Beirut In Pieces

15 September, 2020
 - In this wide-ranging essay, the writer revisits life before and after the civil war, participates in Lebanon's revolution, contemplates the country's monetary implosion, and imagines the Port of Beirut explosion—all while weighing the social terms of Lebanon's political renewal.
Beirut post-port explo­sion (all pho­tos by Jenine Abboushi, unless oth­er­wise noted).


In this wide-rang­ing essay, the writer revis­its life before and after the civ­il war, par­tic­i­pates in Lebanon’s rev­o­lu­tion, con­tem­plates the coun­try’s mon­e­tary implo­sion, and imag­ines the Port of Beirut explosion—all while weigh­ing the social terms of Lebanon’s polit­i­cal renewal.

Jenine Abboushi


In 1990, dur­ing a lull in the war between the forces of Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, I spent part of the sum­mer in Beirut. One ear­ly evening, I left Tariq el-Jedideh, where I was stay­ing, and went to walk on a Cor­niche dark­ened by elec­tri­cal out­age. It was crowd­ed. An exhaust­ed pop­u­la­tion had ven­tured out to min­gle with oth­er peo­ple and breathe in the open sea air. We passed push­carts of steamed corn and tur­mus, groups of friends, fam­i­lies and, I remem­ber dis­tinct­ly, at least two old­er chil­dren walk­ing on all fours—a hid­den gen­er­a­tion, I was stunned to real­ize, con­ceived and grow­ing up with­out basic health care and in ter­ri­ble deprivation.

There were no ajaneb on the Cor­niche at the time. Vis­i­tors from abroad were iden­ti­fi­able not nec­es­sar­i­ly by their phys­i­cal traits, but rather by the clues to priv­i­lege in demeanor, gait, and dress. At one point, how­ev­er, a woman and a man passed me who appeared to be for­eign jour­nal­ists. I stared at them, and they stared at me, and then I stared back at them, and they stared back at me. We remained locked in a silent exchange, bear­ing wit­ness, as I instinc­tive­ly under­stood at the time. But bear­ing wit­ness to what? To our pres­ence there, cer­tain­ly, its pre­car­i­ty, and to our expe­ri­ences at that moment on Beirut’s Cor­niche, and to the small sight­ings we etched in our minds, as if at a momen­tous point in his­to­ry. And so it was, telling a qui­et, mov­ing sto­ry I am still try­ing to work out to this day.

Beirut 1982 (Photo: unknown)
Beirut 1982 (pho­to: unknown).

Fleet­ing real­i­ties or not, that brief exchange reg­is­tered truths ground­ed in that par­tic­u­lar moment and place, ones that nec­es­sar­i­ly sift through to present-day Beirut. Such mar­gin­al expe­ri­ences, if we care to trace their evo­lu­tion and sig­nif­i­cance, unique­ly inter­twine and illu­mi­nate the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al his­to­ries of Lebanon and the region. To trav­el any­where, even with­in a city, and to see at all, requires an out­sider’s, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly a for­eign­er’s, perspective–one that is dis­placed by time, or place, or by a frag­ment­ed sense of belong­ing. And this way of see­ing can be cul­ti­vat­ed. My mem­o­ry of that moment on the Cor­niche is of course set in sharp relief against oth­er moments on the same Cor­niche that took place before and after it, and against lay­ered expe­ri­ences of the city’s oth­er leg­endary, cos­mopoli­tan streets, like Hamra. 

Back for anoth­er vis­it ten years lat­er, I was with my five-year old daugh­ter in a ser­vice taxi ram­bling down Ham­ra Street. I inquired about a large Rifai store with pris­tine, bright dis­plays that had been locat­ed on Ham­ra. I explained to the dri­ver that it had been there the year before the civ­il war when I lived in the neigh­bor­hood. The dri­ver told me bland­ly that it was gone. I asked where then I might find some men wa sal­wa? He frowned at me quizzi­cal­ly in the rearview mir­ror and asked, “what is el-men wa sal­wa?” “You know,” I replied smil­ing, “the floury nougat with car­damom that we can eat in par­adise.” He jerked his back straight and paused, eyes wide in feigned dis­be­lief. His con­fu­sion cleared, he turned to me com­i­cal­ly, waved an arm upward, exclaim­ing, “wlo ma mnista­hel hal men wa sal­wa!” (Real­ly, we don’t deserve this men wa sal­wa!) I laughed in appre­ci­a­tion of his wit, and thanked him as I drew my lit­tle girl out of the taxi. We made our way to Mod­ca Café where we had cof­fee and ice cream on the side­walk ter­race and watched the peo­ple go by. 

