Can Beirut rebuild itself despite the region's turmoil? Just maybe, but it won't be government that does itby Wendell Steavenson / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
I lived in Beirut 10 years ago. When I returned this spring, I went on long walks through the city to reorient myself. What is going on here? What is happening? What phase of history am I looking at? I tried to feel the pulse of the city, throbbing through the honking traffic, to measure the hopes of the construction cranes on the skyline against the number of army checkpoints. How is it possible, I kept asking my friends, that you guys are apparently—pause for an ironic eyebrow lift—well, a bit, relatively, stable? The horror of the civil war next door in Syria shows no sign of abating; refugees are still coming over the border to join over one million of their displaced compatriots. Beirutis shrugged, laconic. Somehow, they would say, it’s in everyone’s interest (Syrians, Saudis, Iranians, Turks: those power-pushing regimes who play with the country as geopolitical leverage) to keep Lebanon a safe space this week. To invest and recycle cash, buy things and sell things, eat and drink, make deals and negotiate… For the Lebanese I think, sometimes, peace just feels like a period of uncertainty between wars.
In the meantime, the Lebanese do what they have always done: build. My walking tours were parkour, hopscotch, detouring around building sites, dashing across highways with no pedestrian crossings, backing out of blind alleys, climbing up staircases set in hillsides or over wasteground banks overrun with rosemary and nasturtium. Everywhere the clanging and banging of construction—construction everywhere. Beirut is built on green mountains that fall into the Mediterranean. From the high suburbs, the centre appears dense, dun-coloured and spiked with towers. It looks as if the Lebanese have tipped a bucket of concrete over the most beautiful place in the world.
Cities reflect societies and the people who live in them. Urban landscapes grow into their physiognomy in the same way that faces are etched by personality and experience. In New York the upward thrust of the Sixth Avenue skyscrapers proclaim the American dream. Jerusalem is a city of serried levels, where a walkway-roof opens into a covered market overlooking a garden path that leads down a spiral stone staircase, abutting and overlapping like the layers of history. Take a taxi in Tehran up the mountain the city is built on, and travel from the poor suburbs of the Islamic Republic to the more rarefied climes of Persia.