Taste of fire and smoke

September 13, 2020

Once called Paris of the Middle East, Beirut has immense cultural vibrancy, urban beauty and longing for its past glory

The martyrs monument outside Mohammad Al Amin Mosque. (Photo by author)

My flight from Istanbul arrived late at night at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. Just before exiting the airport, the security official, upon seeing my Pakistani passport, said, “Aha! Osama bin Laden! Where were you guys hiding him?” Two years had passed since OBL was taken down in Abbottabad, but it looked like this guy had since been waiting for the opportunity to ask this question directly of a Pakistani. For me, it wasn’t the first time that the task of explaining the reasons for my country’s delinquencies had fallen to me.

I went to the taxi rank and got into an old Mercedes sedan. My host’s house was in a Beirut suburb. The fare was in tens of thousands of Lebanese pounds. When we reached the destination, the taxi driver claimed he didn’t have the change to give me back, so an additional ten thousand was added to my fare.

Having spent a few years working in the Persian Gulf, I had noticed how the cultural footprint of this small nation extended far and wide over the entire Arab world. One couldn’t miss noticing the popularity of Lebanese cuisine and music as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of its diaspora everywhere in the Middle East. Later, I also came across sizable Lebanese communities in Latin America and West Africa. There are almost twice as many Lebanese living abroad as those living in Lebanon. The impression Lebanese people left on me was always characterised by their refined looks, sophisticated tastes and an ambitious approach to life. As a child, I used to collect images of country flags. I remember the Lebanese flag with two red stripes and a cedar tree in the middle was one of my favourites. Such were the impressions I carried with me when I arrived in Lebanon in June 2013.

On account of its cultural vibrancy and urban beauty, Beirut was once called Paris of the Middle East. Though I find the use of Paris as the ultimate metaphor for charm and elegance rather annoying, because there are many cities in the world, including Europe, that surpass Paris in these qualities, yet I was expecting to be beguiled by Beirut.

The first morning started with Karim, my host, an entrepreneur and a cycling enthusiast, dropping me off at the city centre, close to some museums and landmarks, on his way to work. The first thing I noticed was the attractive facade of a nearby building. I thought it could be the subject of my first photo in the album on Beirut. Just as I aimed my camera at the building, through the lens, I saw a policeman marching aggressively towards me. He came over to my side of the road and demanded that I hand over my camera and follow him into the building. I found myself in the office of his boss, who was sitting behind a large glass-top desk, seemingly waiting for his soldiers to present before him unsuspecting tourists caught taking photos. The boss casually went through my camera roll and demanded that I delete the photo I had just taken because it was of a government building. I complied. As I was leaving, thinking my trip didn’t begin on a pleasant note, both the policeman and his boss wished me a very happy welcome to their country.

Soon I realised that the police were very paranoid about photography of public buildings, even though they had not put any signs prohibiting the same. My camera was inspected by the police on several occasions during my visit. At one time, they stopped me for photographing the only remaining synagogue of Beirut. One of them spoke on his wireless set in Arabic, and I picked up the word Bakistani in his conversation. I thought I might be in trouble if they found the pattern of my movements in the city suspicious. Thankfully I was let go and kept clicking my way through the streets of Beirut. The troubled history of the country with 15 years of civil war and looming unrest may necessitate stronger vigilance by law enforcement forces, but in this day and age of Google Maps, I couldn’t fathom the paranoia about photography of places that were in full public view.

Lebanon is a melting pot of religions, cultures and ancient civilisations. Being an Arab country, it carries its Phoenician, Roman, Ottoman and French heritage with pride. For such a small country to have so much diversity is remarkable. Its Muslim population is almost equally divided between Shia and Sunni sects, Christians include adherents of Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Catholic churches. There is a significant population of the followers of Druze religion as well. French influence is visible in names of streets and neighbourhoods, as well as in people saying merci for thank you. It is the diversity of Lebanon that has allowed its culture to flourish and extend its reach far beyond its borders.

During my visits to the churches of various Christian denominations, I found it fascinating to see Arabic inscriptions on the walls, complete with diacritic marks. We have grown up associating Arabic script and calligraphy with Islamic scriptures, but in Lebanon, Arabic is as much a Christian language as it is Muslim. Similarly, I noticed that the word Allah for God and phrases like Inshallah and Mashallah were used by followers of all religions there. In stark contrast to this, we ascribe a narrow Islamic identity to certain Arabic phrases and even criminalise the use of those Islamic phrases by followers of a certain faith.

In the centre of Beirut stands its own version of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Officially known as Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, it wa built in the style of Ottoman monumental architecture. Although Lebanon was under the Ottoman rule for four centuries, this mosque is a later (21st-century) construction. Just outside the mosque is the Martyrs’ Monument, which shows two women holding hands, supposedly one Muslim and one Christian, standing on a pedestal with two fallen men next to them. The monument was built to commemorate the freedom fighters executed in 1916 for demanding independence from the Ottoman rule. Ironically, the sculpture got riddled with bullets during the Lebanese civil war. Later restoration efforts left the bullet holes untouched. In this way, it became a living monument to all those who had lost their lives in conflicts that followed in the coming decades.

There is no shortage of reminders of the brutal civil war in Beirut. The severely damaged shell of a skyscraper is visible from a distance. It was once a luxurious hotel near the Corniche, a place for the city’s rich and famous to mingle. Now it’s a disfigured reminder of the country’s golden age. Sadly, the massive explosions at the port of Beirut this August have left this unfortunate city with many more scarred and destroyed structures, further adding to the never-ending task of picking up its shattered pieces in an attempt to restore the city to its past glory.