While sit­ting in the same spot with my fam­i­ly in 1974 before the war, and while, prob­a­bly for the twen­ti­eth time, eat­ing choco­lat mou with my broth­er, a group of tanned streak­ers, men and women, jogged by in gym shoes, sun­glass­es, col­or­ful sun­hats, and noth­ing else. My broth­er and I were, of course, fas­ci­nat­ed and excit­ed, my par­ents charmed. We were to have sev­er­al oth­er streak­er sight­ings in Ham­ra and along the Cor­niche. How­ev­er improb­a­ble, streak­ing in Beirut was just one sub­ject of jaun­ty con­ver­sa­tion that year. It was inter­na­tion­al­ly fash­ion­able (and has since, appar­ent­ly, become an eccen­tric prac­tice rel­e­gat­ed to British sport­ing tour­na­ments). So incon­gru­ous was this sight in the con­text of Beirut’s cul­tur­al ground­ings and sub­se­quent his­to­ry, that today we might have won­dered if we had real­ly seen these local streak­ers at all, had we not wit­nessed and talked about them collectively. 

Beirut expe­ri­ences, then and now, often involve wit­ness­ing or liv­ing through events so improb­a­ble that we are forced to ques­tion what is engraved in our mem­o­ries, quite aside from unusu­al sight­ings. We Beirutis nec­es­sar­i­ly sus­tain visions inspired by defeat, destruc­tion, recon­struc­tion, and long­ing. The fre­net­ic and noisy trans­for­ma­tion of Beirut, from war, dis­place­ment and, above all else, demo­li­tion for the sake of (hap­haz­ard) rebuild­ing, lends a mirage qual­i­ty to dai­ly life here. And this, in turn, can make us more aware of pos­si­bil­i­ties for trans­for­ma­tion in our own think­ing, sen­si­bil­i­ties, work, and lives both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive. The ener­gy, inco­her­ence, and sur­prise of Beirut are, at times, both night­mar­ish and vision­ary, sad and exhilarating.

Syrian Workers on Bliss Street, Beirut, 2016 (Photo: Millal Abboushi)
Syr­i­an Work­ers on Bliss Street, Beirut, 2016 (pho­to: Mil­lal Abboushi).

Before mov­ing to Beirut again in 2010, I had already met with unau­tho­rized urban trans­for­ma­tion. This I encoun­tered vivid­ly at the moment of arrival in Ramal­lah after a very long absence. After grad­u­at­ing from col­lege in Pales­tine, I had returned to the USA to con­tin­ue my stud­ies, after which I start­ed my first job. Dur­ing this time, Israel’s sep­a­ra­tions had severe­ly altered my town. In the peri­ods when I grew up there, Ramal­lah was com­posed, fresh and love­ly, open to Jerusalem, built on low moun­tain tops cov­ered with trees and stone hous­es with red-tile roofs like the ones we still find in the Lebanese moun­tains and the Bekaa. This time, four­teen years after I had last been in Ramal­lah, when I got out of the ser­vice taxi in front of the bus sta­tion and turned to face the Man­ara, I saw Ker­ala. And I liked it, actu­al­ly, as it remind­ed me of vibrant and col­or­ful towns I had vis­it­ed. Ramal­lah had seemed to gain in ener­gy and inter­est from the many vil­lages that had spilled into it. But the expe­ri­ence was also trou­bling and unfair, as if I was return­ing home after one hun­dred years. In my dis­ori­en­ta­tion, I searched through the pageantry in which I found myself, through the ban­ners criss­cross­ing the streets adver­tis­ing snick­ers bars and phone com­pa­nies, until I spied traces of the Ramal­lah famil­iar to me. I under­stand the bril­liance of Mourid Bargh­outi’s seem­ing­ly child­like book title I saw Ramal­lah. Beirut’s dai­ly life is also lived in the grip of this kind of urban irony. 

Ramallah in my Beirut, 2000 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
Ramal­lah in my Beirut, 2000.


