Beirut is a juxtaposition of mindless urban pollution and excellent, locally-produced slow food
Troy Media – by Mike Robinson
First impressions of this post-modern, post- conflict city are dizzying. One point four million people in a dense high-rise footprint similar to downtown Vancouver.
It is now a developers’ city: construction cranes spread across the horizon, and varying degrees of design excellence are apparent – from non-existent to magnificent. Concrete is the construction medium of choice, with textured board rather than plywood forms being the norm. A distinctive reddish-light brown hue is the architect’s colour of choice. Here and there aging and shell- pocked Ottoman mansions languish, with French colonial mandate touches like red terra cotta roof tiles from Marseilles and marble triple arch facades and balcony fenestration.
Beirut has embrace modernism
No more Arab souks exist, but completely rebuilt inner-city commercial neighbourhoods with strict development codes feature air-conditioned ‘jewelry souks’ for Cavalli, Longines, and Rolex. Treasured local academics and public intellectuals like Samir Kassir and Samir Khalaf explain that Beirut has been the original model city for the Arab embrace of modernity – leading the way in the 1960s and early 1970s for Dubai and Doha to develop in the 21st century. Untouched by war, these current exemplars of Gulf modernism are building on the traditions that Beirut has pioneered over thousands of years of Levantine city building.
The 15-year long Lebanese civil war, principally fought in Beirut, left 130,000 dead, equivalent to a country like France losing 2,000,000 citizens in a conflict. Five Israeli invasions have also occurred, along with extended tours of duty by the U.S. Marines who first landed in Beirut in 1958. The visual evidence of these events is still apparent, but after a few days loses its impact as the different stresses of contemporary daily life take precedence.
The price of Beirut’s post-conflict construction boom has been surrender to the car. The original Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman rational city planning templates have been largely rubbished in return for profit. Public space in the form of parks, greenbelts and civic squares is at a minimum. The broad Corniche walkway along the seashore is the best example of public domain in Beirut. It is the evening strollers promenade, when the offshore Mediterranean breezes make after dinner walks the best part of the day.
Traffic is Beirut’s constant proof of being. The air is filled with ‘relational honking’ as taxi drivers and other citizens spin compact vehicles down narrow, congested streets, signaling everyone’s desired plan of action simultaneously. Parked cars cling like urchins to corners of intersections, or anywhere available street-side, and along back alley-ways. Red lights are ignored mostly, as are stop signs and one-way street indicators. In Beirut traffic chaos looms, and creates a uniform level of driver aggression unlike any I have ever seen. Some say the traffic chaos is a permanent gift of the 15 civil war years, when commuting by car was sometimes a death sentence. As a cab driver told me yesterday, “Remember that for the entire war there were no traffic rules – you made your own. We are all now relearning the rule of traffic law.”
The urban pollution levels in Beirut are awful. A continual brown haze wafts above the city and is penned in by Lebanon Mountain, the eastern massif that backs Beirut’s alluvial plain. To be fair, an occasional daytime mountain breeze blows the carbon dioxide and diesel exhaust particles out onto the Mediterranean, but there is little incentive to exercise outdoors during the day.
The obvious offset to the oppressive congestion and overall density of Beirut is its Mediterranean bon vivant social character. Beirutis love to dine together, in extended families, work and student groupings, and simply with friends. Laughter and wonderful food accentuate these gatherings. The main meal of the day, dinner, is taken between 9 and 11 p.m., and involves multiple courses, freshly prepared local ingredients, multiple tasting opportunities, local beer and wines, and often cigars and water pipes (hubbly bubbly in local terms). New restaurants and clubs are keenly reviewed alongside old favourites, and social event choices vary with the day of the week. Beirutis know how to have fun. In fact, they plan for it.
Added to the diversity of food options are the social pleasures of ethnic diversity. At just one meal I enjoyed last week there were Egyptian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Lebanese, Saudi, Swiss and Canadian diners. With the exception of the Canadians, all were Beiruti residents, and all were engaged in interesting work, ranging from IT to UN employment, to arts production and graduate research. Introductions involved everyone gently cheek kissing, left, right, left, often with the opening queery, “Do you kiss?”
The group conversation, on a Thursday night, continued past midnight, and involved multiple switches of seating so that all could talk to all as the food and the night progressed. The evening ended with e-mail address exchanges, safe travel wishes, suggestions of tourist visit locations, and promises of future gatherings and more wonderful food.
As I prepare to return to Canada, I am struck by the many ways I shall miss Beirut. I like its tough edge, its post-conflict hopes of better times, its deep history of trade in ideas and high quality products, and its appeal to progressives, especially young ones who are just starting out in careers. Beirut is a Levantine juxtaposition of mindless urban pollution and excellent, locally-produced slow food; of memoirs of war and young memories of fresh starts; and of a post-modern world being built on a Phoenician trading culture forged in antiquity. Beirut – I think I love you.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in BC. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.