bliss into a rectangle of neatly ordered streets – is there a bendy one in the whole of Chicago? – oozing Scottish heritage: Argyle, Balmoral, a whisky shop. Yet, the atmosphere was unequivocally American. As I set off for a first round of sight-seeing it occurred to me that Andersonville fitted, for me, with the blueprint of any small-town American town I’d ever imagined. There was a high street with restaurants, stores, a bookshop and a couple of bars and, around it, beautiful wooden homes hidden beneath verdant trees. This is how I imagined Stephen King’s towns to be looking like in It or The Dark Half. The resemblance with the grainy footage of the moonwalkers’ birthplaces, in the Apollo documentaries, was also striking. I half-expected to bump into Charlie Duke loading his truck with paper bags from the shop. Andersonville was the kind of place where men and women smiled at complete strangers and asked how they were doing, and where those who sat on public benches read books and drank lattes, not smoked crack. After a couple of rounds, I settled on a café, where I was accommodated by the window, the breakfast menu included roasted potatoes and steak & eggs and coffee refills were as forthcoming as fresh Prosecco chalices at a Putney bottomless brunch.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Yet, there was something very different from the standard all-American small town feel in Andersonville. It wasn’t the Swedish heritage that painted the old water tower blue and gold; I had an initial inkling when, walking along a residential street, it occurred to me that every house displayed, on the porch, American and rainbow buntings, and signs on the lawns proclaiming that hate didn’t live there in half-a-dozen languages.

But the real wake-up occurred as I stopped by a set of traffic lights, on the way to the café I’d chosen for my morning bacchanal. A duo of short-haired ladies pulled up beside me on a baby-blue Harley, a monster that they rode bare-headed, wearing Levi’s, shades and the sort of leather gilets that the Hell’s Angels prototyped in the 1960s. Music blared out of a hidden speaker, a cheeky guitar riff I’d heard it before. I had to ask.
“Sorry, isn’t that Electric Six?”  
“Yeah baby!”the passenger bellowed as the driver put the dinosaur into gear and rumbled off. “Danger danger high voltage!” they laughed as they left. I grinned, both because I loved the brief conversation, didn’t mind the song and I finally understood it all.
Andersonville was the hotspot for Chicago’s gay community, a veritable Midwestern answer to Soho; I remember Julie mentioning this to me, and in fact it now made sense. In the café a moustached waiter, his chequered shirt closed only on the last two buttons, bounced along to Radio Gaga’s bassline whilst he took my order. The music then changed to I Feel Love by Bronski Beat, which for reasons unknown prompted me to think about Slavonski Brod, the Croatian border town, whilst more and more couples and families piled into the café to gorge on the great food.
I’d likened Andersonville to Soho, but in hindsight this was better. In Soho few – if any – could afford to live, and most came only to celebrate, and even that was in retreat, threatened by gentrification. Andersonville, instead, was a residential neighbourhood that offered an insight into the normality of a gay couple or family, away from the usual partying cliché. And it was also interestingly mixed: two straight families with toddlers ate at the centre table, an older couple, their son and his partner sat opposite me, whilst a man read a magazine behind my table dressed in a painter’s onesie with the nametag “Rusty”. A motorcade of Jeeps and bikes, all adorned with rainbow flags and modification of the Union banner on those lines, paraded down the main road, headed south, with jubilant cheers from everyone on the street.
“They’re heading down to Pride”offered the ‘stached waiter, before showing the parade’s route with a Sharpie on the Google Maps printout I’d used to guide me there. I, too, headed there. It was too early for the main event, but I was bang on time to witness the spectacle of half of Lincoln Park descending on the pavements, armed with deck chairs, fishing stools, even sofas, to claim a prime spot of real estate for the spectacle to come. Young and old, gay and not, kids and octogenarians, all were reading themselves with the classic preparedness of the Americans: besides seats they had coolers of beer and soft drinks, hot dogs and ice-cream, whilst little Mexican ladies pushed carts filled with tamales. Children played and ran, adults danced and downed pints, glitter and sweat gleamed under the sun. Even the most truculent CPD officer had a smile on his face. A small plane buzzed overhead, trailing an advert.
Penned in a square delimited by CPD blue barriers, and guarded by a posse of beefy cops, a scant group of fundamentalist in baggy trousers and long-sleeved jerseys, hunting caps rolled backwards to protect their sun-burnt necks, shouted homophobe slogans to no one in particular. I watched a man with Fu Manchu moustache wave a sign to criminalise sodomy, whilst everyone ignored them. Everyone but for a party of drag queens, one of whom held a cartoon of Jeff Sessions in S&M outfit in a hand and a sow on the leash on the other, who started blowing kisses to Fu Manchu and his congregation. The homophobes went ballistic, going redder and redder, whilst the bearded cop next to me tried his best not to laugh. Our eyes met and we both grinned. It wasn’t, for a change, a bad day to be in America.
Posted in Americas, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

And the bumblebee buzzes by.

