Why Beirut Really Matters
Originally Posted in October 2014, this blog post went on to rack up almost 100,000 views.
For the last few days, a pleasant little story on VICE by Mary von Aue has been doing the rounds in Beirut. Entitled ‘Fighting for the Right to Party’, it’s essentially an interview with Yousef Harati, one of the city’s more interesting movers and shakers on the nightlife scene.
Essentially, von Aue’s article posits that in a country floundering under the weight of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees (for some reason, she puts that figure at 800,000) and which is next door to a civil war, the Islamic State (almost) and Israel (a serial invader of Lebanon), the fact that Beirut can still put on a good bash is what makes this place so special.
Of course, it’s elicited howls of delight and horror, as well as the usual self-loathing accusations that the Lebanese are one nation under amnesia. If, for me, there is any sense of unease in reading it, that's because the story is an old one and a favourite American trope, to boot. Beirut as the centre of decadence, the city that danced even as the bombs dropped, has been rehashed in assorted American and European publications at least once a year since I got here. The emergence of the IS just adds a new sexy spin.
But personally, I’m agnostic. I find the story uninspiring, simply because it’s been told to death but in Ms. von Aue’s defence, I’d much rather have more stories about vibrant, resilient Beirut than more of the kind of pseudo-macho shlock that the same channel ran a couple of years ago. Plus, far too many people still associate Beirut with bombs, devastation (and men wearing Afghani dress), so anything that jars that narrative, however repetitive, is welcome.
But here’s where I part company with the writer.
Yes, the fact that Beirut still knows how to have a good time is salutary, especially in a region where only 300 kilometres away, not only is nightlife banned but children are now going back to schools where geography, history and literature (not to mention references to secularism, religious minorities and evolution) have all been expunged on order of the ‘caliphate’s’ Education Ministry.
But one thing that von Aue hints at but never quite says, is that Beirut is not only important, it is vital.
I know that for most foreign (and even regional) observers of the region, more populous and much wealthier countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf principalities are deemed more important. I have always demurred. In part, I admit this comes from an over-attachment to my beloved adopted home but mostly, its because Beirut, whether for reasons of anarchy, fragmentation, diversity or a long history of cosmopolitanism, insists on experimentation.
It is, for better and worse, the place region tries things on for size: secularism, modernisation, multisectarianism, Arab nationalism, Islamism, the Internet, miniskirts, Gay rights, civil war. True, other regional countries have much more clout when it comes to propagating those experiments but since the decline and fall of cities like Alexandria and Constantinople and to lesser extents, Tehran and Baghdad, nowhere else remains that is as capable of coming up with them - or as free and able to tinker with them, as Beirut. Egypt, because it’s been in a coma for the last 40 years (recent ‘revolution’ being a case, in a sense, in point), Saudi Arabia because it is rigid and inflexible, Dubai/Qatar/etc because nothing yet created in them – however innovative - is truly of (or even by) the region.
Beirut is not important just because you can wear a bikini, get sozzled and dance on tabletops – although it’s taken the Ministry of Tourism quite a few years to realise this.
It is important because, flying in the face of regional intolerance, it is about to reopen (for worship) the first synagoguein the Middle East since at least 1948.
It is important because while it lacks the dazzle and flash of its younger (and MUCH better-funded) siblings in the Gulf, the Beirut International Film Festival is capable of screening films like Love Is Strange.
It is important because cinemas (though increasingly under attack from state censors as well as Muslim and Christian religious authorities), can screen commercial bombs like ‘Noah’ without fearing a fatwa.
It is important because it can still (just) push the boundaries of artistic expression without denunciation, allowing experimental events like Bipod, BeirutDC and Irtijal and more mainstream but inclusive music festivals like Beirut Chants, to take place. Because when it hosts events, like Beirut Design Week, those who are contributing are mostly local. And because at art fairs like ME.NA.SA, exhibitors are not constrained and the overwhelming Orientalisms of glitzy Gulf affairs is, mercifully, almost non-existent.
It is important because, as a nation of minorities, it is a place where all can live equally, without needing to bend knee. Without needing to make a fuss over receiving or providing the kind of ‘protection’ we saw Muslim demonstrators ‘lend’ Christian demonstrators (and vice-versa) in Egypt during the revolution.
Finally, it is important because when Middle Eastern Modernity finally emerges, it will do so in large part because Beirut remains free to play with ideas in a way its wealthier, more stable or larger sisters can still only envy.
This may all change. It may even all change over-night. Lebanon is far from a wonderland. It is beset by severe internal and external challenges at a time when its largely irrelevant and totally ineffectual political classes are even more oblivious than usual. A time when those who can, are voting with their feet. A time when projects that have no regional implication are put on hold because, well, ‘we should wait and see’.
Certainly, these last few years have been precarious and, increasingly, frightening as the chaos and slaughter around us mounts and bellicose neighbours to the south, who really ought to be more concerned about what is happening to their northeast, threaten us with 'reprisal' without provocation.
But our heads are not (yet) behind the parapets. The ground is definitely trembling but so far, the walls have not fallen. Divided, divisive, forever at odds, Lebanon is vital because for all of its existence and the last 40-odd years in particular, it has been asking, answering and where necessary, re-asking and re-answering the exact same issues that almost everywhere else in the region, now finds itself asking; who are we, what do we want, where are we going, how important is diversity, how can we all live together equitably in difference, what is the meaning of freedom, tolerance or acceptance?
Crazy, messy, fucked-up and fantastic, tiny little Beirut is the real centre of this region and, for better and worse, an indication of where we might, could, possibly even should, all be going, regionally and globally. A cauldron of nearly all the 'isms' currently tearing the world to pieces, a textbook example of the limits of private initiative and the need for central government, a paean to the beauty and possibility of diversity, as a much wiser friend of mine often remarks, multi-millennial, mixed and mixed-up Beirut may well be the Blueprint of the World. Best we get it right, then.