Iconic rocks of Beirut
Beirut is mad! It is thoroughly insane. And that is not an insult. The inhabitants of this Middle Eastern metropolis are proud of their own lunacy. They wear it as a coat-of-arms, as their identity.
“Do you like Beirut?”
“Yes. But it is mad,” you reply.
“Yes!!!” They grin at you with delight. It means, you understand, and you are part of them.
My life has been connected to this city for exactly five years. I don’t live here always, but at least for a substantial amount of time. Like everyone who resides here, I love Beirut, and I hate it, too. Passionately, how else? I feel intrigued by it, insulted and outraged by it, sometimes enamored, often disgusted.
Of course, Beirut does not give a damn what I feel, what we feel, what anyone feels. It is above all us all, selfish, capricious, outrageous. It suffers from a maddening complex of superiority. It is convinced that it is “Paris of the Middle East” (or perhaps that Paris is the “Beirut of Europe”) and the only city in the region which at least has some brain, style and talent.
It had been invaded, bombed to the ground, battered by wars and conflicts; it had been divided by religions, overwhelmed by immigrants; it collapsed economically and socially, got into unserviceable debt, periodically covered itself with garbage as if it was a duvet, screwed its people by electricity and water shortages, paralyzed its streets with traffic jams, and yet, yet it is still standing here, confident and some would say arrogant, but standing with confidence and beauty, never defeated and always proud. Yes, even when on its knees – proud.
Beirut is like no other city in the Middle East. Like no other city in the world. This is no criticism and no compliment; it is simply a fact.
So, let me try to define this incredible place. Let me pay a tribute to its madness.
Apart from the Gulf countries and Indonesia, I don’t know of any other place on earth which is so religiously capitalist, selfish, obsessed with profits and wealth-flashing.
The pretentiousness of Beirut is so extreme that it can even somehow not be taken seriously: it appears grotesque and surreal. Here, some miserable slums can be found rubbing shoulders with Achrafieh or Verdun, neighborhoods so affluent that they put many centers of the European capitals to shame.
In Beirut, a dinner that would cost 14 euros in Paris sells for 50 dollars, while a Lacoste polo can easily set you back $220.
Money does not matter. Those who have it, are hardly working for the salary. Lebanon’s rich thrive on the banking sector, on plundering the natural resources of West Africa, on the production of narcotics in Beqaa Valley, and on remittances. The Lebanese diaspora is tremendous: many more Lebanese people live abroad (in South and North America, Europe, Australia, Gulf and elsewhere) than in Lebanon itself. Just in Brazil alone, 5-7 million Lebanese have made it their new home.
Those who do not have money matter nothing. They simply don’t exist. Nobody talks about them, the media does not write about them, there is hardly any public transportation to move them around the city. They form an invisible minority, or perhaps majority. Nobody knows their precise numbers, as Lebanon does not use censuses (in order not to ‘upset the peace’ between Christians and Muslims).
Only around 60% of the citizens of Lebanon send their children to public schools, and public education is terrible, in terms of infrastructure as well as the quality of teachers.
Driving home my Beetle, I am terrified, trying not to hit Lotuses, Lamborghinis and Porsches, leisurely parked near the curb. The citizens of Beirut would do anything to show off: it is a well-known fact that young people often continue living in their parent’s homes, and save every cent, just in order to buy luxury, and often badly maintained cars. Then, in order to be noticed, they frequently take off mufflers and attach weird stickers on the bumpers, such as: “Louder than your mother last night!”
The Zaitunai Bay luxury marina in the Downtown Beirut has some ultra-luxury vessels. One of them has a telling name painted at the rear: “Thank You Daddy III”. Clearly, there must be “Thank You Daddy I and II” somewhere.
‘Reverse snobbism’ is unknown here. Even the waiters and attendants of valet parking places are dressed in the latest Armani and Hugo Boss outfits. Dressing up is yet another obsession, here.