There’s a mammoth-sized hydrangea bush sprouting on the street we normally take on our way to the tube; think an explosion of pink and green caught in the moment of deflagration. As we passed it we heard an ominous buzzing, a concerto of syncopated bzzz as what it felt like dozens of small helicopters were landing, taking off, hovered and in general ambled about. Still, it was hard to locate the source of all that noise.
Let’s have a closer look, shall we?

Ah, there they are!
Bumblebees. Dozens of chubby specimen of species Bombus are gorging themselves on this feast of nectar, leaving for their nests with sacks full of the juicy thing. It’s an uplifting view, but – sadly – an increasingly rare one.
Pollinators, it’s well known, are under threat. A combination of factors, a veritable shit-sandwich of climate change, destruction of wild meadows for those damned English-style lawns and, above all, contamination from neonicotinoid pesticides are inflicting a heavy toll on these little insects, and not just them. It’s estimated that 50% of the 27 species of bumblebees are in decline, 3 have gone completely. 38% of European bees are in decline, together with an astounding 66% of moths and 70% of butterflies. This is bad news for not just this plucky writer of yours when he feels new-age, but for everybody. The overwhelming majority of the plants we use for eating (or feeding cattle) are pollinated, and these animals pollinate an estimated 87% of plants. Without these animals, someone else would have to do the job and, let me tell you, collating pollen from one flower and then giving it to another is a damn long process.
Luckily, help seems to be at hand. The oh-so-vituperated European Union agreed a total ban of neonicotinoid pesticides from the end of 2018 (but for greenhouses), after a long-standing opposition by the UK had been lifted by Micheal Gove, possibly the only commendable action the man made recently if you ask me. This would definitely help, but what can one single fellow, armed perhaps only with a back garden or sometimes not even that, do to get something looking like this?
Well, you could do what many London boroughs are intelligently doing with their parks, i.e. making them scruffier: stop cutting grass one palm from the ground, leaving plants to grow taller, and flowers to grow.

Flowers need to be growing almost all year round, from March to October, and can be of many kinds: lavender, oregano…

… rosemary, daisies…

… foxgloves, roses and so many more.

This is how the urban spaces in the new King’s Cross development, where one of the areas that could only be described as a seething pit is now becoming a jewel. But that’s all to come; in the meantime, on with the buzzing.

Posted in Europe, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Beirut people watching.

Humanity is the best spectacle, in this city where gated communities rub shoulders with bombed-out, charred shells. Pneumatically-enhanced bimbos and babes driving Dodge Camaros on one end of the spectrum and ragged Syrian children tapping on their rolled-up windows for zakat on the other: in this city, there are so many nuances of humanity, sprinkled all around town with such liberality, that walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood felt like crossing into a whole new country altogether.
We set off from Hamra, heading east. The neighbourhood had gone a long way since the days of the war and now had a distinct family feel. Men in goatees played with toddlers whilst women in headscarves smiled benignly on, all whilst swarms of mopeds whizzed everywhere, in or against the flow of traffic. Ice creams were eaten, water and tea and coffee drunk, even though it’s Ramadan and a good six hours to iftar.
Click on any picture to start the slideshow.
Where the neighbourhood ended – in a fluttering of Hezbollah flags and Syrian National Socialist Party banners – a no-man’s-land of motorway slip roads and barren brushes began, inhabited by scruffy street children, their infancy robbed by the sieges to Aleppo, Homs or Deir-ez-Zor.
We scuttled back to rue des Capucins, past squaddies on patrol and, finally, into a square that felt as if it belonged to another city than the one that hosted Hamra or Basta-al-Tahta. Place des Étoiles.
The square was quiet, a hexagon with leafy trees, a tower clock and the white stone building of Assicurazioni Generali, garnished with all the regimentals, Saint Mark lion included. The place seemed to come alive at night and now was empty but for a few middle-aged couples and men in suits – ministers, businessmen or those wheelers and dealers that are a dime a dozen in these places –hiding behind expensive sunglasses, attired smartly in well-cut suits, purring into a plethora of iPhones and Samsungs. Cops and soldiers hovered around, pulling security.
Hurriedly, we crossed into Martyrs’ square, past the statues, braving the Wacky Races marauding downhill on Damascus Street at the wheel of Denali and Escalade SUVs, to take refuge into Saifi Village: a reticule of roads that had been reshaped to resemble a Provençal village, only posher.
We sat at a restaurant with tables spilling into a cobbled square, conscious of being sweaty, underdressed and not fitting at all with the rest of the clientele who were, without fail, all impeccably appointed. Tables glittered with smart, hand-crafted jewellery in hammered gold and silver. Soft linen draped tanned shoulders: blues and creams were the colours of choice. No one, here, would fall for the brash ostentatiousness of London’s King’s Road. In other words, no red trousers or chevalières. Conversations whiffed in the warm air in studiously well-accented French and Arabic, with two of the players labouring their points by waving around Cohiba cigars. Fidél’s favourite.