Places and expe­ri­ences quick­ly van­ish in Beirut, at least in part, because of con­tin­u­ing, often unin­tel­li­gi­ble, and always accel­er­at­ed trans­for­ma­tion.  Urban spaces are con­stant­ly made-over, built anew at micro-lev­els, with new build­ings and their smart side­walks that extend only out front—at the edges, there are bro­ken, obstruct­ed side­walks or none at all. Air is reg­u­lat­ed against heat and smell in the lit­tle inte­ri­ors of aggres­sive­ly high, fat, four-wheel dri­ves. And we also find a sin­gle bal­cony paint­ed a strik­ing shade of brick against a dis­col­ored facade, draw­ing the eye to the flow­er­ing plants that adorn its rail­ings, mak­ing us dream. Many pock­ets and vis­tas are breath­tak­ing in this way, not despite, but because of such con­trasts. The more hid­den are the expe­ri­ences and cor­ners of this city, the more fleet­ing and tele­scoped and vis­cer­al, the more they bespeak Beirut. 

Beirut exists, in fact, in pieces, impos­si­ble to grasp in a sin­gle view or in one flu­id expe­ri­ence. Mov­ing through anoth­er kind of city with prop­er urban plan­ning and no recent wars can be so coher­ent it feels like a post­card, and at times para­dox­i­cal­ly dis­qui­et­ing. But in Beirut we are there, phys­i­cal­ly and sen­so­ri­al­ly part of its kalei­do­scope. We can trav­el to sur­prise des­ti­na­tions just down the street or in the next neigh­bor­hood in this funky, head-turn­ing town. This city his­tor­i­cal­ly offered a haven and a mea­sure of free­dom for artists, intel­lec­tu­als, exiles of every order. And when we walk through the streets of Beirut, our beloved places and lost home­lands move with us. 

*An ear­li­er ver­sion of the sec­tion “Home­towns” was pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in Beirut Guide for Beirutis, Ed. Jenine Abboushi, Dar Al-Adab, 2017.



I trav­eled from France to Beirut to vis­it on Octo­ber 18, 2019, a day after the start of the rev­o­lu­tion. We did not yet know that the protests would quick­ly become a mass rev­o­lu­tion. And until that morn­ing it was not even clear if I could enter Lebanon. I had been in touch with friends to see if Beirut Air­port would be open, whether we could leave the air­port once there, or even walk out with a small car­ry-on. I heard about the scoot­er dri­vers charg­ing up to 120 dol­lars to deliv­er trav­el­ers to the city, and oth­ers were trans­port­ing peo­ple in sol­i­dar­i­ty. My plane tick­et got can­celled. For some rea­son deter­mined to get to Beirut, I found anoth­er with Turk­ish Air­lines. I missed my con­nec­tion (I could not walk-jog in time to my gate at the oth­er end of the vast shop­ping mall that is the new air­port of Istan­bul), and on the next flight I arrived in the ear­ly morn­ing the fol­low­ing day. 

108 Sun Salutations, Martyrs' Square, Beirut, 2015 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
108 Sun Salu­ta­tions, Mar­tyrs’ Square, Beirut, 2015.

Beirut air­port seemed bare­ly in ser­vice, and there was no trans­porta­tion at all when I emerged from the build­ing. I had a ran­dom idea and called Uber, and almost imme­di­ate­ly a car pulled up. The dri­ver thanked me pro­fuse­ly, say­ing he had been in the park­ing lot for hours, as no one knows they are work­ing. Upon arrival I assume this agile Beiru­ti mode, ready to adopt meth­ods from inno­v­a­tive to “nor­mal” as need­ed, to trav­el behind scoot­er chauf­feurs, lug­gage bal­anced on my lap, or call an Uber—which was incon­gru­ous in this con­text. I thought of my last day in Beirut before mov­ing to France, when I host­ed an enor­mous brunch for all my friends. Sev­er­al in the kitchen watched me at the stove cook up anoth­er giant tor­tilla while rock­ing, with one foot, the near-emp­ty Butagaz that I had quick­ly laid on its side, try­ing to use the last of the gas to make more tea. “How will you ever adapt to a nor­mal place?” they asked me, all of us gig­gling. “I can­not entire­ly. But who would want to? That’s depen­den­cy, get­ting put on hold for hours!” 