Beit Beirut Art Centre
Every detail matters in Beirut: from where one lives, to where he or she comes from. From nail polish to university degrees, from the car one drives to where one spends summer holidays.
‘Domestic help’ matters a lot, too. Asian and African maids are status symbols. They are being exhibited as jewelry, cars or expensive watches; in malls, restaurants and elegant cafes. No rich person could do without flashing his or her Ethiopian, Philippine, or Kenyan maid. The more of them, the better. Maids do everything for the upper middle class and elites: they take care of their children, walk their dogs, clean, shop, cook and provide other, better not to mention unsavory services. Physical abuse of foreign workers is common, while the regressive kafala system so common in the Gulf is still in place here, too.
The treatment of Palestinian refugees is horrific. For decades, they have been living in monstrous camps; ghettos, with limited rights and very limited numbers of professions legally available to them.
So far, sounds like a hell on earth? But it actually is not. And the fact that it is not is actually a mystery, and not only to this writer, but also to many citizens of Lebanon.
What saves Lebanon is its people’s passion for life. Here, individuals from all social classes, from all religions (as well as those who despise religions), are living full throttle, enjoying every moment and every opportunity that comes their way. Life is often lived in a manic way, but it is lived to the fullest.
It is also the city’s humor that helps to get-by: dark, irreverent humor; politically incorrect, self-depreciative and at the same time, extremely sophisticated.
Brilliant Arab Jazz Performed in Public
While suffering from countless social ailments, this is easily the classiest, the most educated city in the entire Arab world. The best films are made here, and the best books published. The left-wing Al-Mayadeen television channel which is closely related to the Venezuelan Telesur broadcasts to the entire Arab world from here. The daring, Pan-Arab Al-Akhbar newspaper comes from Beirut, too.
The most celebrated Pan-Arab singer, Fairuz, is from here.
The best university in the Arab region – the American University of Beirut (AUB), where, for instance, one of the greatest modern architects, Iraqi Ms. Zaha Hadid, studied – is right here – near the Corniche. Despite its name, it is now only loosely related to the United States.
Lebanese art is playing a huge role in keeping this country together and afloat.
Local filmmakers and artists are not sitting on their backsides: the creative vibes in Beirut are somehow similar to those great intellectual outbursts in Europe and Japan in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in Latin America in 1970’s and in China and Iran now.
Everything bad, everything controversial that is happening in the city is never swept under the carpet. On the contrary, it is exposed, shouted out from the film screens and pages of books.
Protecting public events from terrorist attacks
Almost all the negative issues that I mentioned above are described and filmed, candidly and determinedly.
Perhaps the two most ‘iconic’ Lebanese contemporary films – “The Insult” (2017, Director: Ziad Doueiri) and “Capernaum’’ (2018, Director: Nadine Labaki) –deal with issues that could never be frankly addressed almost anywhere else in the world.
“The Insult”, with almost unimaginable power, revisits the horrible modern history of Lebanon, massacres during the civil war, hate between religious communities, the on-going “Palestinian issue”, discrimination, as well as the fragility of the present-day ‘peace’. People fight, shout, insult: all in the open; all as it happens in reality. A film like this could never be allowed to be made in France or the United States – countries obsessed with ‘political correctness’ and censorship.
“Capernaum” is about a young boy who is, from prison, trying to sue his parents for bringing him into this world. It is about poverty, religious hypocrisy, selfish procreation, child abuse, but also about a horrible lot of Ethiopian domestic servants in this country. Ms. Labaki is a brilliant film director, but in her latest film she also demonstrated that she is a wonderful, caring and courageous human being.
Yes, Beirut is full of corrupt, arrogant individuals. But it is also a city where people have heart. Go figure it out! Contradictions are everywhere: it is a city where you could be easily hit by a car while crossing the street, simply because the driver was in a rush, or banging into his or her mobile phone. At the same time, it is a city where people would always rush to help you if you fall.