We left the actors to their comedy and pressed on eastward. Traffic, the cancer of this city, was surprisingly bearable here, but it hadn’t gone away: simply, it was bumper-to-bumper on Gouraud street. This used to be the Armenian part of town, now inhabited by hipsters and fashionistas. Macbook Pros and Mercs, long beards and expensive dresses bought with old-school checks.
The sun set and we found ourselves on the Corniche. We strolled home as the sun dove behind the curvature of the earth, past the engineered perfection of the Yacht Club and on the seafront promenade. As we walked, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu. I had seen these people before. It wasn’t the foreigners – Filipino maids, Ethiopian nannies running on the heels of riotous toddlers, Russian heavies in sandals, but the locals. I’d seen them somewhere before.
Click on any picture to start the slideshow.
They were all around us, jogging up and down the seafront, smoking narghilé, selling refreshments or just enjoying the day. They were often tall, tanned by the warm Mediterranean sun, the hair frizzy, with streaks of lighter colours in the mass of dark curls, beards flowing in almost geometrical perfection. Noses were strong, powerful, running at the same angle as the foreheads. Eyes were brown, with infrequent but notable hazel-greens that stopped us, speechless, in our tracks. I’ve seen them before.
We reached the corner where the light-house stood. As a solitary fisherman dipped his bait in the water and a group of seals dived into the shallows, it hit me. I’d seen them before, but not in the flesh.
In pictures, in fact, taken from museums all around the world and printed over my high-school history and art manuals. Empty hands holding sticks and implements long gone in the fog of history, walking somewhere impossible to reach. The photos showed small bronze and gold statuettes, scattered around the Med three millennia ago by an enterprising people of traders and explorers: the Phoenicians. They all looked the same, with strong nose, descending in a straight line from the forehead, like the men and women all around us: not caricature, not ideal types long disappeared from the genetic pool after centuries of invasions and völkerwanderungs,but real. Alive.
As we continued strolling towards our home for the night it occurred to me that this people, who 3,000 years ago sailed beyond Gibraltar and into the unknown that lied beyond it, would still be here in another 1,000 years, watching the sun going down from a Beirut waterfront that only God knows how it’ll be looking like.

 

Posted in Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

You Were Filthy But Fine.

