Three days, I told myself, as I crossed the border into the eastern Beka’a Valley. Byblos, Baalbak, Beirut and then back I’d trot, north up into the Caucasus and western China and then Beijing. There, I thought, I’d become a writer.
That was in 1998. Today, Beijing remains a distant dream, for you see, I never ended up leaving. Sixteen years on, I’m still in Beirut, although I am told on an almost daily basis that the place I’m fortunate to call home, the world’s least probable, most unpredictable city and one which on paper at least, makes absolutely no sense at all, might not be around for very much longer.
Beirut, I am informed, is a city ‘in fear’. Its residents go about their daily business but the tension is ‘palpable’. The smiles are empty, like the cafés. The hearty greetings as deceptive as the rush-hour traffic jams. The jolly old Romans may have believed that the Syrians sold perfumed deceit with their dried cottana but these days, not even Levantine guile can fill this city’s malls.
The reason(s)? There are many. Car bombs. Regular spill over from the civil war in Syria in the form of airstrikes on Lebanese border villages. The addition, in the space of less than two years, of 1.5 million mostly poor Syrian refugees, to a population of 4 million increasingly impoverished Lebanese, many of whom don’t have especially fond memories of the 29 years they spent until relatively recently under Syrian occupation. The rising threat of intercommunal strife, stoked by Hezbollah’s partisan role in Assad’s Armageddon. Short-lived but recurrent Islamist insurgencies, courtesy of Saudi Arabia or Syria (depending on your political bias), in Tripoli, Sidon and even the suburbs of the capital. A failed state. A presidential void. Rising unemployment and rocketing prices. Erratic electricity. Slow Internet. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.
I read stories of my adopted homeland’s imminent demise almost every morning. Some are so alarmist, they sour my morning za’atar croissant and cup of coffee. There are so many of them, so they must be true. The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times. The Guardian. CNN. Time Out. They all tell me Lebanon is in free-fall, about to erupt, that its people are fleeing, that the post-war peace may turn out to be an interwar interregnum. Poor doomed Lebanon. Forever at the mercy of regional rivalries. Poor divided Lebanon. Forever ready to fight other peoples’ battles. Ah, the lost Paris of the Middle East. Will it ever glitter again?
Technically, none of the doom mongering is incorrect. Lebanon is firmly caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary Middle Eastern geopolitics, which is going through an especially unsettling phase. Jihadists. Dictators. Military coups. Mass arrests and hangings. Nowhere in the post-Spring Arab World looks particularly perky at the moment.
Yet Lebanon not only persists, in some ways, it’s thriving. Without wishing to make light of the current situation – the slaughter across the border in Syria is both horrific and shameful – I have been reading stories like these since I first moved. Media representation of Beirut tends to oscillate between one of two sexy extremes; the heart of darkness forever ‘on the brink’ of some new meltdown or the party capital of the Middle East, a ‘phoenix’ rising eternally (and formulaically) from its ashes.
That this bewildering, bewitching and intensely additive city could simultaneously occupy both and neither state, rarely seems to occur to the sub-editors writing the headlines, let alone to the breathless correspondents parachuted in for the weekend.
Yet duality – or rather plurality - is what Beirut does. Ascribe this to millennia of being occupied by different empires, to the presence of 18 officially-recognised religious sects, to a long history of often forced emigration, which has introduced influences from South America, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Europe, Australia and West Africa. Whatever the reason, if, as F. Scott wrote, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”, then Beirut is a Mensa level genius.
From its chaos, its clash of ideas, ages and visions, comes creation. Writers. Poets. Painters. Architects. Fashion designers. Cutting-edge musicians. Bleeding-edge installation artists. Beirut produces some of the most innovative and talented minds around. But you’d expect that. For creative types, navigating contradiction is both mode of expression and wellspring of inspiration. They thrive on energy and this fractured city, where you can travel metaphorically from Tehran to St.Tropez (via Riyadh) in under 20 kilometres, where wildly clashing ideas about life and how it should be lived, grind against each other ceaselessly, pumps that out in terawatts. In Beirut, everything is possible even if it is not necessarily permitted.
So the first openly gay rock star in the Middle East? That would be Hamad Sinno, lead singer for local band turned international indie darlings, Mashrou’a Leila. The first Arab couturiers to dress Oscar nominees? Elie Saab and Georges Chakra. The first Arab woman director to make it to Cannes? Nadine Labaki. There are pieces by Lebanese artists in MoMa (Akram Zaatari), at the V&A (Najla el-Zein) and the Tate Modern (Salwa Raouda Choucair). Beiruti architect Youssef Tohme, has been given the lion’s share of the new Bordeaux district of Bastide Brazza (70 of 120 hectares), to fashion into a city of the future and in doing so, he beat out much bigger, much better known names.
Then there are food evangelists like Philippe Massoud and Anissa Helou busily introducing the world to the wonder of kibbe naye and sheikh el mehshi, with a twist. Sumptuous cultural festivals like Baalbak, Beiteddine and Byblos, whose organisers fearlessly bring some of the biggest artists in the world to a country their own governments advise them to avoid. A plethora of edgy annual events, from Irtijal, a celebration of music/noise and BiPod, a jamboree of experimental dance, to Docudays, an alternative film festival and Homeworks, an internationally-acclaimed fortnight of cultural happenings that encompasses everything installation. Internet entrepreneurs? Gallerists? Eco-travel specialists? Beirut excels in producing these people too, even though you’d think they lack the stability their businesses should need to survive.
Yes, this could be some Weimar bubble, one to be remembered through rosé-tinted lenses for decades to come. But Beirut is old. Eight thousand years and counting. It has forever been to the object of foreign lust, repeatedly invaded, occupied, even destroyed. But it has always hung on. Hafez el-Assad, Syria’s ruthless dictator, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist for more than 20 years is rumoured to have said in a moment of sheer vexation that the only two species guaranteed to survive a nuclear war were cockroaches and the Lebanese. Apocryphal? Perhaps. Offensive? Indubitably. But to anyone who has ever lived here, it also sounds somehow true. Phoenix be damned. Ideologies will rise and empires will fall but in the end, it is Beirut that will conquer them all.
Originally published in Renegade magazine