Tuesday, May 01, 2018

On Beirut: An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

The few brief days I spent in Beirut are still being processed in my mind. I loved the antiquity of the city, the unease it seems to be in, the burden of itself that it seems to carry. I wrote a brief essay on falling in love with the Levant for The Hindu Business Line's Saturday supplement, BLInk. 

Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version.

Published on April 27, 2018


Bey – Beyrouth – Beirut. A city with three familiar names and a hundred uncomfortable identities, demarcations and allegiances. Which side do I begin with then? 

Some places, or even people, are like this: words about them tumble one over the other like in a congeries, and you operate in angst when you have to even think about them. Thus, in angst I think, of Beirut. I left a piece of my soul there.

Perhaps it is because it is not Europe, or the Americas, or any other place that you know endless people that have left, lived and come back from. It still feels like the present tense, the city and the overly elusive-ness of it all. Being in Beirut is to be abundant in stories. In one of the oldest regions in the world to be continuously inhabited – Levant – it is one of the oldest cities in the world, founded, they say, in 3000 BCE. It ought hardly to be a surprise then, this abundance.

There is a measure of overwhelm that sets in even before the plane fully lands. My first sight of it is of the outline of the edges of the city. It is awash with orange-yellow lights from tall buildings – brighter at first near the coast, then tapering away as the land stretches into the surrounding hills, whereupon there reduces the number and brightness of the lights. There it is, the first note on how demarcations work, just like elsewhere, here too in this oldest of cities where the wealthier breath the sea in more than those that make do with the mountain air and the militia. Beirut overwhelms because you realize the moment you step outside the airport into the balmy late evening air that this city will have so many things that you will want to write home about. At its heels comes an understanding that you are wholly inadequate too to do so in the limited lines you are allowed on the postcard, that the language you have borrowed does not have all the words.

I do not go to too many places in Beirut or do many things except a few. I am trying to cram in as much as possible instead, in the few days there, enough to construct a surficial larger picture. Something that would mean that I went there, that I saw the city and that I got back.

Paris of the Middle East, the city used to be apparently called. Progressive, modern and cosmopolitan like most cities, the good old days were really that for Beirutis of a certain generation. It is an age that the ones who lived then speak and write of with an indulgent yearning; those too young to remember see it predictably to have been a version of utopia. The Lebanese Civil War changed everything. Fought between 1975 and 1990, the war is still a speck in the rear-view mirror, too recent to be distant enough to try and move on from. The war is everywhere still. I don’t get out of the city to sightsee – time is too short, and it doesn’t seem wholly safe yet to be a non-local and be sauntering about. I am repeatedly told that Lebanon is so very beautiful outside of the city, that the mountain air is purity itself and that I must come back when things are quieter at the various fronts. I promise to.

The war defines everything. It is still in the souls of people. I read that children are not taught about the Civil War because it was so recent. The relative peace that holds is still too fragile and much complicated to be included safely in textbooks. The Downtown is sharp and shiny, the result of a post-war frenzy of building that erupted in complications of its own. But the by-lanes and older parts of town still flaunt the sniper’s marks on the walls of its buildings. As do the old cars operating as taxis – called ‘service’ – and the dents on men who drive them. It was only a year ago that Beit Beirut, the first publicly-funded museum and memorial for the war, was opened. The building, still sporting the old scars, was called Yellow House or Barakat Building. It sits bang on the Green Line that separated the Muslim sections on the west and the Christian sections of the city during the war years. Owing to this strategic location, it was used as a forward control post and sniper base. The opening of this museum and research centre is a much-required step forward in acknowledging the amnesia around the war, of beginning to think of ways to heal.

The not-healing parts of people masquerade as road rage and wild partying, someone tells me. The former, I see among taxi drivers, their driving veering too suddenly from a crawl into recklessness. It doesn’t help that most speak only Arabic, so communication is at best through single words, wild gestures and much guesswork from them and I. The wild partying is what a lot of people from Europe and neighbouring countries come for. Typically, a party would start after midnight and spill into the morning. Signs of obvious denial in the all-out joie de vivre is both laudable, and a bit sad.