“You were filthy but fine” sang James Murphy in that LCD Soundsystem jewel that is New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and I, for once, think that it could very well fit to Beirut. Spotless, it certainly ain’t. Manicured, only in a handful of places. Organised, fuggedaboudit. Yet, she’s got something. One of these somethings, one layer of this sumptuous cake that makes the noise pollution traffic rubbish bearable, is street art. Middle-Eastern slapdash meets French nonchalant disregard for rules: hateful if you’re OCD, utterly enjoyable for everyone else. Perhaps it’s again the French influence tinging the whole thing political, but this isn’t your hipster guerrilla marketing designed to look independent. This is the real thing, political, and it smells so.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
Sometimes, instead, there’s more refinement in the political message. It’s not by accident if this murale has been painted by the Corniche, within spitting distance from chrome-painted-Lambos and expensive condos. An ironic retake on the cedar flag that adorn the blast-walls eroded around all the palaces of power, with added side of burning tyres. Come think of it, it’s been only what – one year, or perhaps two? – since the You Stink! protests.
Beirut is a sophisticated city, making up in style what it lacks in order or organisation. Peppered here and there are reminders of how deeply true this is. A photography show of this country, so used to be on the edge that it felt almost a fashion statement; a seemingly permanent display of antiques – most of them raided from somebody grandpa’s garage – that no one seemed bothered to be selling; a dusty shopfront window, abandoned as both ends of the street it stands on have been closed to car traffic. A message scribbled on the bullet-proof concrete watch-post near the Grand Serail, saying God (or those speaking Arabic) only knows what. 
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
Armenia Street, named so after a Caucasian community by now fully assimilated in the colourful ensemble of Beirut, is perhaps the hipster heart of the city. Beards might be the longest – not even the photos of Hassan Nasrallah and his cronies, garnished with Hezbollah flags, dared reaching such extremes of facial hair – MacBooks the newest and lattes the most ubiquitous. Flair, elegance and a certain dose of machismo are in the air; the walls, here are the most colourful, sometimes confusingly so.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
It’s perhaps easy to think that this is nothing but a Hackney with guaranteed sunshine and where Almaza beers have suddenly replace all pint cans of Red Stripe, but I guess that would be wrong. This is a place with deep troubles, used to them I guess, but nonetheless unafraid of asking why things keep on happening here.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
Posted in Lebanon, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Remembrance for scatterbrains.

Landing takes place at night. We descend into the warm Mediterranean air, those of us sat on the left-hand side being treated to a royal view of the entire city of Beirut lying, invitingly, beneath us. Here is Ras Beirut, protruding into the sea; there is downtown – BCD for friends – a riot of colours as the city tucks into Iftar meals, or uses the occasion to throw yet another party (a quick orrraw poll held amongst our fellow travellers, who’d been guzzling whisky-and-ginger-ale from the get go, suggested that the latter option was more likely). And for miles around, between the sea and the hills, glitter the lights of countless suburbs. Are those the southern neighbourhoods, the refugee camps where Hezbollah runs patrols and Hamas is held in great regard? They could very well be, but from up here all they evoke are views of hummus and narghilé pipes, not of fiery clerics and dogma.
It’s a short taxi ride, at this time at night, into town. The dancefloor warriors are out in force, riding mopeds two apiece, or storming ahead in rumbling Harley-Davidsons. All have flowing hipster beards and all, as if by rule, ride without helmets, hair so neatly combed backwards that not even the wind dares ruffling them. Muscular playboys overtake us whilst chatting away on their iPhones, or texting, or lighting a cigar, all done at 100 an hour. One overpass plays host to a congregation of Harley centaurs, parked in a dark bend, whether by accident or design we would never know.

