Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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Perpetual rebirth

By Tarek Atia

Beirut
PRISTINE RECONSTRUCTION: The rebuilding of Beirut's city-centre is progressing faster than there are people to fill it photo: Tarek Atia
Not surprisingly, the first thing I noticed upon my arrival in Beirut last week was the airport. It looked modern -- brand new, in fact, compared to the last time I was here, on my honeymoon, just over three years ago.

There were more surprises in store. The grand plan of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Al-Hariri to gloss up foreigners' introduction to Beirut seemed to have been implemented in record time. The idea was that businessmen and tourists coming into the city could be whisked straight from the airport to downtown and the ritzier sections of the city, where they would most likely be staying or working, without having to drive through the slum areas in the south, right next door to the airport. Indeed, a series of wide highways and pristine tunnels took us to Raouche on the seaside corniche in about 10 minutes. Along the way, we passed by the new Monoprix, the French mega-supermarket and department store that a large number of Beirutis now consider their home away from home.

There were other developments as well. Al-Hariri's mega-project, the rebuilding of the city's war-ravaged downtown, seemed to be progressing at a fast clip. Called Solidere, the long-term, 2.5 billion-dollar plan was to restore the downtown area to its pre-war glory as a vibrant centre of businesses, shops and night life. Many of the buildings have been either reconstructed or restored, according to the project's different phases, but the feeling is that of emptiness -- a wonderfully perfect facade, but at the same time a sort of downtown Disneyworld empty of visitors.

The Phoenicia Intercontinental had just reopened as well. Its massive grand staircase had always been the talk of the town, and the reopening should have been the signifier of the city's return to the peak of the Arab world's tourism charts. But there was something missing in this pretty picture: the people. The tourists were few and far between; with some Arabs filling in the gaps and very few Westerners, or anyone else for that matter. Needless to say, Lebanon's image is still blemished, and Israel's continued intransigence isn't helping.

The luxurious buildings that had been, and continue to be, built on the corniche, were completely empty of occupants. Beirut is a city waiting for its fate, building in the hope that the masses would arrive as they had so many times before.

BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: I did not visit Lebanon in its touristic heyday three decades ago, when its mountains and seas were world-renowned and it was called "the Switzerland of the East." I did not visit Lebanon because I had just been born in Cairo, and my parents soon moved to America. I grew up only knowing Beirut as a place of war and smoke, hostages and bombs.

When I was 12 or so, for the 4th of July, my cousins and I got our hands on some serious fireworks, and we spent the night setting them off, turning our suburban Virginia backyard into a battlefield of smoke and gunpowder. And what did we youngsters scream out continuously into the night while we rampaged? "Beirut! Beirut! Beirut!"

Even so, I would not be exaggerating to say that my cousins and I, as Arab-Americans, were far more sympathetic to the Lebanese situation than the vast majority of our peers. We ate Lebanese food; we had Lebanese friends. But the news was the news, and every day there was more of it about US Marine barracks being bombed, American University professors being kidnapped, a mind-numbing array of images and words that painted a country that seemed to be in a civil war for as long as we could remember.

And that's all we knew, really, about Lebanon. Later, my image of Lebanon concentrated more solidly in the form of food, specifically Fast Fattoush, the sandwich place frequented by Washington DC's night-time party crowd, Arabs and Americans alike. Countless are the times I found myself standing in a line slinking out of Fast Fattoush's door at 3.00am on Friday and Saturday night, as the after-hours munchies struck hard.

Then one day, there was peace. In 1989, the Ta'if Accords were signed, and there began to be talk of rebuilding. I had become a journalist by then, and the magazine I worked for at the time sent me to Beirut on assignment. I was supposed to answer the question: "Is Beirut back?" A silly question, to be sure, for where had it gone, and what did it mean to be back in the first place? Was the life of a country so easily placed in the context of a Rocky-type world of comebacks and defeats?

Perhaps it could be. Perhaps that is what separates the East and the West; the Western ability to see the world in terms of cinematic scripts and simply adjust real life to the dizzying pace of modernity. But aren't the Arabs expert story-tellers as well? Maybe, but more in the vein of the winding, intricate, 1,001 nights variety.

All this by means of introduction. It wasn't until my twenties that I allowed myself to really listen to what many Egyptians of my parents' generation were saying about how beautiful, liberal and free Lebanon was; or how, in some people's opinions, Lebanon's was a sad story of a society that had gone too far into their own decadence and paid the price. The Lebanese pretended that they weren't Arabs, I was told, and their vanity set them on track for disaster.

But then, in 1996, Lebanon was supposedly back, with its new prime minister being painted as a visionary and a doer. Not only was Al-Hariri the owner of the company that was rebuilding downtown, as well as the TV station trying to reestablish the country's no-holds-barred creative image in the Arab world, but he was a shrewd businessman with a knack for politics and making a splash. Solidere and Future TV. The ambition and ingenuity that had always characterised the Lebanese seemed once again to be a reality. But things were obviously much more complicated than that, as my more recent visit shows.

