Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 1)

Old Beirut - the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Old Beirut – the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Land of the Free?

My latest research trip has brought me to Beirut, to which i have been a regular visitor for a decade now. The city has long marketed itself as a meeting point between East and West: the self-declared ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with a Mediterranean café culture and bar scene that contrasts sharply with the more conservative society found elsewhere in the region. Beirut is certainly the most open Arab city, having long enjoyed the kind of free press and free speech that (some) opposition activists in Syria and Cairo are today struggling to obtain. This freedom is, however, primarily the bi-product of decades of instability. A complex political system established by French imperialists, giving different religious sects each a slice of power, has produced a weak confessional state that has led to regular stalemates, armed stand offs, and two civil wars. Furthermore Lebanon’s location, caught between Syria and Israel, has seen it sucked into Israel’s various conflicts with the Arabs and, more recently, Iran. Since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been attacked by Israel in 1948, 1978, 1982 (an occupation of the south that lasted until 2000), 1993, 1996 and 2006, seen civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90 and a sizeable Syrian military presence from 1976-2005. In short, this is a city and a country that has known almost as much conflict as peace. For all its ostensible openness, the scars, both physical and psychological, are never hard to find.

Today Lebanon faces yet another crisis, in the form of the Syrian civil war to the east, prompting fears of yet more political instability at home and a wave of 1.2 million refugees flooding over the border. However, for all those fears, to me central Beirut looks and feels more settled than at any time I have known. When I first visited in 2003, with the Iraq war increasing regional tensions, the Lebanese army was deployed to protect western businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks. On multiple visits in 2004-5 tensions were again high due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car bomb that ripped through buildings near Beirut’s corniche. The subsequent pro and anti-Syrian demonstrations that led to Syria’s military withdrawal in 2005 and the wave of assassinations of other political figures that followed was also unsettling. Then, during regular trips from Damascus in 2007-8, Hezbollah and its allies had closed the whole of Beirut’s downtown district down following a yearlong sit-in.

New Beirut - the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

New Beirut – the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

In contrast, today’s Beirut feels more comfortable with itself. The centre remains divided into three clear parts based on civil war demarcations – the Christian East, Muslim West, and the rebuilt, slightly vacuous ‘Downtown’ area between them. However, aside from the odd Christian taxi driver refusing to drive East to West, there appears more harmony between the three segments. They seem increasingly glued together by a thriving westernized young artsy class that open pop up galleries, host music gigs and launched creative shops all over Hamra, the hub of West Beirut, and the Eastern hotspots of Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael. Indeed, these youth have given central Beirut a more western feel, helped by a noticeable increase in European and American commercial franchises, the second generation Lebanese returning from the US and Australia, the massive growth in western NGO workers and journalists dealing with the Syria crisis living in Lebanon, and the decline in Gulf tourists, deterred by the Syrian crisis from visiting. Indeed, the previously common sight of Gulf men cruising through Gemeyzeh in their Hummers whilst ogling Lebanese girls was a welcome rarity this summer.

Beirut’s latest migrants

For all its hedonism, however, Beirut has always had a darker side. The waves of Palestinian refugees from the 1940s, and internal migrants from the Shia south in the 1970s and 80s created a belt of poverty in the city’s southern suburbs, out of sight from the revelers in Hamra and Gemeyzeh. The weak and fractured state offers little safety net, with flashy reconstruction projects aimed at the elite and foreign tourists taking precedence over infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Indeed, despite boasting restaurants with reclining roofs, most of Beirut experiences blackouts for several hours each day. Yet today this poverty is visible even in wealthy areas, in the form of the vast numbers of Syrian refugees flooding over the border every day. 1.2 million Syrians are now estimated to live in Lebanon, a state with a population of only 4 million, and they are rapidly changing the face of Beirut. Almost every street in wealthy Hamra has multiple Syrian beggars, usually veiled mothers cradling hungry children. Similarly gangs of shoeshine boys chase every passerby in the hope of a thousand lire tip ($0.66). At night the hipsters in Mar Mikhael (Beirut’s Shoreditch) fend off beggar boys, sometimes aggressively.

Officially the Syrians are allowed to reside where they wish (or can afford to), as the government refuses to permit the kind of fixed refugee camps found in Jordan and Turkey. This is partly due to political divisions at the top but mostly from fears that permanent Syrian camps could become bases for destabilizing militants, as the Palestinian camps did in the past, contributing to Lebanon’s civil war. Instead, Syria’s poorest refugees face an acute housing shortage that local and international NGOs and UNHCR are struggling to deal with. With winter approaching, many Syrians lack adequate shelter, medicine, education and winter clothing, but funds are low and coordination is lacking. (If you want to donate, please do so here).

Cool Beirut - the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut's 'Shoreditch'

Cool Beirut – the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s ‘Shoreditch’

While the poorest refugees have flocked to the area David Hirst describes as the capital’s ‘misery belt’ (the Shia suburbs of Dahia and the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla) the middle classes have settled in Beirut’s centre. In some cases this is subtly challenging Beirut’s old sectarian appearance. Veiled women, a rarity in East Beirut since the civil war saw Muslims expelled, are now regularly seen in Christian neighbourhoods like Achrafiyeh and Bourj Hammoud. In other places the Syrians have more of a political presence.  Hamra particularly has become a hub for young educated Syrians, and certain cafes and bars overflow with Damascenes and Aleppans engaged in heated political debates over Arak and Nargilah (Shisha). Perhaps inevitably, given they are refugees, most oppose Assad and engage in a range of opposition activity: whether simple acts of defiance via Facebook or organizing small demonstrations in Beirut. Others are involved in humanitarian work for their poorer countrymen in Lebanon. Many travel back into Syria regularly to check on family members and return with the latest news. Not surprisingly, these cafes also attract a fair number of western journalists and NGO workers, all engaged in the ‘Syria industry’ that is, rather depressingly but necessarily, emerging in Lebanon.

One wonders what impact the departure of these educated youth will have on Syria in the future. Though most are outwardly passionately against Assad, many privately express a degree of cynicism and resignation at the situation, acknowledging the opposition’s many faults and the reality that Assad may not fall and some kind of negotiation might eventually be necessary. Moreover, most expect the war to last a long time and are making plans for their own future: either settling into careers in Lebanon or seeking emigration abroad. This is understandable given the miserable fate of their homeland. That said, whatever is left in Syria will be without these moderate and educated voices, possibly increasing the descent into radicalism on both sides. Having spent money educating them, the state’s remorseless violence has now pushed these youth into taking their skills and talents elsewhere. A depressing irony.

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