The following morning there’s only one place to go to: the Corniche. Echoes of Istanbul, Cape Town and Rio run riot as we descend towards the seaside promenade. The air smells the same as it does in Tel Aviv, even though it feels adventurous to just think it, but a quick glance at the burnt rubbish discarded on the sidewalks is enough to dispel that thought. This is the other side of the Middle East.
Empty plots, overgrown with invasive scrubs, offer a side view of the urban strata of Hamra. From the ground level up, the first to be seen are those buildings that are testimony of those old, gentler times before al hawadith, the events, of 1975-1990. Beautiful mansions, rarely venturing above four storeys, decorated with balconies, slender columns, pergolas and Moresque windows, often with bodegas on the ground floor, garnished with faded signs in French and Arabic. Inevitably, they are almost all abandoned, or soiled by the scars of war.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Edging above them are those condominiums built in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the priority was to build housing that wasn’t turned into Swiss cheese, and that perhaps had plumbing and electricity. With this in mind, it seems reasonable if looks weren’t high on the list of priorities, even though – as time passed and money flowed back in the country – aesthetics started claiming their role, chiefly through the introduction of floor-to-ceiling windows that would’ve made a young Don Johnson proud.
Finally, standing head and shoulders above everything else, are the true skyscrapers. Towers of azure glass and shards of blue crystal dart towards the sky, in unusual yet harmonious shapes: the scalpel, the crystallised wave, the staggered bookshelf. I’m meant, like every other self-respecting organic coffee guzzler, to be pouring scorn over these monstrosities, denouncing them as tasteless replicas of Miami, Vancouver or Dubai Marina, but the fact is that I like them. This eruption of futuristic shapes sprouting out of the seafront is an uplifting scene, a testament to human tenacity and a great demonstration of our specie’s capability of turning things around. And of the benefit posed by lax, if not completely conniving, money-laundering law regimes, I’d hasten to add.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Sandwiched between the granite-pink Phoenicia hotel and a cluster of condos that smelt of price-per-square-foot to rival those of Mayfair, a rather odd sight ogles the marina, where several millions’ worth of yachts bob under the warm sun. Its lines are remarkably straight and clean, a classic parallelepiped designed in rigorous international style, two long sides with windows running their whole length, and the two short ones covered in stone and concrete. Twenty-six storeys high, and pockmarked with wholes dug by anything from a simple assault rifle to field artillery, the Beirut Holiday Inn stands, gutted and fire-ravaged, amongst its glitzy neighbours like a poor uncle smiling shyly at his rich nephew’s birthday party. Suddenly, we realise we are the only ones to be looking at it.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
– § –
South of the waterfront, separated from the manicured perfection of the Yacht Club by a few klicks of heat, sweat and kamikaze moped drivers, stands a rather nondescript junction, marked by an odd swing to which hangs a wheelchair. Besides this unsettling rendition of a playground staple, it is an unremarkable junction indeed: clogged with traffic, crossed by pedestrians and populated only by traffic cops doing the bare minimum to regulate the flow, and by half a dozen beggars, including Syrian children forced by the war to ask for alms. Totally unremarkable, were it not for the Barakat Building standing on one side.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
In a city where the scars of the war have either been plastered over, or simply knocked down, the Barakat wore them with pride, reminding anyone who cared to look that this unremarkable junction had once lied along one of the deadliest borders in the whole Middle East. The demarcation line, or – as it became known – the Green Line.
When sectarian violence erupted, ripping society apart, the city broke up along religious lines, however blurred after centuries of intermingling. One of these fault lines ran north to south, separating the Muslim west from the Maronite east; along the Green line pitched battles were fought, snipers picking off their victims one by one, rockets by the handful, mortars by the dozen. The Barakat building, with its lovely balconies, elegant inner courtyard and the Mario Photo studio downstairs, found itself slap-bang in the middle of it all.
After the signing of the Taif Agreement, and the return to normality, the Barakat was preserved from the onslaught of demolitions that were happening throughout the city, with the idea of turning it into Beit Beirut, the house of this city’s memory. If only it worked.
Lebanon is the most diverse country in the Middle East – with Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Druzes and Alawites, plus refugees from Syria and Palestine – and multiculturalism here isn’t of the kind that makes Justin Trudeau beam with that heart-melting smile of his. It’s more akin to walking on a tightrope whilst holding a Ming vase, with crocodiles and hyenas and cobras lying in wait below. There are things that can be said, things that is better to tactfully ignore and things that God forbid are mentioned in public. Discussing the legacy of the war, the various factions’ roles and responsibilities, massacres such as Sabra and Chatila are examples of the latter. Unsurprisingly, the idea of a museum in Beit Beirut didn’t last long, and two out of its three floors lie empty, but for a moving tribute to Photo Mario, its ground floor occupant.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Still, there is something deeply moving about this building, about these nude walls, that needn’t a museum to convey a message. I grasp it by looking down a stairwell, the stone steps blown into the bottom floor, crushed by the explosions. The walls peppered with impact craters, or punched through by rockets or artillery, holes so big to act like windows casting a light on the building whence the shells had been fired from. The message this stairwell teaches is that this was a war where neighbours used recoilless cannons, designed to penetrate the steel armour of tanks, at each other’s houses. And that it didn’t take long to get to that point from the day when it was all simple quarrels at the tenants’ meeting.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
What is the impact of this edifice, I wondered? What difference does the Barakat building make on the day-to-day lives of those who inhabit this city? For starters, we aren’t alone in here, but it’s undeniable it’s all tourists. How about those on the street level? Does anyone look up to the Barakat?
I stand above the intersection, looking down on the traffic. Two cops have pulled over a moped and are engaged in a serious arms-waving contest with its driver. A couple of attractive women walk past a man with feline grace, causing him to forget his phone conversation mid-sentence. The drivers keep on driving and honking their horns. No one seems to care about the Barakat.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Perhaps it’s because the memory is still very much etched in their minds, and needs no visual reminder; perhaps it’s still too fresh to be talked about. Definitely, for the impoverished refugees asking for money on the central reservation, the Barakat doesn’t really serve a purpose when their own houses have been torn to shreds just a year ago. Whatever the reasons, no one looks up.
On our last day, we find ourselves on Martyrs’ Square. Dedicated to the memory of those killed by the Ottomans, it features a handsome trio of bronze statues looking out to the sea, standing on a plinth of white, calcareous rock. As we walk closer my original assumption – that they had been designed to be looking war-torn – fizzles away like dry ice. They had been shot to pieces. Arms missing, impact craters splattered on their torsos, bullet holes disfiguring their faces, entry-and-exit holes in the legs. I continue walking ahead, captivated. It is by far the most compelling and thought-provoking monument I’d seen. Yet, we are alone in the square, whilst throngs of people mill about in the nearby perfection of BCD or Saifi Village. As I think all this, walking as I do with my nose in the air, I hear a muffled splash. I look down and realise that my right Nike shoe is now sitting in the middle of a cake of discarded tomatoes, rotting apricots and unidentified vegetables, topped by the largest clot of chewing gum in the whole Mediterranean, by now firmly wedged under the sole.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
As I contemplate the mess it occurs to me that this incident is quite fitting, for it seemed that every reminder of this city’s close past is also shunned, forgotten or ignored, enjoying the same success of a remembrance function attended only by scatterbrains.

