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Beirut Vertigo

February 2015, Journal de bord by Claudine Boeglin

Hiding its wounds and the spectre of ISIS behind gypset bohemia, Beirut distils ironclad charm, business drive and elegance. I fall in love with the city and its inhabitants in a heartbeat. I came to Lebanon with a photographer to document the Syrian refugee crisis. Here was a country that had emerged from war, had found a new beat and now was forced to shelter over a million people, fleeing the sanguinary claws of the Assad Dynasty and its backers.
How was it felt by people in Lebanon?

There was a sense of time out of time in Beirut. Nigh time conversations and cocktails felt greater than anywhere else. The night itself had the burnt smell of rubber of the prohibition era when gathering after hours at the back of Bread Republic, pizzeria under an 17th century Ottoman vault. No space for dark memories here, all were strategically obliterated. Questions on the situation in Beirut were derailed with grace and another round of G&Ts. A DJ set covered up the roaring electric generators. All conversations always started in English but Arabic would slam against French for wider bursts of laughs. That is when the city went under my skin without me noticing.

The first days, Beirut was coping with heavy rains. Hamra where our Airbnb was located had constant electricity cuts. When internet finally worked, it was idling. Hamra had gentrified into a buzzing resort of cafes, restaurants and gold-shinning boutiques. Once the cradle of Arab and Lebanese intellectuals, it was odd to seat at Costa where a small latte was 6000 LBP (£2,60/$4) twice the price of coffee elsewhere.

Sledgehammers pierced the city's thick dermis adding decibels to the klaxon staccato and saturated traffic jam. At 7am, it felt being sealed on the live stage of a punk band gone wild. The stroboscopic neon 'Falafel' on Roma Street became our food destination. We ate falafels day and night for over a dollar a piece. In this part of town, to be street smart, you had to speak Arabic. English and French were common practice but Arabic would get you through all social and geographical stratums. We looked for a fixer.

A week later, the city snatched its morose skies from anthracite to Californian Pantone blue 306.

We rushed to the Corniche, the seaside promenade in Downtown Beirut, and V aka the photographer could finally stretch out his lens. At A.U.B., the beach pool on concrete, his lens made love with The Sun Tanners. Two hours away from the fights of Ras Baalbeck spilling over the Lebanese border, a group of UV addicts wearing nothing but coconut oil and Rembrandt smiles, were on a mission: sunbathing. Less than 300 miles from Daech’s dark elegy, the scene felt an oriental remake of Miami Vice gone mad. The beach boys were taking the pose for group selfies with nano-size swimsuits until bending down for the prayer when time clocked in.

From East to West, Hamra to Gemmayzeh, Beirut unfolds its kaleidoscope of fragmented architectures, simultaneously estranging and fascinating in entropy. Is it the mark of cities empirically crossed by conflicting influences and secular divisions? Beirut is scared by its recollection of ruthless colonialism. Victories or defeats [a controversial debate] are as complex as its urban mastery or sabotage. When entering Beirut and its blindfolded topography, do not expect a mapping system. The city is designed for its enemies to get lost.

Concealed behind its secular divides, Beirut sounds an anxiolytic chantier of the future––evading its past. Lebanese filmmaker and music composer Nadim Mishlawi, author of Sector Zero speaks of capturing the city’s metaphysical vertigo into a script. Not everything can hold ground but everything can be an elaborated question: ‘Will the Paris of the Middle East become a Dubai of the Levant? The question is asked by Deen Sharp in his Guardian article The battle for Beirut’s buildings, commenting on Downtown Beirut. There lavish boutiques and glass shinning skyscrapers reflect with insolence the blind walls in concrete crippled with bullets. Cranes stretch in the pierce blue sky. Will war forensics and its colonial imprint be covered up over time? Beirut derails questions the same way its people derail questions. Anything too shady for the temperature, will be left an open end.

Beside, literary speculations on cities rarely match their prospects. In 1967, French writer Joseph Kessel author of Les Cavaliers, walked through the bazaar in Kabul, concerned that this part of town could one day disappear. In 2002, Kabul was a city in rumbles. Modern buildings marking the Russian interference were in ruins, the King’s Palace and most hotels were abandoned wreckages, but what felt unchanged after the fall of the Taliban, was indeed the bazaar, as vibrant as in Kessel’s video archive.

In Mar Michael, posters peeling off had a downtown New York zeitgeist. Beirut Groove Collective by DJ Ernesto and DJ Stickfiggr had for mission to “document and preserve African influenced musical traditions, particularly in Black American musical strains.” And Radio Beirut was a bar with live music on Armenia Street. Mar Michael is a blend of Le Marais and Nolita New York in their best years. Beards are groomed at Bar Internazionale. Lights are gold and drinks scarlet. A girl reads in French holding a glass of white wine. The youth stacks up on the sidewalk in the volutes of Lebanese cigarettes each Saturday night. With butterfly-stroke gestures, they sweep away street kids begging for money until late.

Music, humour and beauty were the cocktail of choice for collective resilience. Take a deep breath and meet Wissam Smayra. In daytime, he is a film director working in advertising. In the interstices, he is a childlike dreamer made of self-deprecating humour and sincere naiveté. His thing is to collect cars and because he could not import his Toyota jeep into the country, he bought the car piece-by-piece and built his tailor-made version on wheels. If the windshield falls on your knees, don’t mind the gap, post-war euphoria is to be fearless of destruction and chaos.