BEAUTY AND DESTRUCTION: (clockwise) downtown in its hey-day; a scenic lake near Tripoli; an image from the civil war
QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS: "How's the economic situation in Egypt?" a shopkeeper, noticing my accent, asked me as I was buying a notebook across the street from where I was staying in Raouche last week.

"Al-hamdulillah," I said.

"Don't mince words," he admonished me. "I want to know the true situation, the state of buying and selling, the marketplace ... is there a feeling of hope in Egypt?"

"One month there is, and the next there isn't," I said, trying to give an honest answer.

"Here, there's no hope at all." The statement was quite blunt, but expected nonetheless. I'd read as much in the papers and been told so by friends and family in Beirut.

"It's all because of Israel," he said. "You can never tell whether they're lying or telling the truth. When they say five they mean 10. You can never tell with them."

It was true. You really could never tell. And despite the Lebanese's own attempts to right the wrongs of 15 years of their own devastating civil war -- for which, in no small part, Israel is also much to blame -- the Israelis were always there with some unfortunate attack to twist the country's fate.

Rebuilding the country's infrastructure from scratch has been tough enough a challenge, but it is quite another thing to cut through the stigma of political instability that surrounds this nation and entice tourists. For in spite of the beauty of Lebanon's mountains, the clear blue of the sea and the splendid services and well-preserved antiquities, what tourist would choose to spend his holiday in a place whose image is tarnished by the constant threat of bombings and power cuts?

Our night-time visit to Sidon and the south, about 85 kilometres from the Israeli border, was filled with many such premonitions of violence -- after all, this was relatively near the area where the resistance, represented by Hezbollah, has been fighting the Israeli occupation forces and their surrogate South Lebanese Army for the past 20 years, in and near the occupied zone that Israel has now decided to unilaterally withdraw from this July.

Whether or not the Israelis will withdraw, the idea itself has caused a sort of panic in both Lebanon and Syria, whose de facto military control of the country would now be more obvious and potentially more problematic. What is to happen afterwards is the question on everybody's minds.

Our late-night trip to Sidon also featured a walk along the banks of the sea, with the citadel all lit up and wonderful. South of Sidon we passed by the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helwa and by the village of Nabatiya, names we had heard on the news in relation to Hezbollah and retaliatory strikes. Most of the area was darkened, as if on high alert, but of course, it may have been our over active and paranoid imagination -- but then again, you never know.

From the resthouse by the sea in Sidon, we caught sight of bright lights way up on a mountain and were curious to explore what it was. We drove up a meandering hill to Maqam Sayida Al-Qantari, in Maghdoosha. The site has a statue of the Virgin that is part of a Holy Trail similar to Egypt's route following the flight of the Holy Family. The beauty of the surroundings here and in all of the other places we visited in Lebanon reveals just how tragic the situation is and exposes the lost opportunities of a small nation with a huge number of sites to see.

Our afternoon trip to Tripoli in the north may better put this in perspective. Just an hour or so away from Beirut, the drive to Tripoli itself features vast possibilities for rest-stops in scenic areas along the way. We stopped at one such place, 20 kilometres or so from Tripoli. High up in the mountains lies the peaceful Monastery of Sayidit Al-Nouriya, with its lovely garden of ancient gnarled trees forming leaning arches due to the strong mountain winds. The monastery commands a stunning view of the crystal-blue waters below and the pine trees and landscaped hills all around.

A second rest-stop on the agenda was even closer to Tripoli, this time for lunch at Buhayrat Binsha'i. Here, a man-made lake had been developed in a valley between the gorgeous mountains. Mezza and narghile (water-pipes) were served by courteous, prompt waiters in a picnic-like atmosphere overlooking the water. Tossing a piece of bread into the lake brought schools of voracious fish to the surface in a frenzy. It became a race between the fish and the ducks to eat the bread. Ultimately, it was the fish, by their sheer number, that usually emerged victorious.

For dessert we drove for another 15 minutes or so until we made it to Tripoli's, and perhaps all of Lebanon's, most famous sweet-maker, Abdel-Rahman Hallab. Mountains of mouth-watering baklava greeted us and it was hard to choose from all the different varieties, but eventually our choice was made. The restaurant has an army of people just to package the goods, that's how brisk their business is. Asking the maitre d'hotel to pack our choice for "travelling," I was amazed to discover later that each and every piece of baklava had been individually placed in its own shrink-wrapped pouch.

That day's trip was typical of a stay in Beirut. Everything is so close to everything else that a journey can be made to any of the country's beautiful tour attractions with enough time in the day for sightseeing and shopping, an extensive meal, and the trips back and forth.