 

Posted in Lebanon, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Approaching Beirut.

Beirut, Paris of the East.

Beirut, mother of laws.
Beirut, the city that can be Rio, Miami and 1943 Stalingrad all within the same block.

Beirut, the filthy.

Beirut, the ironic (another French legacy I suspect).

Beirut, you’ve got the worst traffic I’ve ever seen, but also some of the best sunsets.

Beirut, I can’t say I’ve understood you, I can’t even deny that I sometimes wished I was somewhere else, and I’m so damn glad I’m not hearing your car horns anymore, but I’m also grateful for having seen you.
Posted in Lebanon, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Songs for the Road 7 – Now with even less sense!

The hot season is definitely upon us (at least, as much as it can be for London) and the poor algorithm that chooses the Your Mix selection on Youtube must be excused to be thinking that the heat has made me lose the plot. Because, these days, the music I’m listening to doesn’t seem to be following an order not even if you tried. Here’s some of it.

A song I’ve made a mental note to add to my ever-looping-mixtape in the event I become a cabbie in the Middle East, Yali Yali is a song by Neşe Karaböcek, a Turkish singer, revisited by a Norwegian DJ, Todd Terje. I don’t think we hear enough Turkish songs, which is a shame for that language seems to be designed for singing. All I need now is an old Mercedes saloon, fitted with carpets on the dashboard, a steering wheel cover with pompoms and the pennant of Al Ahly football club hanging from the rear-view mirror, like my neighbour in Italy used to.

There’s this guy, called El Búho, who does incredibly elegant melodies. Think of him as Bonobo relocated in Colombia, or perhaps perched atop Huayna Picchu with turntables and whatever these guys make music with. If you scroll down his videos it’s just a sequence of ecstatic comments in Spanish, from me incanta to the outright offers for wedding, one-night-stands or anything inbetween. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that this guy, whom to me is the personification of new Latin music, a mixture of Lulacruza, Bomba éstereo and the best cumbia artists is actually called Robin Perkins and hails from Northern England. Music transcends borders and all that, for real.

Angry people with nothing better to do but to scream nonsense on Twatter (pun very much intended) would call it cultural appropriation and would call for an immediate boycott. Plus, it ain’t Arab at all! Scandal! Yet, the good fellas at Acid Arab didn’t worry about the potential backlash, partnered from Cem Yıldız, folk singer from Erzincan, deep into Turkey’s altiplano, and came up with Stil. It’d be again on my cabbie mixtape, but deserves a lot more than that.

