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.

 

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18 Responses to Remembrance for scatterbrains.

  1. equinoxio21 says:

    A monument to the martyrs of the Ottomans? Wow! Only in Beyrouth I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did it bring to your mind Sarajevo too or is it just me?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Bama says:

    Such a sobering account on this intriguing city that has witnessed among the bloodiest wars in recent memory. Every time I read about Beirut, I always feel mixed emotions about it: it’s a liberal bastion in a deeply conservative region; its diverse population is something other cities in the Middle East can only dream of (or not); its eclectic cultures is a testament to its long history. Although the war has long ended, but peace seems to be as fragile as ever, and the fact that the country’s politics is often marred by deadlocks certainly doesn’t help make things better for the Lebanese.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Don’t know, Bama. Perhaps it’s because I’m an eternal optimist, but I’ve seen far too many people having a jolly good time to think that war might erupt again. They had a pretty close shave in ’06, and definitely when the daesh dogs were close they felt it again, but what I took out of Beirut was an enormous sense of enjoyment. Secular, Christians, Muslims: they all, in their own ways, were enjoying life. And people flocked there to do the same! I’ve seen a lot of Saudi, Qatari cars, driven by people having an allegedly “haram” G&T. Having a good time, hopefully, defies war.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. J.D. Riso says:

    I kind of like when some areas retain the scars of wars past, like the Ministry of Defense buildings in Belgrade, for example. I probably would have wandered around this area of Beirut more than any other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      I know the feeling. It’s a strange fascination to have, at least that’s what I feel, and I suppose that had I been there for the ‘fireworks display’ I wouldn’t be that inclined to revive the experience, but it’s something I can’t deny asking myself: How must it have been to be there?

      Like

  5. I am just finding your blog and so glad that I have. This post is fascinating and very interesting. Coupled with your photographs it really gives a good insight into Beirut and this part of the Middle East. Thank you. We have seen the “scars of war” in other countries: Nicaragua, Cuba and Sri Lanka come to mind, and they always seem to be a really good reminder of what has been and the pain and suffering which went along with it.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

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