The same could be said about Beirut’s intellectuals and artists. Many are full of themselves, stuck up and pretentious. But many are tremendously compassionate, passionately obsessed with defending justice; brave.
Every summer, and summer here is long, millions of families from the Lebanese diaspora, ‘return home’. They fly in from Brazil and Australia, from the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The famous Corniche – the several kilometers long seafront in downtown Beirut – resonates with dozens of languages. It is because Lebanese people live everywhere, all over the world. At the same time, most of them cannot live without Lebanon. Wherever they are, they come back to the country of their origin, in order to touch their beloved cedar trees, eat fatoush, listen to music and interact with relatives.
The lines at security checks at Rafik Hariri Airport are sometimes an hour long. Families get reunited. Heart rending scenes can be observed at both arrivals and departures.
Locarno Film Festival, also at Sursik Museum in Beirut
The city thrives during those months. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent here, in just a short period of time. Wealth is flashed. Gifts exchanged. Overall, Lebanon is a very talented nation. Most of the Lebanese people who live abroad are doing extremely well. In Brazil, there are several prominent Lebanese-origin political families, on both the right (former President Temer) and the left (recently the PT presidential candidate Hadat). Lebanese-born and Lebanese-origin individuals excel in many arenas – design (Elie Saab), music (Shakira), architecture, film (Salma Hayek), business (CIO of Telmex Carlos Slim) to mention just a few. Unfortunately, some have also gained notoriety as drug lords and unsavory business mavericks, particularly those who are plundering the natural resources of West Africa.
But whatever the origin of the returnees, whatever their social status, they all want to have fun; extreme fun, insane fun. And their local relatives do all they can to arrange tremendous parties.
Summertime is, therefore, when some of the greatest international art festivals in the world take place, all over the country. Most of them are outside the capital, in such breathtaking settings like the world heritage sites of Baalbek (in Beqaa Valley) and at one of the oldest cities on earth – Byblos. Some of the most celebrated singers, musicians and other performers, descend on Lebanon. Everything from classical Western and Arabic music, to Latin American ballads, are being performed here.
Entire public squares of Beirut turned to concert hall
Beirut closes entire squares to the regular traffic, and throws huge music events, free of charge, for the public. Near the ancient Roman baths, people sit on the stairs, listening to live jazz performances. On Saint Nicolas Stairs, countless screens beam, also for free, showing short art films from all over the world.
There are constant celebrations going on, somewhere, all over the city: fireworks, as well as (banned, but who cares!) celebratory shooting into the air.
During the summers, the chic crowd fills countless clubs – swimming pools – on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. People smoke, drink Martinis and flirt in the water. The smoke of water-pipes – shishas – is everywhere. Trendy bars in Hamra and Mar Michael are packed; crowd overflowing to sidewalks.
Even on Ramadan, life does not stop. Nothing is off limits. Ramadan is taking place already at the ‘beginning of Beirut’s high season’. Smartly dressed men, and women in above-knees skirts are drinking cocktails and dancing into the crazy rhythms, right at the Zaitunai Bay, in full view of pious Muslim families that are having their evening stroll. Who cares? People co-exist. Those who believe and those who believe in nothing, have to learn how to tolerate and respect each other. They don’t always, but mostly they do.
It is one thorough madness, yes. It is bit like Istanbul, but also different.
Super wealthy Zaithunai Bay and its yacht club
In reality, Beirut is like no other city on earth. Its madness can never be replicated. It is a city that has survived wars, occupations and terrible pain. It is city which is attracting people from all over this damaged, long-suffering region. Instead of crying, it waves its hand, sticks its finger into the air. It wants to live. To celebrate life. While it can. Before another monstrous conflict takes thousands of lives again and shatters all dreams.
Most of the educated citizens of Beirut are tri-lingual: they mix Arabic, French and English. In one single sentence, three idioms mix neatly: “Please help with my bag, habibi, s’il vous plait”.