Earworms can be really irritating, especially when you can’t quite remember the name of the song. I was on the company shuttle bus on my way to work, with Take Five’s alto sax solo looping constantly in my head. I tried furiously to remember who wrote it, who did it. Thelonius Monk? Nah. Coltrane? Nah, again. Perhaps it was Herbie Hancock? They used to use both that song and Cantaloupe Island on a RAI Radio jingle from one of those old-fashioned shows my mum used to listen to when we were on holiday and thunderstorms blocked the telly signal. So I went on to listen to that record, but what was to be Take Five wasn’t there. Slowly, the earworm dissolved. Then, one day, I chanced over Dave Brubeck’s Essential. And the first song was… voilà, the earworm.

There used to be a time, many moons ago, when pretty much all I used to listen to was this sort of music. I was 17, 18, doing a sort of pilgrimage every year to Ibiza. Then the rave circuit in Turin. Most probably we were the only ones on a dancefloor at 3AM not high on drugs (in fact, come think of it, I’ve never done MDMA, ecstasy or that sort of stuff. We used to do practical chemistry at school and we knew some of the industrial uses for the substances that, we heard, were also used to manufacture the pills. Nah, not my thing). Anyhow, I was doing some mundane chores, Youtube shuffling in the background. A guy’s mix, Boris Brejcha @ Art of Minimal Techno Tripping, comes up. It’s well done, a great mixing, and what makes it remarkably odd is the fact that the music is paired to some old school cartoons. Mickey and Pluto. Woody the Woodpecker. A monkey that goes hunting. Sometimes around the 8th minute mark, this one comes up, and it’s a smash.

This is the only song that survived an iOS update that hadn’t been properly regression tested by some find mind over in Cupertino. In other words, it was the only song I had during a six-hour layover in Shanghai, where I found myself walking like Vinz in Chanteloup-les-Vignes. It felt rather absurd, and it certainly was, but as I heard the song over and over, struggling to understand the convoluted verlan slang that made the flics become keuf, I couldn’t help but feel captivated by the lyrics. La loi de la jungle tue, si tu es pas roi tu es perdu. 
Posted in Music review, Odd ones out | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

To the last city.

No, that’s a misnomer. Tashkent was, if anything, Uzbekistan’s first city, at least in the modern sense of the term. First one to be occupied by the Russians, first one to be reached by a railroad, first to host all those innumerable buildings and institutions – universities, hospitals, sports arenas, you get the idea – that are the mainstay of a modern civitas. But since it was the last stop in my tour of the country, and the chance of quoting a Colin Thubron novel too good to pass on, Tashkent shall remain – for me at least – The last city.
Tashkent shares a great deal of past with the other peripheral outposts of the old Soviet empire that I’ve visited before, at least in terms of architecture. A cataclysmic event – war, or in this case, earthquake – makes tabula rasa of whatever existed before. An enlightened, inspired architect with a vision is called in; the kind of guy who’s got a hammer & sickle in his pupils, much like Scrooge McDuck has the $ sign. Insert enormous boulevards with double lines of poplars on each side – wide enough for the inevitable May Victory parade – douse everything with a sprinkle of monuments to the Glorious Dead in granite and bronze, dig through a metro system jealously guarded by the dourest matrons you can find and bien, mesdames et messieurs, voilà une autre ville sovietique. 
Not so quickly.
Tashkent has a few quirks, a few adaptations on the former-Soviet-now-free-market-major-city model. Let’s start, for instance, with Western decadence. Unlike other places – think at the motorcades of black Mercedes G55 AMGs that roam the streets of Moscow, the plethora of fast food joints of Kiev, or the hordes of new Land Cruises that parade through Almaty – all there is to show for the new consumerism are a few Mercs and Beemers, plus the heroic cyclist who, dressed in Lycra, has the guts to brave the city’s streets, daring to go where no cyclist has ever been before.

Then there are the Koreans. The neighbourhood where we’re staying in lies huddled around Mirobod Bazaar as if for need of extra warmth at night, and – through shops, restaurants and populace, if not for the omnipresent Chevrolets and Hyundais – has a decidedly Asian feel. Again, not quite your Soviet city.

