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.
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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.
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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.