Another place that can be visited on a day trip from Beirut is Syria. The neighbouring country surely deserves at least a week's trip of its own, but a day will allow you to discover some of the wonders of Damascus, like the beautiful Ummayad mosque, with its gigantic courtyard (with highly active pigeons) and vibrantly coloured ceilings and walls. Right next door is the tomb of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi, somewhat small for such a huge historic figure. Also surrounding the mosque is the souk of Hamidiya, an endless marketplace of long alleys and parallel avenues that compares quite favourably with Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili.

Nearby is Bab Thomas, with a more modern set of stores featuring clothes and shoes at prices you can't beat anywhere. The Syrian-made Calvin Klein and Nike T-shirts may be fake, but then again they're only $2 each. A beautiful imitation-Italian wool suit can be had for about $70. When the sun reappeared after a brief downpour, I finally understood what Arab American photographer George Azar meant when he described the light of the Levant as magical. Even a completely inept photographer could take beautiful images here.

The same was true in Beirut. Raouche corniche at sunset was gorgeous: the dark blue sky, the lights on the hills twinkling in the background, the rock, 47 metres high with a natural tunnel cutting through it. It can be climbed -- and is, apparently, by youths considering suicide and others who do it for show while their friends gather up money from those watching on the corniche. The corniche is a buzz of activity. You can get a tattoo, have your fortune told, get your picture superimposed on the rock, smoke a narghile at a cafe, or just relax with a small cup of coffee amidst the yellow daffodils on the wild grassy knoll.

FOOD, FOOD, FOOD: It was the biggest tomato I had ever seen. In fact, it looked more like a bloated red eggplant than a tomato. We were high up in the mountains above Jounieh, a suburb of Beirut, in a quaint restaurant near the famous statue of the Virgin Mary at Harisa. It is the highest point in Beirut, from where we could see the beautiful Jounieh Bay, the elegant Casino du Liban and the port of Beirut on the horizon beyond. It was to be the first of many prolonged Lebanese meals during my family's one-week stay in the country.

But back to the tomatoes. They were part of the fresh vegetable plate that always comes first: a cornucopia of crunchy cucumbers and lettuce, deliciously sweet spring onions, and a mountain of fresh mint and watercress. We asked the waiter to "prepare" the tomatoes, and he dutifully did just that. They came back to the table, soon enough, chopped into thick slices, garnished with garlic and zaatar (thyme), and served to us on individual plates as if they were steaks.

The meal, of course, took forever, and by the time we were done, the sun had set and the statue of the Virgin was lit up. That made the much-anticipated ride on the cable-car all the more fun. Suspended high up in the air we journeyed several kilometres down the mountain in nine minutes (much faster than it would have taken to weave down slowly by car), coming perilously close to the high-rise apartment blocks that seem an integral part of the Beirut landscape.

"I wonder what they're having for dinner?" my father-in-law said, as we peered into a ninth-floor apartment just a metre or so away. Well, at least we could tell what they were watching on TV: the news.

When we arrived at the bottom, smack in the centre of Maameltein, neon signs advertising the street's notorious super-nightclubs winked at us from left and right. A quick stroll and we were in the cobblestone street section of old Jounieh, with its exquisite antique and fashion shops.

TWIST OF FATE: We left Lebanon feeling its people deserved better, and hoping they'd get it soon. After having gone through so much, it seems that their hopes and ambitions should finally be rewarded.

Things have certainly changed in those long three years since my previous visit. Whereas Al-Hariri had attempted to inspire the country with an upbeat slogan -- "Al-balad mashi, w'al shughl mashi, w'al hakee mashi, wala yi'himak!" (roughly translated as "The country's movin', business is boomin', the word's spreadin', don't worry") -- much of the foreign capital has virtually dried up since Al-Hariri left his post. A good deal of the investment had been dependent on his charisma and personality.

Even the typically ambitious men selling imitation jeans on Hamra Street at $10 apiece (only a few had fake Levis labels, while the rest were exactly like Levis except the label said Elvis or Molwis instead), seemed a bit less energetic and hopeful than before.

Is it the economy, the Israelis or the Syrians who are to blame? In any case, the Lebanese seem less engaged in complaining than in pinning their hopes on another solution. That's why, before I left, it was important for me to find out the answer to the following question: "Who is Fouad Makhzoumi?"

Everywhere I turned the poster was staring me in the face: the nationwide ad campaign for Masculin magazine, with its cover story celebrating the incredible rise of Makhzoumi, was impossible to ignore. From the sheer number of posters, it would be forgivable to think Makhzoumi was the most famous person in Lebanon. It wasn't until the end of the trip that I discovered he might very well become that.

"He's trying to be the next Al-Hariri," said Karl, a graphic designer, at a gathering of bored young East Beirutis in Ashrafiyeh. Makhzoumi's rise is stereotypical: a Lebanese expatriate with a lot of money who came back to buy the place up and get involved in its politics. Some would say Al-Hariri did the same thing a decade ago.

Perhaps Makhzoumi will be the knight in shining armour, come to save Lebanon yet again. But until the Israelis withdraw from the south, Lebanese ambitions remain on hold, ready to explode at any time, for better or for worse.


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