The Summer Season in Beirut
Hassan Daoud - 16/09/2004
In these last few days of June, Nabih and I have taken up our favourite pastime: looking at the number plates of cars that pass by in the street. “They really are becoming more” I said to my friend, having seen two or three green plates that denote the rental cars of those already arrived to spend the summer in the Lebanon. Nabih and I amuse ourselves by counting the growing number of tourists. At the centre of town (or down town, as we currently say, after the restoration works) we observe the multitude, those who promenade and those who sit at the tables, to see if the percentage of tourists has increased compared to last year. It’s true that we could have got these statistics from the newspapers that from 2000 began to quantify the number of arrivals in comparative tables, but we like to check these things on our own. It’s more realistic, especially as the newspapers estimate a 40% increase in the number of European tourists compared to last year. Neither Nabih nor I have met more than ten Europeans during our wanderings around the streets of Beirut in the last few days.
We want to see for ourselves, as, for one reason or another, we still doubt what they tell us and our distrust doesn’t just regard the statistics that the border services at the airport provide the newspapers. We don’t understand, for example, why the Saudis and people from the Emirates come to pass the summer in Lebanon. We feel that their influx is just temporary, that they will be quick to go back to their favourite resorts when the repercussions of September 11 will be forgotten by both Americans and Europeans. We strongly doubt that the Lebanon has something to tempt people, unless they are forced, for lack of alternative, as is the present case. On the road that goes up to the mountains, I was surprised to hear Nabih ask Abdelaziz, my Saudi friend: “Tell me, truthfully, is the Lebanon still beautiful?. Like me and most Lebanese, Nabih wants more direct evidence, we don’t know anymore what the Lebanon was like nor how the country was seen by others. We were as perplexed and timid as the one who did not dare ask “Look at me. Do you find me beautiful?”
As the car goes towards the Barouk, Abdelaziz, seeing the cedars at the base of the mountain, says “It really is beautiful your Lebanon!” We looked at the trees that he pointed to with his hand, they were beautiful, undeniably. If he hadn’t showed us first, we would have still brought them to his attention: “Look! Look at those trees, Abdelaziz!” But in our hearts, we know well that those trees are not enough to make Lebanon beautiful because, a few kilometres away, there is an immense concrete armed hangar, abandoned before being finished that greatly uglyfies the view. It reminded us repeatedly that there is always something ugly to disfigure all Lebanese panoramas. On the other side of the mountain, the inhabitants had thrown their old cars among the hundred year old cedars. A little further away, a mechanic has built his workshop in the middle of what our school books had called a “wonderful landscape”. In Beirut itself we cannot find any sites that are not disfigured, we were angry to see a grey skyscraper in the middle of Rawché, still being constructed after 13 years. “The owner should be taken to court! “ we said to ourselves. “He should sell it if he doesn’t have money to finish it!”, we said again, remembering that Rawché was the most picturesque area of Beirut before the war.
The fact that Abdelaziz replied that he considered Lebanon “beautiful” made us understand that Lebanon was more beautiful than ugly, we just had to interrogate him to find out how much it was more beautiful than ugly. A hard question almost an obsession, that neither the fact that new arrivals confirm to us that the down town is marvellous., nor the new buildings that line the new corniche, nor the restoration of the buildings damaged by the war at Ras el-Nab‘a, nor the avenue that goes up to the city centre by the Bichara el-Khoury road have managed to remove from our heads. It’s that towns touched by war, then rebuilt, always remain damaged in the heart of those who knew them before and after the war. Yes, we do need to interrogate others on how they see the Lebanon. I think that we liked the Lebanon of the past (before the war), so much so that at the time we protested against the trend to beautify it for visitors and tourists. We openly criticised this beautifying; we said our country was dedicated to commerce, that we were going away from all that was authentic and permanent. Paradoxically, we were proud, maybe like the Americans or Europeans today who criticise their country even though aware of their indisputable supremacy.
With Abdelaziz, in the car that went up the mountain, we began to list all that the Lebanon had lost because during the war. While in our teenage, while our dreams were developing, Beirut guided us in our dreams and we opened unknown doors. Between 1968 and 1973, at the faculty of Pedagogy, we met fellow countrymen who seemed to come from a different country: they brought us other idioms and types of behaviour, and at the same time, they participated with us in the demonstrations, they chanted the same slogans. But even though they had always lived in the Lebanon, they gave the impression of being more French than Lebanese.