One evening, I joined Karim and his friends on a cycling tour of the city. We visited areas that I would not have discovered otherwise. One such area was Bourj Hammoud which was mostly populated by Armenians. That piqued my curiosity and the next day I went to explore the neighbourhood by myself. The Armenians living in Lebanon are the descendants of those, who had fled to save their lives in what they call the genocide by the Ottoman Empire in its declining years. Many of those who survived found a new home in the multi-ethnic nation of Lebanon. Today many streets in the densely populated and haphazardly developed Bourj Hammoud bear the names of Armenian cities. One can spot signs written in Armenian script. They look like curvy doodles.

The massive explosions at the port of Beirut in August have left this unfortunate city with many more scarred and destroyed structures, further adding to the never-ending task of picking up its shattered pieces in an attempt to restore the city to its past glory.

While a large chunk of Lebanese people have migrated and settled in countries far away, the country itself continues to host a big number of refugees from other countries. The younger Armenian Lebanese have only heard of the country their ancestors had left behind a century ago, but they keep alive the memory of the brutalities their grandparents suffered. This is evident from the walls of Bourj Hammoud, which were filled with graffiti expressing rage against Turkey for not acknowledging the genocide.

In the Hamra district, I came across a tourist information office and decided to go in to find out what information they could offer a visitor like me, i.e. a visitor without a plan. Inside, very old posters of attractions hung on the walls. The furniture seemed to have survived many years of use. It was obvious that not many people visited this office. The lady behind the large office desk welcomed me warmly. She was very keen to ensure my time in her country went smoothly and offered me her mobile number in case I needed any help. For the remainder of my stay, she proved to be a great resource of information about getting around and making sense of her country.

I carried on exploring other parts of the city, navigating through chaotic traffic and observing its frantic pace of life. The charm of the city was not so much in its sights. It was meant to be found in its vibes and character. In the streets downtown, apartment buildings on both sides seemed worn down by the weight of their inhabitants. Most were pale yellow in colour. Some had benefited from cosmetic uplifts applied in patches. Residents could be seen sitting on the balconies playing cards or leaning on the railing, having a smoke and looking down at the street.

I went to the Central Business District, and sat down for coffee, by a marble fountain. The cool spray of mist from the fountain felt really nice on my face. The table next to me was occupied by a smartly-dressed Lebanese man who had brought his American client for lunch. I could hear the former trying to convince the latter to sign some memorandum of understanding. A Bangladeshi cleaner picked up cigarette butts from the floor.

The condition of public transport in Beirut was poor. The municipality seemed to be run in a disorganised manner. Adhering to traffic rules was considered an unnecessary formality. Poverty could be seen alongside flashy cars and posh restaurants, yet there was room for imported workers from South East Asia and Africa to do low paid labour. The city didn’t cut such a slick figure as the impression I had carried in mind.

On my last day, I visited the prestigious American University of Beirut, whose many graduates I had met as colleagues while working in the Middle East. The university has a lush green campus overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. That day, the campus had a festive environment. I didn’t know what the occasion was but many students were running around in preparation for some event that was due to happen that evening. It was quite a sight to behold all the beautiful young people in chic suits and elegant dresses. Some were walking arm in arm. Had they all found their partners while studying at the university? Was it the day of proms or maybe a graduation dinner? As I was thinking these thoughts, a girl in a pink dress, wearing a tilted hat, asked me if I could take a group photo of her friends. They looked at the camera flashing their bright smiles. For a moment I wished to be a student once again and join their group.

A street in Beirut. (Photo by author)

When I came out of the campus, the slanting rays of the setting sun shed their golden light on the buildings. I walked along the Corniche to get a view of the iconic Raouché Rocks. Sea waves broke at the huge rocks as the sun sank into the water on the horizon. Fishermen were folding their nets. Restaurants along the coast were bustling with people. These rocks had withstood the tidal waves for millennia and seen Beirut change hands from one empire to the next. What future transformations of Beirut were these rocks going to see?

I went back to Hamra, the neighbourhood around the university. The streets were filled with bookstores, cafes and restaurants. From a building across the road, a young man called and waved. I stopped and wondered if it was me he had waved at. He crossed the street and came over with the familiarity of old friends. After greeting me, he said, “Oh I thought you were someone else... a friend of mine, sorry to bother you.” I said I wasn’t bothered. Before leaving, he handed me his card, saying he would be very happy to give me a massage for free, as I was a visitor. The card had ‘physiotherapist’ written under his name. I saved the card and moved on. It was my last evening in the city and I contemplated whether taking him up on his offer would be a good way to wrap my trip.

A couple of years after my visit to Lebanon, I discovered the legendary Lebanese singer, Fairouz. When I listened to her songs, I recalled I had heard that voice so often in Beirut. She is to Lebanon what Umm Kulthum was to Egypt. Her songs of fervour and yearning for Beirut could carry one away with a feeling of nostalgia for the city. When I listen to her captivating voice, the memory of my time spent in Beirut acquires a romantic colour and I want to go back. I wonder if it is possible to fall in love with a city by just listening to a melodious voice that embodies the longing for it. As tragedy struck Beirut again recently, I mourned the loss by listening to Li Beirut by Fairouz once again.

“To Beirut, From my heart, a greeting to Beirut; And kisses to the sea and the houses, To the rock that’s shaped like a sailor’s face To the city, that’s made of its people’s soul Of their wine, of their sweat, And of their bread, and jasmine Then how did its taste become The taste of fire and smoke.”

The writer is a finance professional based in   London and a prolific traveller. He occasionally writes stories about his travels that he shares on his Instagram handle @shueyb1

Taste of fire and smoke