Nowhere else is the life and death so inseparable and the mixture of different layers of life so intense and so telling. Beirut has become a vulnerable yet tempting promise that different people can live together and overcome the dreadful otherness.
My life is full of ‘in – betweeness’. I have replaced the strive for belonging to a place with a sense of placelessness that most of the time better corresponds with my life. It’s not ideal and lonely at times and it does attract me to all these souless liminal spaces like airports. Having said that, there are two places on earth where I feel ‘at home’ with my ‘placelessness’. Two places that speak to me in a very special way. One is London. So that is quite obvious and I will not eleborate on that. And the other is Beirut.
I have never been to Beirut before. In reality, I have a very vague sense of how it might look like. Never really studied Beirut’s cartography. I have, a perhaps orientalized idea of its smells, sounds and feel. I imagine the very special light there that is mixed with dust and sea, sounds of muezzins, echos of church bells as well as sounds of expensive suvs and the giggles of well – dressed girls.
The thing is, that for all those years I longed for it, Beirut has come to represent for me everything I care about. So I carefully moulded the idea of Beirut as a place I belong to in certain way. I lived the idea of the city without really living the city.
picture: Paul Keller
For people even mildly interested in the Middle East it will come as no surprise that my ideas of Beirut come from the writings of Robert Frisk and Thomas Friedman. Also from the works of Robin Wright who first introduced me to the world of Hezbollah. I will never forget his description of Nasrallah who would not stop the speech when he heard the news of his son: ‘In Hezbollah we do not save our children for better times. When your son dies your heart might be breaking, but the mission continues”.I have nourished the idea of Beirut also from the great writings of Fawaz Turki, a Palestinian writer who was brought up in the camps that surround Beirut. His first job as little kid who desperately wanted to get out of the camp life was to steal the wallets and purses of the European guests sipping fancy cocktails on the golden beaches of Beirut’s five star hotels. Recently, I’ve known Beirut from the works of Ras Beirut group of Palestinian artist working in the city. And from the endless stories – told by my dear friends.
All these accounts are certainly very different. There is countless angles to Beirut. One thing all these accounts share is the fascination with Beirut that falls and rises, that represents unity and dispersal, that for decade has been a place where the grand political interests have been meeting and clashing.
Beirut has been a magnifying glass of regional and global politics for years. A major scene in the time of Cold War and East – West division. A place where PLO really emerged and collapsed. A place where the fate of Palestinian exiles turned into globally recognizable cause and, in parallel, a place where Palestinians have been refused their rights for decades and stuck in refugee camps . A place where fame of the US Marines rose and melted. A place of huge demand. A place, which Iran, Syria and Israel and all the big players of the region wanted to shake, control and inhibit. A place that Israeli soldiers romanticized and brutally senslessly smashed like in Waltz avec Bashir.
Nowhere else is the life and death so inseparable and the mixture of different layers of life so intense and so telling. Nowhere else the chic cafes emerge in the rain of the bombshells. Nowhere else the desire to live and survive has been so strong and vulnerable. Nowhere else the Grand Press Foto was won by a photo that shows happy bunch in a convertable car in the midst of the bombing.
In all this war madness, Beirut has also become a promise. A promise that different cultures, different religions, different political sects and different people can co – exist and live together. It has become a living proof that by melting the differences one creates new meanings, new senses and new qualities. It has become a promise that difference is a richness and that the otherness can be overcome. Even if the price you pay is high.
Beirut has been crossing the borders of otherness – achieving at times delicate fragility of peace and later destroying it with force. In the times where borders become so irrelevant in the connected world and at the same time so tight in the growing times of crisis – Beirut stands up as the striking example of … both actually.
Or at least this is what is my ‘idea’ of Beirut. On my way to live it.