To be sure, this acro­bat­ic way of life many Beirutis learn is a gift from life lived well in this city. I also learned this kind of com­pe­tence in sim­i­lar cities where I had lived, like Casablan­ca. Few can com­pare with the mas­ter engi­neers of Derb Gha­laf mar­ket who con­fect handy sculp­tures with elec­tron­ics and appli­ances. One gets the impres­sion that they are capa­ble of cabling a gen­er­a­tor to an old refrig­er­a­tor and uniden­ti­fi­able met­al scraps and gad­gets and, with a cell phone com­mand, launch­ing a rock­et over the Straits of Gibral­tar. This will­ing­ness to find ways to put things togeth­er, take pro­vi­sion­al mea­sures, is every­where appar­ent in Lebanon. And this kind of inter­ven­tion and accom­mo­da­tion affords a rare sense of belong­ing between peo­ple liv­ing in shared spaces. Long-suf­fer­ing from from inces­sant large-scale secu­ri­ty fall­outs over the years, on a human lev­el, we sus­tain a sense of safe­ty and warmth by spon­ta­neous prac­tices of solidarity.

 - Our kitchen is in service.Come eat with us in our garden,or call us, and bring containers,and take with you good and healthy food.Every day between 12:30-6 pmMakan Restaurant70 95 40 57Neighbors Are For Each Other, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, August 10, 2020 (Photo: Karma Tohmé)
Our kitchen is in ser­vice. Come eat with us in our gar­den, or call us, and bring con­tain­ers, and take with you good and healthy food. Every day between 12:30–6 pm Makan Restau­rant 70 95 40 57 Neigh­bors Are For Each Oth­er, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, August 10, 2020 (pho­to: Kar­ma Tohmé).

We drove out of the air­port and tried to head up the moun­tain so I could vis­it a dear, ancient friend who was ta3baneh, tired, as she said to me in a small voice when we last spoke, but the dri­ver encoun­tered one burn­ing tire bar­ri­cade after anoth­er. Thin­ly manned in the ear­ly morn­ing, we still did want to cross their efforts, so I asked the dri­ver to take me instead to a friend’s house in Baab­da. By mid-morn­ing in her house­hold, it was time for “thawra,” rev­o­lu­tion, which includ­ed, in those ear­ly weeks, aunts, uncles, neigh­bors, young chil­dren, baby-strollers—whole fam­i­lies and groups of col­leagues and friends. As the extend­ed fam­i­ly mobi­lized to leave in sev­er­al cars, arrang­ing to pick up peo­ple on the way, my friend’s niece prompt­ed her fiancé by phone, “thawra, chérie?” They make a rad­i­cal­ly mixed cou­ple reli­gious­ly, and in terms of social class, which is com­mon in Lebanon, and a his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty often refut­ed social­ly. From the first day of the rev­o­lu­tion, they both became orga­niz­ers. In the com­ing days, they took in logis­ti­cal ideas as they helped orga­nize a human chain, extend­ing from Tripoli in the North to Tyre in the South, and which was to take place a week lat­er. This chain would intro­duce, on new terms, many dis­crete Lebanese com­mu­ni­ties to one anoth­er, thus part­ly under­min­ing sec­tar­i­an divides. 

Every­one who want­ed to work for the rev­o­lu­tion could enter the oper­a­tions room, it seemed. And this rev­o­lu­tion’s arti­sanal prac­tices, imag­in­ing and try­ing out new ideas and meth­ods, bor­row­ing from and lend­ing to simul­ta­ne­ous rev­o­lu­tions from Alge­ria to Chile, Iraq, and Hong Kong, was exhil­a­rat­ing, so clear­ly empow­er­ing for new gen­er­a­tions in par­tic­u­lar. The sun­set drum­roll of wood­en spoons on pans, played by peo­ple from their win­dows and bal­conies, still rings in our ears.

The People are Demanding Ctrl Alt Delete, Algiers, February 2019 (Photo: unknown)
The Peo­ple are Demand­ing Ctrl Alt Delete, Algiers, Feb­ru­ary 2019 (pho­to: unknown).