The cultural rebranding of the Soviet heritage is as in full swing as it is elsewhere in Central Asia, but with markedly better results than in neighbouring countries. A central square, where once a giant head of Marx eyed everyone with much malignity (perhaps accusing each and every passer-by of having nicked the rest of his body) had gone, replaced with a rather more impressive statue of Amir Timur, Tamerlane for friends, on horseback. His right hand was raised in what I’m sure was meant to be an exhortation, but that to me looked remarkably  similar to a Nazi salute, especially if seen from the side. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind and helped themselves to the wreath of flowers laid at his feet. Today, a girl called Umida took pride in informing us, was the big man’s birthday. We scurried away before I could confess that the idea of giving flowers to the warlord who flattened Baghdad as a past time seemed almost insulting to me.
Even Lenin had gone, his coat and waving arm replaced for a rather bling globe with an oversized Uzbekistan superimposed over it. Still, those yearning for those simpler times when ideologies still mattered only need to pay a visit to Hotel Uzbekistan, where service is as bad today as it was in the good old days of the Union.
Normally, cities like this would penetrate under my skin with considerable ease. I loved Yerevan, found deep satisfaction with Almaty and even Dushanbe, despite all its quirks, had on grown on me by the time I had to leave. Yet, nothing of this kind seemed to be happening with Tashkent. I sincerely wanted to grow fond of this city, of its metro smelling of damp, of its Smurfs-blue Orthodox cathedral, of its scenes of street life and of its frankly refreshing lack of big, corporate chains of clothing and food, but I felt constantly rebuffed. People looked at us as weirdos if we’d only ever attempted to greet them with a salaam alaykum on the street, as it was the norm in Samarkand and Bukhara; no one seemed to have time to stop and chat, but they somehow seemed to find a slot to to try and con us with scams that were almost heartwarming in their simplicity.
Cops patrolled ever street, every station and also appeared out of nowhere in city parks, ready to bar us from walking down a path that might’ve led to an old Soviet building, now hosting some unknown ministry and sporting some utterly unsightly decoration, symbol of the new regime. Tashkent, I reflected in our stuffy hotel whilst Russian guests argued over the Wi-Fi, was the epicentre of Uzbekistan’s big city attitude, the place where all the go-getters, all the wheelers and dealers of the nation congregated. And that, I guess, was what I didn’t like about it.

 

Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Looking up in Uzbekistan.

Remember shoegazing, that 1980s genre? Well, had any of those musicians been in Ulug Beg Madrasa, in Samarkand, they’d have missed this.

Sometimes it’s useful to be walking with one eye to the heavens and one to the floor. Especially in places such as Bibi Khanum mosque, where toddlers chase each other at ground level and masonry has a habit to fall from above. Tamerlane wanted it great and done quickly: he might’ve been the destroyer of Delhi and Baghdad, but even him ended up ripped off by the contractors.

Move over to the opposite side of town. A leafy boulevard, with not much but for a decent restaurant and a club pumping hardbass music behind blackened-out windows at 2PM. Enter the Orthodox church on the corner, stand in front of the altar and look up. You can almost hear the valzer. Da-da-da-da-daaa-daa…

Not far from there – it’s just a couple of wide alleys, odd statues and suicidal pedestrian crossings – it’s another place of worship, at least judging by the elderly ladies praying. But this is no church or mosque. It’s Tamerlane’s mausoleum. The tomb of the destroyer of so many Muslim cities is now a place of pilgrimage by devout Muslims. Sod orthodoxy. 

Again, outskirts. Bukhara, this time. Centuries before Islam, the prophet Job happened to pass by and found Bukhara in the midst of a terrible drought. He saw the suffering and decided to do something about it. He struck his walking stick in the ground and – right there! – a sweet water spring appeared, as if by magic. Today the spring – Chasma Ayub – is still there.
The Ark, despite its architectonic quirks, gave me a distinct impression of oppression, stale air, meaningless gestures, threat. Still, looking up at the ceiling of its in-built mosque one wouldn’t feel anything but this.

There’s yet another mosque next to the Ark, past the rather stinky (I guess that makes it authentic) Bolo reservoir, or hauz. Bolo Hauz mosque. Warm tones on the outside – wood, ochre, orange, red velvets – and on the inside… this. Picture me surprised, but in a nice way.

There’s a road, in Naples, called strada dell’anticaglia. It could be translated as “road of old tat” and its name is due to the amount of Roman architecture that sprouts out of everywhere in that street, evidently in the way of the exasperated locals who just wanted to build their homes without digging up yet another amphora. If these ceilings have given you the same feeling – old cupolas, old domes, Tamerlane, old old old – then I’ve got a partying gift. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent. Say hello to God knows how many meters of tangible Socialism.

Until next time… ta-dah.

Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments