Time Traveling through Beirut
“The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies.”
— Céline, Journey to the End of the Night
Beirut’s Centre Ville can now be added to Lebanon’s extensive list of ruins, perhaps alongside the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek or the Roman necropolis at Tyre. Before a car bomb ended his life in 2005, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri gave the Solidere corporation a mandate and compulsory purchase powers to develop the city’s central district. The familiar turn-of-the-century public-private push-through envisaged the old souks, the traditional Arab markets that stood on the demarcation line between the Muslim West and the Christian East during the Civil War, becoming “a synergic shopping, hospitality, entertainment and cultural center.”
A marina yacht club was founded. A Herzog and de Muron apartment building with interiors designed by Versace went up. Tommy Hilfiger, Fendi, Rolex, Paul, Victoria’s Secret, etc. all moved in alongside high-end seafood restaurants and a cinema complex. Following the financial crash of 2019 though, and the Coronavirus measures and the 2020 port explosion, much of this aseptic vision is in tatters.
The cleaned-up and smart – if a little sterile – souks themselves are now mostly vacant. Due to the proximity of the parliament building, the Lebanese Army has a major presence in the area. With their old iron-sighted M16 assault rifles, M113 personnel carriers, Huey helicopters and heat-induced lax uniform discipline (rolled-up sleeves, loose helmets, and unbuttoned jackets), they have a distinctly ‘Nam visual flavor. When the long convoys pass the white, formless, webbed blob of an empty, burnt-out and blasted Zaha Hadid-designed shopping center – heavily damaged by the 2020 blast and a fire a few months later – the out-of-sync association of New Labour urban planning wet dream meeting Ford Coppola-classic is slightly exhilarating in the way it hints at an aestheticized, pop-culture infused, future collapse for ourselves.
The army, seen as the only real functional arm of the state, is fairly well respected and considered neutral, but does not have full control of the country. In October 2021, clashes erupted between Shia militias and unknown gunmen (presumed to be from the Christian-aligned Lebanese Forces) over controversy surrounding a judge investigating the cause of the 2020 explosion. Despite gun battles raging for hours, and RPGs being fired into occupied apartment buildings, the military was filmed clearly reluctant to intervene lest they trigger all-out conflict between themselves and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Amal factions – a fight that the Lebanese Military would not be certain to win.
Other state services have mostly ceased to function. Rubbish lies uncollected, thrown into the sea, dumped in the countryside, or stuffed into the carcasses of long-abandoned French and Ottoman villas. Streets and roads are pitch-black as sufficient electricity has not fed the grid for years. Torches and candles are required in most homes, and sometimes in supermarkets. Yet, life goes on. Locals find ways of earning US dollars through employment with international organizations, familial or clan connections abroad, or through online work. Foreigners working remotely take advantage of unchecked visa runs to Greece or Cyprus to get hold of ‘fresh’ dollars and exploit the black-market exchange rate à la Hemmingway, Miller and Anais Nin in 1930s Paris. Generator mafias supply the fairy-lights of the fashionable bars and restaurants of Mar Mikhael, Badaro, and Hamra with round-the-clock power.
The nightlife is, in fact, enhanced by the chaos and the seemingly infinite assortment of visual stimuli that Lebanon offers. In London, chain bars, airport-style security, and £7 drinks temper the vestigial bacchic vitality of a night out. In Beirut though, on the dizzy hunt for a late-night shawarma, one steps from rooftop cocktail and pool venues onto dimly-lit mystical alleys festooned with, say, the stylized beaming face of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah or the color-inverted swastikas of the Syrian National Socialists, all the while the early morning call to prayer sounds and Burqa’d woman walk past lingerie and sex toy shops as the sunrise casts a reddish-orange hue over the Mediterranean.
