A Talking Tour of Beirut

Times of Excitement and Joy
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 11 2005 1:19 PM

A Talking Tour of Beirut

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Roman arches at Tyre (Sur), about 90 minutes south of Beirut (click on image to expand)
Roman arches at Tyre (Sur), about 90 minutes south of Beirut (click on image to expand)

My friend Elie and I are lighting after-dinner cigars at L'O, one of the city's best restaurants, when Miss Lebanon, seated at a nearby table, gives us a disapproving look. Who cares? It's Jan. 30, the night of the Iraqi elections, and we're celebrating. Besides, she's a former Miss Lebanon.

"I was crying watching the Iraqis vote," Elie says. "The courage it took for them … Man, it was amazing. This was a great day not just for the Iraqis but for all the Arabs. This is historical, I'm telling you, like the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is going to change a lot of minds about what Arabs can and cannot do."

The author in the sunset at Tyre (click on image to expand)
The author in the sunset at Tyre (click on image to expand)
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I'm leaving in a few days, heading back to New York, the greatest city in the most powerful nation in world history that helped initiate the events we're celebrating, and I'm not sure that anyone back home is able to say the word election anymore without using scare quotes. We're supposed to be the empirical ones with all the "Western" science and technology the "superstitious and backward" Arabs ostensibly envy us for, and we won't even credit the evidence of what's happening in the Middle East. I don't want to leave.

Granted, in the past month I've led a privileged life—excellent dinners, wine tours, access to important people—and it's cruel to romanticize the hardships that Lebanese citizens from every walk of life have to endure. Everyone has a problem with something here—there's the traffic, the economy, the Syrians; for some it's the Christians, for others it's Hezbollah. But what's singular about the Lebanese is that everyone I've met is doing something about the problems they face. Once Walid Jumblatt stood up against the Syrian occupation, it became clear that a lot of people were already standing. Elie calls it a culture of resistance—"not accepting things as they are, saying 'no.' "

How's Elie contributing? There's not enough green space in the city for kids to play sports, and there are few places for ordinary middle-class people to hang out, so he's building a nonsectarian sports and community club that will be open to anyone who wants to join. There's Michael Young, a frequent Slate contributor, further energized by the opposition movement his articles in the Beirut Daily Star helped to galvanize. Then there's Fadi Mogabgab, the owner of an art gallery. The owner of L'O, Maher Chebaro, and his girlfriend, Yasmina Toubia, took me to see his space in Gemmayze. While we watched Fadi's presentation about the artists he represents, Maher and Yasmina warned that unless someone stopped him, we might be there for days. "It doesn't matter if someone's buying art from me or not," Fadi says. "It's part of my job to explain things, and educate, to help build this culture. We're surrounded by so much mediocrity, and we have no choice but to do something about it!"

"Something's happening in Lebanon these days," Yasmina says. "It's hard to put a finger on it, but I know this year's going to be different." Maher agrees. "The cynicsm, the exhaustion—you can feel that things are changing," he says. "There's just something in the air, I can't explain it really."

The arena at Tyre, today used for concerts in the summer (click on image to expand)
The arena at Tyre, today used for concerts in the summer (click on image to expand)

In other words, beneath Lebanon's surface—an inert government, a desperate economy, a troubled region, and a foreign occupation—there was a community that has been building toward the events of the last few weeks for a long time and has been preparing itself for these days and the further building that will come after. I don't see anyone here dancing on mass graves, as someone had described the complacent character of the postwar Lebanese to me. Rather, days after Hariri's death, the Lebanese massed at his grave site near the Virgin Megastore to demand independence and democracy. I admit that the rapidly growing numbers and astonishing confidence of the opposition surprise me, but, having met the Lebanese, I see that they shouldn't.

Before I leave, I do some shopping in Hamra, the city's most elegant neighborhood before the war, and stop in at the Ras Beirut Bookstore, close to the American University of Beirut on Bliss Street. It strikes me as one of the world's great bookstores—newspapers, magazines, and books in English, French, and Arabic. It's not exactly a novel idea in bookselling, but there's just something right about the place, the books, and languages that reminds you that the promise of a real bookstore is that if you could spend enough time there, you'd have answers to questions you haven't even thought to ask yet. In the meantime, Fadia, the store's owner, asks if I've read the review of her father's book in today's issue of An-Nahar, and I ask for a photography book called Shot Twice—a remarkable volume with pictures from the war years compared to photographs of the same people or places as they are today.

An obelisk at Tyre in the foreground, with a minaret from a modern mosque in the distance (click on image to expand)
An obelisk at Tyre in the foreground, with a minaret from a modern mosque in the distance (click on image to expand)

The Syrian presence in Lebanon has been justified—by Syria and others, including the United States—on the grounds that it will keep the country from descending into civil war again. But as Farid al-Khazen, a political analyst at AUB, told me, the furies of the region are different now. "Arab nationalism is not what it was, and the Israelis and Palestinians have an arena to settle their disputes—Israel and the territories, not Lebanon." Still, speaking with the older generation, I've found that some of the resentments won't fade, and the wounds won't heal. It's not that the older Christians and Muslims want to go to war against each other again, just that they won't deal with each other either. But maybe they'll learn from the younger generation, who recognize that for all the problems, for all the issues between the various communities, it's their country, and they're going to have to live together.

I also picked up a book by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Lebanon's most famous writer, even though much of his best-known work was written in English. For a while, he was part of the Lebanese expatriate community in Boston and New York, where (according to this volume by Asher Kaufman) immigrants from Lebanon's coastal cities and the mountains started to wonder who they were. Were they just exiles from the Ottoman Empire? Or were they Arab-Americans? Or Syrian-Americans? Or Lebanese-Americans? In a sense then, maybe America contributed a little bit to the idea of the Lebanese nation. As an American, I want for us to be able to share some credit for these remarkable days. After all, it has cost many American lives and a lot of American money to show that we are serious about democracy in the Middle East. But mostly, I want Americans to share the excitement and joy of the Lebanese in wanting for them what they're fighting for themselves.

The Gibran story, "The Broken Wings," ends badly. A young man meets an old friend of his late father's who has a beautiful daughter. The boy and girl fall deeply in love, but the father, much to his regret, is obliged for political reasons to give his daughter away to a cruel and greedy suitor. The young man can do nothing but look on as his beloved is mocked by her husband for not being able to produce a male heir. She finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy, but her death quickly follows that of her infant son.

Gibran, often enough, was writing about his beloved homeland, so it's not that strange to read a piece of fiction by the author of The Prophet as an exemplary parable relating to the current events in Lebanon. Thankfully, the story's ending is being revised by reality.

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