As with everywhere I go, I walk a lot. It is more fun here because my phone doesn’t work, so I cannot take refuge in the convenience of Google. Maps are a luxury, for most places are unmapped, addresses are merely a placebo. “Ask, ask, ask,” people tell me when I ask for directions to someplace, after they have told me the new few turns ahead. You stop people and ask a lot, which feels so delightfully quaint. Except when you are walking through the many, many military controlled areas with check posts surrounded by barbwire rolls, filled with sand bags and a soldier with a long gun – there, you put your camera back in your bag, head down and walk quickly ahead. The man behind the gun looks up lazily. You even ask one for directions, for no one else stops to speak. He points you the other way in thick, broken English and a smile, and you acknowledge he is human too. In Beirut, you don’t have to look for the conflict zones, for so enmeshed are they in the quotidian that a man with armour and gun, by the wayside or in a jeep with colleagues are at best an ugly dab in an otherwise gorgeous photograph.

Gorgeousness is everyplace too. It is after all, the famous Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea is as blue and as beautiful as I always known she would be. Late one Friday morning, I walk along the promenade at Corniche, the swish neighbourhood. The azaan is sounding off from a mosque somewhere. Several men are fishing and the waters are the colour of that perfectly-imagined translucent blue. It is a bit surreal for you never expected those blues to really exist. The air is balmy but barely humid and every breathe I take in is imperceptibly salty. The Corniche is a nearly five-kilometre walkway that people fish off of, jog, walk or hang out at. Expansively in front lies the blue sea, the summit of Mount Lebanon on one end, tall buildings behind and a long line of palm trees at their forefront. Some trees are said to still bear the marks of bullets from during the war – they are still healing too. The morning that I am there is the weekend, and while some fished, some had caught their catch for the day and either gone home or sat on the sharp rocks with fellow men to have a little picnic, swim and sunbathe. Beautiful men and women with skin the colour of unripen olives walked the length of the promenade with dogs or jogged with friends. I imagine they would then go back home to luxuriate over a gorgeous spread for breakfast that would segue into lunch and thereafter.

For such is the food that only dwelling on it would do it justice. When they say that Mediterranean food is the food of the gods, they say true words. Za’atr stuffed croissants, halloumi cheese, thyme flavoured sauces, olives and olives and the freshest, juiciest of olives, a bean soup called Fowl that I cook now once a week, cakes and cupcakes with the hint of mahleb and cinnamon, for no life is all sweet, salads with a dash of pomegranate molasses, the hummus – oh the hummus! – and tabbouleh and labneh, then the most colourful of fruits – all doused generously with a river of the subtlest olive oil. That is just the breakfast I have everyday there. Lush is the only word I want to describe the cuisine as. Dwelling is what this kind of spread requires of you and you adhere. It is what you see people in the innumerable cafes and restaurants do. “Life is meals” – James Salter. Indeed.

Every other neighbourhood has these cafes in abundance – as if to fiercely reiterate the age-old wisdom that cafes were where the well-heeled, or the liberals, or the intellectuals gathered to live and make sense of their lives. So it is in the neighbourhood of Hamra Street, the centre of intelligentsia in the 1960s-70s. It is where the American University of Beirut is, where Librairie Antoine with its large French collection of titles is, where lies the cutest little bookshop called The Little Bookshop run by Adib Rahal, the nicest of booksellers. In Hamra is most immediately apparent the trilingual-ity of Beirut, for herein lies the Arabic from the country’s antiquity, the English of the American dollar that is regular currency alongside the Lebanese Pound and the French influence leftover from being long under France’s rule. The names of Hamra and other famous neighbourhoods – Sassine, Mar Mikael, Ashrafieh, Gemmayzeh – sound like names off Calvino’s Invisible Cities. They sound, to my unused-to ears, intriguing, mysterious, of the other world while just as much rooted in the now and the real.

The East-West blending of the everyday in Beirut is just another nuance of its complicated history. It isn’t a city that one ‘gets’ in a few days. Unlike the knowingness that comes with how long and how much other cities have been used in books, in music, in films and in far more public consciousness, Beirut has not been a character long enough to have lost her reticence to the outsider. I do not hope to get her, for I have known from the first step onto her geography that I do not have the requisite language.

Here instead is Jan Morris: “Is she (Beirut) really a great city, this wayward paragon? Scarcely, by the standards of Berlin or San Francisco, Tokyo or Moscow; but she is great in a different kind. She is great like a voluptuous courtesan, a shady merchant-prince, the scent of jasmine or the flash of a dazzling sandal. She has scarcely achieved greatness or even had it thrust upon her, but greatness has often spent a night in her arms, and a little lingers.”

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