During the 1975 to 1990 Civil War, the supply of caviar and smoked salmon to the hotels and upmarket supermarkets rarely stopped; militias and groups swapped sides on a weekly basis and formed alliances that made little sense to outsiders (Armenians with Shias against the Palestinians and the Christians, and so on); massacres and car bombings occurred with nobody any wiser as to the identity of the perpetrator; Israel invaded and the US Marines intervened; gun battles were reported on the radio along with the weather forecast; checkpoints were set up by anybody with a Kalashnikov, and a murder of an IDF officer at a Wimpy Burger restaurant sparked a national uprising.
It simply was not possible to survive in Beirut and hold the truth dear. One had to construct one’s own reality. Impose one’s own order onto chaos. Older secular locals retreated to their fashionable apartments with their extensive book collections to convince themselves the cosmopolitan-intellectual hub of the Middle East had not disappeared. Christians assured themselves that by massacring their Muslim brethren they were carrying the torch of civilization passed from the Phoenicians and the Romans and refracted through the French. Likewise, the Muslims could indulge in Jihadi collective ecstasy by returning the favor. South of Beirut, the five-star Summerland Hotel and resort was set up just far enough away from the center of the fighting to offer affluent Lebanese the opportunity to pleasure-seek and to see and be seen. Meanwhile, Arafat and the PLO could fight the good fight and Israel could do what Israel does. Making up outlandish conspiracies to explain the phenomena happening around them, to which they knew they would never have closure on, became a popular pastime that continues into the current crisis; the true identity of the snipers that instigated the October 2021 clashes being the latest edition.
The Lebanese implicitly understand what Céline meant when he wrote that “truth is an endless agony,” and have embraced its opposite. Whereas adjusting to the loss of authoritative sources of information – and of faith in the institutions and ideals that formed our understanding of ourselves – has only recently become a commonplace acknowledgment for us, the Lebanese are long used to lies and living among the detritus of lost futures. The French-drafted constitution of 1926 now serves primarily to uphold the power-sharing accord that brought the Civil War to an end in 1990. Offices of state are allocated according to religious and ethnic affiliation. The intent is to maintain a balance of power that prevents the break-out of full-scale fighting again, but this naturally renders much of the document’s enlightenment idealism empty. The bones of the railway network – a symbol of a bright, modern future – destroyed in the war, are scattered throughout the country in the form of rusting locomotives, half-buried tracks and abandoned or converted stations. Today, the only ‘public’ transport available is the ad-hoc network of private share taxis, endearingly referred to as buses. Beirut’s Cola intersection, set up as a provisional solution for the Muslim half of the city during the Civil War, now acts as the country’s major internal transport hub. While nominally just a road junction at which one barter for a seat in a tattered Toyota minibus going at an unspecified time in the general direction you wish to travel, a whole economy of coffee brewers, shoe cleaners, and mechanics has grown around it. The temporary, as it often does, becomes permanent.
The Lebanese thus live day to day and respond to whatever madness is thrown at them with a knowing grin, rarely losing their humor. Few seriously consider that justice will be served over the port explosion or the financial crash or that the recent elections, which had a turn-out of 25 percent (with a major contribution from the diaspora), will lead to anything. Lebanese current-thingism rarely has the wide-eyed, rictus grin, nature of the post-2016 West. Even the intense factional conflict that always threatens to spill out into full-blown war has a performative, cathartic element to it: the cartoon-fascist parades of the SSNP on Hamra Street, for instance – fat kids with Reichsadler printed on Fruit of the Loom t-shirts – or the undisciplined spewing of gunfire by Hezbollah militants in front of a ready-crowd of Habibi smartphone documenters, much of this is clearly more self-expression and risk-laden amusement than any concerted strategy directed towards a particular goal.
For visiting Westerners, the collapse of the neoliberal vision, played out against a backdrop of animated, youthful armed groups who pose a real challenge to state authority, is both frightening and enthralling in its close-to-home foreshadowing. Should we be heading in the same direction, it would be wise to glace towards the Levant and view the jokes, the winks, the mezze platters, and the crisp Almaza Pilsner as a template for retaining some sanity and epicurean satisfaction as we embark on the downward slope.