At one point that day on Sahat Al-Shuha­da, Mar­tyrs’ Square, we stood still, breath­ing, as we could not un-meld our­selves from oth­er bod­ies. One gun­shot or any attack (from the army, or peo­ple from Amal and Hizbal­lah sent to beat demonstrators—which start­ed a few days lat­er), and we would all be acci­dent­ly stam­ped­ed by one anoth­er, we real­ized, wide-eyed. We learned lat­er that one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion of Lebanon was in the street that after­noon, demand­ing “kel­lon ya3ne kel­lon” (ALL of them, and that means ALL) of the polit­i­cal class, all the war­lords in power—most recy­cled from civ­il war days—to get out for good. This became the endur­ing slo­gan of the rev­o­lu­tion. Many demand­ed a new con­sti­tu­tion, a sec­u­lar state, an end to sec­tar­i­an rule which has long enabled and thrived on cor­rup­tion. These ideas are gain­ing force and popularity. 

A new awak­en­ing against sec­tar­i­an cor­rup­tion com­menced a few years pre­ced­ing the out­break of the rev­o­lu­tion, with dai­ly life sur­round­ed by moun­tains of uncol­lect­ed garbage. This dra­mat­ic san­i­tary cri­sis inspired mass protests, which clear­ly served as ini­tial train­ing for the younger gen­er­a­tions espe­cial­ly, lead­ing to this rev­o­lu­tion. And in 2019, Alge­ria cer­tain­ly showed us the way: the Hirak, a mass, peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion (arguably the most dis­ci­plined in mod­ern his­to­ry) prac­ticed by a peo­ple who have long been ruled by cor­rupt lead­ers who use black­mail, just like the polit­i­cal class in Lebanon: either con­sent to cor­rupt, thiev­ing politi­cians and ensu­ing pover­ty (and in the case of Alge­ria, its nat­ur­al resources are pirat­ed by multi­na­tion­als for decades to come), or the coun­try will suf­fer a new round of ter­ri­fy­ing, heart-wrench­ing civ­il war. This threat grew less com­pelling, and Alge­ria opened up for Lebanon and the world a third way, through peace­ful, mass protest. It is worth paus­ing on the mag­ni­tude of the Alger­ian and Lebanese 2019 rev­o­lu­tions. And yet world media cov­er­age of both was scant.

 That day on Mar­tyrs’ Square we fol­lowed oth­er demon­stra­tors up the bro­ken stair­cas­es, open to the sky, of the Egg—a dilap­i­dat­ed cin­e­ma on Mar­tyrs’ Square, a strange-look­ing edi­fice sug­gest­ing an inter­plan­e­tary land­ing in the 1960s. On our way to the giant Egg, we waved to pro­test­ers sit­ting across the top of a bill­board, legs dan­gling over the image, while oth­ers descend­ed the shell of the Egg by rope, hoist­ing a Lebanese flag. Spec­ta­cles and signs all over were hilar­i­ous, inven­tive, lib­er­at­ing. In the days to come, pro­test­ers trans­formed the Egg into a pub­lic gath­er­ing head­quar­ters, where teach-ins and oth­er events would be held by the revolution. 

The Egg, Beirut, October 22, 2019 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
The Egg, Beirut, Octo­ber 22, 2019.

It is a mag­i­cal priv­i­lege dur­ing protests to take over build­ings and spaces denied to the pub­lic, and to repur­pose them for the rev­o­lu­tion and civ­il soci­ety. This was easy for Beirutis to do. Both bold and accom­mo­dat­ing, they forge a lev­el of free­dom in dai­ly civic life unthink­able in much of Europe, bend­ing rules as they nav­i­gate their way (usu­al­ly polite­ly request­ing pas­sage or for­bear­ance, some­times abrupt­ly impos­ing their will), which can be charm­ing or exas­per­at­ing. Even before the rev­o­lu­tion, we live in a for­mal anarchy—here mean­ing a coun­try that either has no gov­ern­ment at all or a rad­i­cal­ly inef­fec­tive one. My big sur­prise when I arrived again to live in Lebanon was how well anar­chy worked on some levels. 

