Monday, October 5, 2009

Beirut: 12 floors up

Beirut, Lebanon
October 5, 2009

Lebanon. Few countries evoke more of a sense of the tragedy of geography. Caught between so many opposing tides it has been ripped apart internally and externally so often in the past 34 years that it would take an historians talent to tell it here in a way which makes sense of the politics and outcomes of it. Caught between Syria and Israel, infused with dislocated populations and embedded with one of the world's great and most ancient cultures it was, for me, a symbol of what could go wrong when tolerance was overwhelmed by geopolitics playing the religion card. In so many ways like Sarajevo, Beirut was rent by forces beyond any reasonable control, and once those spiraled the passion and the violence, fed by outside powers and interests, leveled a city long known as the Paris of the Mediterranean.

The Civil War itself ran a 15 year course, ending in 1990. And Beirut began to rebuild. For me, in the time-warp of news of a generation ago, to come here today and sit on a balcony 12 floors above a city on a building tear is startling and overwhelming. From where I write this, 12 stories above the city, the sound of building cranes still operating permeate the traffic, echoing off the seemingly endless cranes and the flat and dusty landscape leading to the Mediterranean about 1/4 mile from where I sit now in the evening's cool breeze. Going on 11pm the construction is unabated. Instead of being irritating, its inspiring.

Kathryn and I walked the neighborhood at dusk, down to the Marina. We curved around the closed streets by the in-progress Grand Hyatt. Cut down Park Avenue to Rodeo Drive, arcing around the Rolls Royce dealership and past the Porsche showroom. The glint of suites of the Four Seasons, their chandeliers swaying in the sea breeze was offset only by the omnipresent security, the machine guns and fatigue draped security forces. No one here could doubt that the Lebanese mean to protect their guests.

Two years from now this neighborhood will be unrecognizable. The Ramada in which we stay, with my unobstructed view of the horn of Beirut, of the farthest eastern tides of the Mediterranean, tides which pulled to shore the Romans and the Greeks, which saw the passing of history in the most profound moments of history, will soon be only an average hotel with a view of other hotels, not of the shore.
The boom is running at that pace. What was devastated landscape and shattered buildings and lives is rising as a glittering downtown area that calls the most expensive names in Western consumption home. Its stunning and beautiful and brand spanking new.

But its only a small part of the web of Beirut. Clearing the aiport today our driver, sent to pick us up by Eduardo Vargas, the sharp, caring and never-miss-anything manager of this time in the Middle East, said simply that it was his job to be sure we didn't get lost. "Over there," he said, not 200 yards from the airport, "that's Hezobollah territory. You don't want to go in there." A name that reverberates around CNN was a wrong turn away. Yet here, in the center, the cranes work in the dark night, the cement pours, the workers change to shift three and the sky fills with buildings.

Below, at the front entrance, the Harley Davidsons are stacking up as much as the buildings. At a light dinner Kathryn and I shared the elegant cafe with the Harley Davidson club of the United Arab Emirates. Hell's Angels UAE style. Nicest people you could ever meet, but such a strange sight in their leather, chains, tattoos and chaps, sipping tea and talking in Arabic.

In the morning, when the sun emerges and illuminates the ancient waters and endless history, Kathryn and I head with an exceptional group of people to spend a day -- our first, their third -- with a devastated community of Iraqis, a tide still flowing out of the Fertile Crescent and into this city with with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of courage and chaos, its wide boulevards and multi-million dollar yachts, its still shattered buildings and refugees living side by side with 2,000 years of the thick paste which is the Middle East.

Tonight is for the cranes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you guys need to get out of the area that you're in if you really want to see the resilience and the artistic nuances of the Beirutis. The construction company, Solidere, that built the buildings that you are talking about has come under a lot of heavy criticism from civil society for a number of legal and moral issues. So for example one of the most important criticisms that have been leveled against them is that they have virtually devoured the original cultural landscape Beirut and supplanted it with an urban design that is catered only to rich Gulf tourists, disconnecting what was once the commercial, cultural and political heart of beirut from other parts of the city. You can read more about this here.

I suggest you venture out to the Hamra area of Beirut where it is vibrant and pluralistic and most of the commerce and residence remain home-grown. There's a lot of amazing artistic energy that comes out of there that would very interesting for the purposes of your travels. Good luck!