It is not only the language that is confusing here. The entire identity of Beirut dwellers is bewildering. I heard people speaking nostalgically about French colonial rule. I regularly detect hate speech against Palestinians. A true inhabitant of Beirut hates at least one group of people, religion or one nation; but mostly much more than one. There are many ‘favorite’ candidates for hate, here, but most often they include: The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Palestinians, and, don’t be shocked – Lebanon and Beirut itself!
When the citizens of Beirut hate, they really hate, and they have guts! Lebanon remains the only country that has openly called for economic sanctions against the US upon its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And, the Lebanese Foreign Minister stated that Lebanon will boycott attending the US-sponsored ‘economic conference’ taking place in late June 2019, where the US is scheduled to unveil its notorious Middle East ‘Peace Plan’.
Where do the people of Beirut belong, then?
Everywhere and nowhere. It is ‘Universe Beirut’; a planet.
Is their city progressive or fascist? Both.
There are as many ideas and opinions, as there are residents of Beirut. People here can never agree on anything. And, it appears to me, they like it that way.
Here, it is just constant chaos and quarreling. Often, there is no government. Almost everyone in power is corrupt. Money is made from everything: from banks, from Syrian refugees, from drugs, from the departure of Syrian refugees, from licking the boots of the West, from resisting the West. Nothing works here. Yet, the city somehow survives. Construction is everywhere. Music is everywhere. Celebratory shooting never stops.
There is hardly anything ‘public’ in Beirut. No public transportation, terrible garbage collection. Turks bring huge barges – floating powerplants – to help with the notorious electricity shortages.
Garbage crises never goes away
Yet, vast public seafronts are open for all and they are free. Enormous cultural events are mostly free of charge, too. One of the greatest museums in the Middle East – Sursok – does not even bother to charge entrance fees, same as most of the other art institutions. Public medical care is improving, thanks to the new Minister who is a member of Hezbollah.
Many intellectuals of Beirut are actually either atheists or fully secular, and countless could be defined as left-wing.
It is a rollercoaster. Up and down; sharp up, dizzying down.
Israeli jet fighters fly illegally over Lebanon, on their way to bomb Syria, but down here, life goes on. Lebanon has no air force to speak of, and its air defenses are simply pathetic. Israeli jets roar over Beirut, yet people keep going to movies, to dance, to countless book stores.
It is an astonishingly safe city. There is hardly any violent crime here. Political violence is always a threat, but compared to the crime rates in London or Paris, Beirut is a totally tranquil and secure city.
Here, everything is waved away as irrelevant. You complain? Halas! Enough!
As long as the Israelis fly somewhere up there, life continues. When they cross the border, the nation unites, and resumes the heroic fight for its survival.
In Beirut, life itself is never taken for granted. Too much has already been lost. More can be taken away, at any moment. Syria is next door, in flames. Israel is right there, always threatening to invade.
Millions of Syrian refugees have been a reminder to tiny Lebanon about war and suffering. Beirut is still flooded with Syrian people, escaping from the foreign-triggered, horrid war.
Beirut has helped many Syrians. It has made money while helping. It lost something, too. Nothing is ever black or white here. Big wave of the hand: to hell with it all! Life goes on.
“To hell with everything!” This could easily be the motto of the Lebanese capital.
Here, it is always shouting, and laughing through tears. Never stop, never look back, or you will howl, you will seek vengeance, or simply double up from pain.
One of great cultural institutions of the city is an old villa on the “Green Line” (Beit Beirut), full of bullet holes and broken walls, now filled with concrete, glass and steel – an architecturally stunning, chilling monument to the past, when Christians and Muslims faced each other, weapons in hands.
Yes, life goes on! But for how long? No one knows. No one wants to know. At least for now, one of the most exciting and insane cities on earth is throwing its colors and sounds into the air, defiantly, and with great style! That’s all that matters.
It could be called madness, and it also could be called life – Beirut style!
• First published by NEO – New Eastern Outlook
• All photos by Andre Vltchek