The begin­nings of most mass, peace­ful rev­o­lu­tions are car­ni­va­lesque, where every­one trans­forms, train­ing in new roles. By late after­noon on Mar­tyrs’ Square I received a call from a friend, a Pak­istani British writer who teach­es at AUB: “Are you there?” “I’m here, but where­abouts are you?” I ask him. “Did you see the Botox Brigades?” He quips, “I could­n’t take it, so I left.” We laugh through the sur­round­ing din, and I answer, “I did, actu­al­ly. Or I saw one bat­tal­ion pass­ing Falafel Sahy­oun (Zion in Eng­lish, a Lebanese fam­i­ly) where we got our­selves refu­eled. But take this as a good sign! This rev­o­lu­tion includes ‘ALL of us, and we mean ALL,’ ” I tease, play­ing on the rev­o­lu­tion’s slo­gan. “Aah,” he puffed as we hang up, laugh­ing some more. 

Falafel Sahyoun, Beirut, August 20, 2020 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
Falafel Sahy­oun, Beirut, August 20, 2020.

The next morn­ing, the Syr­i­an fel­lows run­ning the tiny man­a’eesh place on Mak­disi street in Ham­ra, who from 7 am onwards sell their zaatar and olive oil pies over a counter, served hot from the oven just behind—something between a push cart and a storefront—were not tak­ing this “bour­geois” Beirut protest crowd too seri­ous­ly yet. They showed me videos of danc­ing babes from the night before, one wear­ing a sequined, tas­seled biki­ni, and asked me to tell them if this is a rev­o­lu­tion? “I think it may be,’ I answer, “and per­haps we will soon find out in how many ways. Let’s see.” Like him, I did won­der about the stages set up by evening with loud micro­phones and mini-con­certs in rev­o­lu­tion square, arguilehs(hookah) for rent, and old­er men and women, fam­i­lies, relax­ing in white plas­tic or fold­ing chairs. But simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, young peo­ple were set­ting up spe­cial­ized tents (offer­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal assis­tance, for exam­ple), prepar­ing for the next day. These same troupes arrived down­town ear­ly in the day for many weeks to clean the streets. 

We were not sure of the extent of these protests until we saw on our screens the rest of Lebanon and espe­cial­ly Tripoli in revolt—the epi­cen­ter of the revolution—now cut off from Beirut and video­taped by par­tic­i­pants (the real news source from Lebanon to Pales­tine and Alge­ria). From the begin­ning in Tripoli and Beirut, and in many towns all over Lebanon, young women took lead­er­ship posi­tions, became spokesper­sons, and the videos of their chant­i­ng cir­cu­lat­ed the world. One young woman in Mar­tyrs’ Square, who looked like a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, chant­ed off a list of polit­i­cal lead­ers’ names, and the crowd hollered back “BARAH” (out!) after each name: “Samir Gaga3 (‘BARAH!’), Michael Aoun (‘BARAH!’), Hasan Nas­ral­lah (‘BARAH!’) …” In sur­prise and fear for her, we admired her brav­ery and prayed for her safe­ty. Soon this break­ing of polit­i­cal taboos was wide­spread, fear­less, with com­i­cal, inven­tive chant­i­ng and plac­ards. In Tripoli, one hard-hit­ting teenage girl wear­ing a head­scarf, lead­ing a crowd with a micro­phone and a raspy voice, full of charis­ma, breaks sud­den­ly into a beau­ti­ful smile. She looks right out of Pales­tine, full of grit and sta­mi­na from a hard life you can see she car­ries. Through my over­lay­ing trans­paren­cies of mem­o­ry and long­ing, all of down­town Tripoli looked like it was in revolt against Israeli occu­pa­tion forces. Pre­dic­tions that the Israelis were about to bomb Lebanon changed, assum­ing they would delay, not want­i­ng an unclear out­come if tri­an­gu­lat­ing with the war in Syr­ia and rev­o­lu­tion in Lebanon. The rev­o­lu­tion felt sus­pend­ed in his­to­ry, a way open to push for­ward and cre­ate new realities.

It's Revolution You Bastards, Downtown Beirut, August 24, 2020 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi) 
It’s Rev­o­lu­tion You Bas­tards, Down­town Beirut, August 24, 2020.

