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Traversing Beirut’s Fine Lines

Sunday 27 July 2014



It’s a balmy Friday morning in Beirut and I’ve just returned to the city after a long five months absence. Last time I was here the mood was somber and the deteriorating security situation, a direct result of some Lebanese parties’ military involvement in the Syrian civil war, was rapidly returning to the minds of many Lebanese, painful memories.  But things have changed overnight and what was a city about to reopen wounds that have never fully healed returned to its raucous and loud ways. So as the morning is settling, I decide to take a walk and sample this renewed enthusiasm first hand.

My journey begins where the former ‘Green Line’ ended close the national museum. This virtual delimiter, once a no man’s land, and so called due to the reclamation of the streets by the greenery and foliage that created a new ecology in the city during the civil war, is in many ways the story of Beirut.

Once a derelict pile of rubble, the mile or so stretch of roads are now crammed with trendy bars, cafes, restaurants and luxury high rises. It’s the story of a city characterized by opulence, longevity, greed, a flagrant love for life, resistance and resistance to resistance. Most importantly though, it’s the story of a place that is constantly re-inventing itself time and again and it does so in a seemingly effortless fashion. The city’s inhabitant’s innate ability to pick themselves up after hardships and misery and still be able to not only return former glories but set the bar even higher is nothing short of commendable. Yet this very quality is also Beirut’s Achilles heel, painful mistakes are constantly repeated, and history has a wicked way of repeating itself.

I’m walking towards Beirut’s Central District, a square mile or so cherished by the Lebanese as a beacon of Beirut’s return to the international limelight. The area is also one of the most expensive in the world, average size apartments hold you back $3 million. Around 10 years ago BCD was the pumping heart of movement and trends in Beirut exemplifying a city on a meteoric rise. But these days barring the fortified GMC and Mercedes convoys of MPs, it’s a rather quite place. And although life in Beirut might have shifted elsewhere, nothing is halting the constant sprout of cranes.

Last time I was here, this area was the scene of a car bomb assassinating Mohamad Shatah, former Minister and close confidant to the Hariri’s. I’m remembering Mr Shatah on my way to BCD, not least because he was one of the few voices of reason in the Lebanese political bullring. He’s also someone who had ample faith in Lebanon and returned home after spending years living abroad in the US. Perhaps that’s why he was killed.

The Hariri’s have since diversified their interests, pumping ample amounts of cash into Jordan’s booming economy. It was only yesterday that Amman’s new downtown ‘The Boulevard’, funded and developed by Bahaa Hariri’s real estate arm ‘Horizon Group’, was officially unveiled by King Abdullah. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow. Jordan, a country which should theoretically be just as exposed to the incoming tides of chaos and destruction sweeping the region, at the moment seems strangely immune. It has managed to largely contain the influx of Syrian immigrants, limiting them to 600k while placing a sizeable chunk in very well organized camps. It has also managed to keep its economy stable, encourage investment and continue playing a vital role in the region as its infrastructure grows. Last March, Jordan unveiled its state of the art new airport terminal designed by British great Norman Foster.

I’m bringing all of this up to draw comparisons with what is seemingly the anti-thesis of the Jordanian growth model where Lebanon, a tiny country one tenth its size, is actually accommodating more than twice the number of refugees (1.5 million according to the UN). The refugees are not organized in any shape or form thereby exerting an unmanageable strain on an already weak infrastructure. Furthermore, perceived corruption and internal political bickering has meant that the international community no longer trusts the Lebanese authorities with its already weak aid money.

The Lebanese across the spectrum seem to have long ditched their traditional hospitality towards the Syrians. Could you blame them, a ticking time bomb that threatens the entire fabric of Lebanese society is brewing as social tensions continue to rise at an alarming rate. This is coupled with the ever present Sunni Islamist threat, a reality exacerbated by Iran’s and by proxy Hezbollah’s dangerous and reckless military involvement in Iraq and Syria.

Putting matters into some perspective, the 1975 civil war is widely agreed to have been the result of accumulating tensions cause by the armed Palestinian presence on Lebanese soil. But the Palestinians, now numbering 500k, were initially 100k after the 1948 Nakba and by the 1960s had quadrupled to 400k. That was due to natural growth of a onetime mass exodus. The Syrians on the other hand continue to flock to Lebanon despite the relative calm across the border. Meanwhile Lebanese labor rapidly suffers as a direct result, and the delicate economics of the Bekaa region and Lebanon at large are in tatters. Back in Beirut I’m continuing my walk down the trendy streets lined with luxury upmarket brands and ritzy piers filled with trendy cosmopolitan Beirutis trying to make the most of a moment that seems eerily uncertain. The feeling that peace can be immediately shattered is omnipresent, but the almost insistent question on mind is ‘how long will this last for’. I am of course referring to the long term social and demographic impact of the refugees (now a third of the country). A new generation of Lebanese might very well be outnumbered by Syrian children in schools, while an existing generation of educated Lebanese immigrates elsewhere. In Jordan, the Nakba exodus left the country demographically one half Palestinian, are we witnessing similar shifts in the delicate but beautiful house of cards that Lebanon?

As I continue my walk towards Hamra I’m struck by a somewhat offensive graffiti slogan on a derelict wall. It translates: ‘to every Syrian lowlife … go home’, with ‘lowlife’ later overwritten by ‘racist’. Those that remember Lebanon’s past see striking parallels with the anti-Palestinian slogans on Beirut’s walls during pre-war 70s. There is only one difference - this isn’t Christian East Beirut, it is Sunni West Beirut. Maybe things are changing, but is it for the better?

khawaja.firas@gmail.com


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