For beauty, meet Lebanese-French aesthete Sherine Geagea. From the heights of Sursock, she is the Tour de Contrôle of homebred Bohemia; surrounding herself with creators and artists, she never stops curating in numerous projects.

When the night turns blue, the city sets in nocturnal joy. Reality plays beyond fiction, beyond the city’s flaws and its quicksands. An odd movie decor made of tricksters, filmmakers, activists, humanitarians; Homeland on the rocks.

Master of chaos, Harlem-born veteran photojournalist Stanley Greene had settled in Beirut a year earlier. His black ink poetry through lens was recorded in Open Wound and Black Passport, two haunting book-records to the 20th century darkest events. Greene is a natural for bohemian instincts. He was hanging on the edge of live stages in the Summer of Love of San Francisco. He captured fashion turning transgender in the advent of gay culture, in Paris of the 80s. Perched on the falling Berlin Wall, he became a documentary photographer in 1989 over night, right when communism switched off its lights. Later, from the coined Williamsburg ‘kibbutz’ in New York, he and others fomented what became the photographic agency Noor Images in Amsterdam.

From his ‘watchtower’ over Gemmayzeh saturated with Nine Inch Nail tracks, Greene too was trying to make sense of the most complex hank on the world chest board, The Middle East. And Beirut at that point was its revolving door. The city was running towards an uncertain future with argyle feet. Who would win? The traditional narratives and secular divides or the progressive movements of its youth in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? Debates often took place at Mezyan, a restaurant in Hamra founded by ex-journalist Mansour Aziz, until the conversations resumed on the improvised dance floor.

Beirut with its nine portals of conflicting history and his coagulated villages of religious minorities; the Druze, the Shi’a, the Maronites… Beirut psychotic and voluptuous when brewing human wealth of everyday resistance… Beirut entangled in a half-century of bloodshed and survival mechanisms… Beirut paralysed by a corrupted government…. Beirut owning a MA in resilience by people with a mastermind sense of organisation and self-sufficiency… Beirut and its geographic paradoxes as in Badaro, a quiet residence of wealthy Christian Syrians, adjacent to Shatila camp in Sabra where Palestine kids run barefoot… Beirut in appearance fearless of chaos… How long?

Buildings were stretching in each corner of the city, higher and higher as if the way to fight back the absence of logistics and the sudden increase in population, was to hold onto the sky. Beirut carried away but still copping, still laughing because no more time was left for compromises, no more time for violence, no neural pathways left to pile up enemies…

I wondered how dead-bored tech agents in the Silicon Valley's ‘malestream’ and its Google bus would perceive Beirut; when there was so much they could do to help. And me here, part of the Nouveaux Pauvres of London unwillingly entangled in fintech dystopia. Could Beirut be Berlin under the sun? The city was something else. With its nerve-wrecking internet, its history suspended between reality and fiction, its fears and psychedelics, its trembling architecture in equilibrium between the past pushed swiftly under the carpet and a future building with frantic oblivion, Beirut was dancing on a volcano...

Written during trip made in Lebanon in February 2015]

Further notes

In Summer 2015, what the people of Beirut were holding back with dignity and resilience, felt impossible to contain. Tala’at Rihatkum [you stink] of the eponymous name of a grassroot organization, had been a series of protests following the impotence of a ghostlike government to sort out the garbage in Beirut after the closure of the largest waste dump of Lebanon. It was the first crack in Beirut’s ironclad willpower. The crisis and its stench were unforgivably tasteless. At distance, I could picture how dreadful this was for people who chose beauty as a shield to the political trivial. From London, in the heat of the summer, my eyes pressed to not burst in tears of anger. Lebanon had been pushed in the news background. Syrian refugees instead dared to knock at the doors of Europe asking for asylum right when people hit the road to their second home in the Cyclades. European countries for most chose to blindfold their hearts behind their shades, but in Germany, a politician made history stepping up for a giant leap forward. Angela Merkel’s Germany became Syrians' terre d’asile.

In 2020, Syria's conflict is side-tracked by a global pandemic. With Russia, Iran and its proxies, Bashar El Asad can operate with even greater impunity. The virus called Covid-19 spreads worldwide leaving little room in the news for local conflicts. The Lebanese revolution sparked in October 2019 over a governmental announcement to edict a tax on WhatsApp phone calls among others. People from all walks of life sustained the street protests all Winter. At the turn of 2019-2020, the Lebanon currency devaluates dramatically. According to Forbes, "The Lebanese Lira joins a list of dozens of failed fiat currencies including the Venezuelan Bolivar, the Zimbabwean Dollar and Argentinian Peso.” To sum the context, someone with 40 000 dollars savings is left with 4000. But that wasn’t enough.

"Shortly after 6pm (15:00 GMT) on August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertilizer haphazardly stored at the city’s port exploded and left swathes of the Lebanese capital looking like a war zone.” Aljazeera People lost their life, their house, their mind, their work, their raison de vivre… "One year on, no senior official has been held to account. A domestic investigation has yet to yield significant arrests or even identify a culprit, with political leaders widely accused of obstructing justice.” Aljazeera

Artist Carla Salem reacts in her blog published the anniversary-day of the blast, on the British V&A: "Layers of corrupt politicians are discussed and defended and yet the situation is unchanging and the suffering is abundant. The past becomes a place for cultural debate. A place to discuss the roots of our problems and to make sense of what is happening now, as if any of it makes sense at this stage. Or actually at any stage. It has always been complicated and there are too many gaps.”

© Dandy Vagabonds 2021