I also spent time walk­ing away from Mar­tyrs’ Square. The mean­ings and lim­its of the rev­o­lu­tion could be dis­cov­ered as much in the mar­gins and qui­eter hours of the day as in Mar­tyrs’ Square. Around Ham­ra in the very ear­ly morn­ing and along the coast near “Cor­niche el-Daraweesh*,” Ram­lat el-Bay­da (the tiny strip left of sand beach inhab­it­ed most­ly by the poor and refugees these days), evap­o­rate as mar­gin­al spaces by 8 am in Ham­ra, and in Ram­let el-Bay­da out­side of upheavals. Both areas I found uncan­ni­ly emp­ty. Walk­ing in the translu­cent Mediter­ranean light, I halt­ed in front of Ajial Art Gallery at 63 Abdel Aziz street in Ham­ra when I saw two home­less teenage boys, prob­a­bly Syr­i­an refugees, per­haps broth­ers, cousins, friends, or lovers, sleep­ing on their stom­achs over a flat­tened card­board box. A liv­ing tableau, poignant, beau­ti­ful, for­got­ten. The last time I entered Ajial was dur­ing the “Divine Com­e­dy” open­ing of Chaza Charafed­dine’s work, inspired by the region’s pop­u­lar cul­ture, ear­ly Islam­ic art and mythol­o­gy. I rec­og­nized her tall, beau­ti­ful, cross-dress­ing and trans­gen­der mod­els mak­ing their way down Abdel Aziz street as I was arriv­ing, and min­gling with the crowd inside. Charafed­dine casts these mod­els in her col­lages as regal buraq, half-horse, half-human, and the name of the horse upon which the prophet Moham­mad ascend­ed to par­adise from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

* “Cor­niche Al-Darawish” (a com­mon appel­la­tion) is men­tioned in “Cor­niche Fron­tiers,” Rania Afiouni Mon­la, in Beirut Guide for Beirutis, Ed. Jenine Abboushi, Dar Al-Adab, 2017.

Mediterranean Reminiscing, Corniche, Beirut, August 22, 2020 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
Mediter­ranean Rem­i­nisc­ing, Cor­niche, Beirut, August 22, 2020.

On the Cor­niche at sun­set just before the descent to Ram­let El-Bai­da was a lone home­less man loung­ing on a pub­lic bench, puff­ing inscrutable smoke clouds like the cater­pil­lar in Alice in Won­der­land. I caught his eye soft­ly watch­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea, still framed all along the Cor­niche by a sur­pris­ing amount of grassy, untenant­ed land (not yet con­fis­cat­ed for devel­op­ment), dark rocky cliffs, or bedrock plateaus used by fish­er­men. His pas­time is age-old, shared by Beirutis then and now–refugees, inden­tured ser­vants, social out­casts includ­ed.  Per­haps the most pas­sion­ate land­marks for all with a sense of belong­ing to Beirut are just along the Cor­niche shore—there’s Pigeon Rock of course, but we often seek out less spec­tac­u­lar, per­son­al mon­u­ments of sorts, among the small­er bedrock for­ma­tions in Beirut’s waters that ground our sense of belong­ing, remind us of moments passed, secret and mean­ing­ful, in this incom­pa­ra­ble place. We can­not entire­ly count on, for his­tor­i­cal reas­sur­ance, the build­ings and urban spaces of Beirut, ephemer­al and trans­form­ing to a vio­lent degree. But we can trace and root our­selves along Lebanon’s coastal bedrocks, unique in all the world. 

Impor­tant parts of this ancient urban shore­line have been cement­ed, effac­ing ref­er­ences to histories—personal, region­al, and civ­i­liza­tion­al. Some such projects were breath­tak­ing­ly rapid in their destruc­tion. Pompous con­struc­tions of the past, like Alexan­der the Great’s Cause­way in Tyre [cf. Mar­riner, Nick. Geoar­chae­ol­o­gy of Phoeni­cians’ Buried Har­bours: Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. 5000 Years of Human-Envi­ron­men­tal Inter­ac­tions, Aix-Mar­seille, 2007], do not com­pare to the destruc­tion vis­it­ed by lat­ter-day war­lords, like Ran­da Berri’s (Amal leader Nabih Berri’s wife) con­fis­ca­tion of part of Ram­let El-Bay­da to erect her absurd resort hotel, Eden Bay. A much larg­er dis­as­ter is of course Harir­i’s Sol­idaire project (an iron­ic name, as the right­ful own­ers of down­town prop­er­ty were essen­tial­ly robbed, their prop­er­ty under­val­ued, offered mea­gre com­pen­sa­tion, if any). The Hariri project cre­at­ed what arche­ol­o­gists dark­ly called “the largest arche­o­log­i­cal dig in the world,” crass­ly destroy­ing nation­al and world her­itage sites, and—most fright­en­ing­ly for a soci­ety emerg­ing from civ­il war—effacing the fea­tures of urban land­marks that pro­vide us all with a sense of belong­ing and dig­ni­ty, both col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual. I remem­ber my own unease, even fear, when I learned the of scale of destruc­tion planned by the Hariri project dur­ing the sum­mer of 1990 when I was in Beirut.