Beirut had opened new doors to us, giving us the means to criticise and dispute it- maybe we felt guilty about this perplexity in which we found ourselves, between affection for something and affection for its opposite. We complained that foreign missions had founded schools, European and American universities that began to dominate our culture. At the same time we were proud of knowing foreign languages better than in neighbouring countries. In the rue Bliss that went along the American University, we amused ourselves by counting the number of strangers and Lebanese that passed by in the evening – exactly as we now looking with the number plates. Our “chauvinism” made us say “what are they doing here, these foreigners?” (alluding without doubt to the American community); what are they doing, these spies?” At the same time, I made friends with Michel, the Americanised Lebanese who could introduce me into the circles of young Americans. We were furious at their presence and we tried all possible methods to get to know them.
In the American hospital that despite battles and wars continues to be the biggest hospital in the Lebanon, they gave us medications “for reasons only they know” as we said with skepticism. We said the same thing, though without being so defamatory, of the French Hôtel-Dieu, the second largest hospital in the Lebanon. The plaque in the entrance hall of the A.U.B. irritated us the most, it stated that “the hospital is a gift of the American people to the Lebanese people and all the peoples of the Middle East”. We asked ourselves “if it is a gift why do the sick have to pay so much?”
These centres of learning and hospitals only existed in Beirut, and the American University helped to train the intellectual movements and politics of the Middle East. For example, the Movement of National Arabs was born on its campus. Not only did these institutions contribute to the education of the Lebanese, but they allowed Beirut to become the capital of the Arab elite. We were enchanted with what distinguished us from others even though we didn’t like it. From the start of the war, doubt and scepticism began to take hold. To become homogeneous and unique, Beirut was divided into two parts: one reuniting the Christians and the other the Muslims. It was necessary for this “cleansing” to continue within the two areas, it was necessary for suspicion to reign during the war, continuous and unlimited, even though similarity and homogeneity are nearly impossible even for people from the same background. The war knew well that the assassination of just one American, Frenchmen or Italian would mean their other compatriots would leave the country. This meant that in the different teaching institutions we had to teach each other, as the foreign teachers had all left. In 1978, the president of the A.U.B. lived in New York and convoked the deans of the Faculties there for meetings. Those who had founded these schools and universities had abandoned their posts, leaving the teaching and training in the hands of the professors and students.
Between 1975 and 1991 and even up until 2000, no-one passed on the rue Bliss, no Pakistanis, no Indians, no Senegalese among the passers-by, who we had amused ourselves with by guessing their nationalities. The Greek that had been our friend in 1966 and who studied a subject so specific it didn’t exist in his own country didn’t send anyone to Beirut to study after him. The incident of the French singer in love with Adnan, who had passed the evening in his very modest house in the village of Arkoun, didn’t repeat itself in the years to come. The students of the Faculty of Pedagogy who ignored us and at the same time chanted our slogans all left, to France probably, where they certainly found a life style that suited them. It was only during the middle of the war that we realised we had been surrounded by people so different to ourselves, and while Beirut lost these distinctive signs one after the other, we recorded these signs in our memory, pure and clear from any doubt.
And in that moment, while Beirut became beautiful and pure in our memory and knowing well that it was impossible to create a new Beirut that we would like as much, we restlessly asked “Tell us Abedelaziz, do you really think it’s beautiful?”, so that we could be satisfied that others appreciated the beauty of our city. Looking at the old yellow building at SODECO, with its walls and pillars eaten away by bullets and mortar, the collapsed roof, “this shouldn’t stay here like this!”, I said to a foreign journalist who had proposed to keep it like that as a monument to the war. I added that we hate the traces of bullets on the walls, we want to see Beirut entirely restored to what it was before the war.
And there are the cars with the green number plates that multiply in Beirut. They say that the rental cars are a very lucrative new business as the numbers of visitors is great. Other tourists from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait etc. arrive in their own cars with white number plates. But the statistics affirm that more than four thousand persons from Europe have arrived this year. Where are they? Why haven’t we seen them? Did their planes land directly in the hotels and on the beaches? Do they stay in confinement so that they don’t meet anyone?
A one and a half million people have come to the Lebanon this year. One would say that after the September 11th attacks, Beirut has been rediscovered. Those who come every year come back and bring other people. They can’t stand the heat of their own countries and come to spend time with us. A million and two hundred thousand people have come, a million two hundred thousand will go back at the end of September. But no tourist, Arab or foreigner tries to get to know the city from within, as did a young Russian who lived in the Zeytouneh neighbourhood at the end of the 19th century and who described Beirut to his family in numerous letters. He walked around the streets of Beirut for a number of years unaware that he had added something to the history of the city.