Ramlet El-Bayda, Corniche, Beirut, October 22, 2019 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
Ram­let El-Bay­da, Cor­niche, Beirut, Octo­ber 22, 2019.

With a small cam­era I head­ed down­town and took sev­er­al rolls of film around Mar­tyrs’ Square, El- Burj, and the mag­i­cal Aswaq that I loved as a child liv­ing in Beirut on the eve of the civ­il war. I do not know what I will do with these pho­tos besides con­tin­ue to store them with per­son­al let­ters in a trunk. But in these pho­tos, I can still see where my father’s cousin Maha took me into a sleep­wear bou­tique, and asked me to choose a night­gown from the beau­ti­ful, pinned-up gar­ment dis­play cov­er­ing the ceil­ing and walls. Behind a long counter atop a vit­rine, a matron­ly sales­woman spread out sev­er­al night­gowns in my size with a mas­ter­ly snap of the wrist and wave of the mate­r­i­al. I chose a pret­ty ivory cot­ton one, with small pink and red flow­ers and an undu­lat­ing trim, and hugged my aun­t’s waist. 

These par­tic­u­lar streets and build­ings and stores—the mate­r­i­al traces that sus­tain mem­o­ry, each of our life his­to­ries, in psy­cho-emo­tion­al detail, are foun­da­tion­al. In any city, new build­ings replace old ones inevitably. But not all of them, and this trans­for­ma­tion does not nor­mal­ly hap­pen at such a pace or scale (and Berri and Hariri are two out of many boss­es respon­si­ble for lots of destruc­tion and ugli­ness in Lebanon). Nor is it com­mon to cause the anni­hi­la­tion of mate­r­i­al cul­ture, like the Aswan High Dam that sub­merged the lands of Namib­ian nomadic peo­ples and Egypt­ian fel­lahin, and like the explo­sion on August 4, 2020 that has dev­as­tat­ed Beirut’s ancient sea­port and sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, killing and maim­ing so many. In these heart-rend­ing cas­es, heal­ing and rebuild­ing can only be partial. 

It is the speci­fici­ty of our his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al cul­ture that struc­tures our sense of iden­ti­ty, empa­thy, and pur­pose, which we trans­mit to new gen­er­a­tions. Not just any bright build­ings or streets will do, as it is equal­ly unmoor­ing to live in the equiv­a­lent of hotels, mag­a­zine-per­fect apart­ments devoid of objects of per­son­al and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Beirut’s down­town was heav­i­ly dam­aged dur­ing the civ­il war, but not enough to war­rant the lev­el of destruc­tion autho­rized by Harir­i’s Sol­idaire. Many thought this project would restruc­ture and build anew, help put the hor­rors of the civ­il war and Israeli inva­sions and occu­pa­tions behind them and boost the econ­o­my. Indeed, mon­ey and pow­er can do lit­tle with­out a com­bi­na­tion of wide­spread apa­thy and consent.

Beirut For­ev­er

Pop­u­lar con­sent to the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem, even com­plic­i­ty with Lebanon’s war­lords, now polit­i­cal lead­ers, may be part­ly under­stand­able fol­low­ing the civ­il war—letting sleep­ing drag­ons lie. But of course, this unspo­ken détente allowed the rul­ing elite to rob and run inter­na­tion­al rackets—until soar­ing lev­els of cor­rup­tion caught up with this tiny coun­try, and its syn­thet­ic econ­o­my implod­ed. It was to hap­pen with or with­out the revolution. 

The gov­ern­men­t’s pan­dem­ic lock­down, start­ing in the Spring of 2020, damp­ened the rev­o­lu­tion, but the peo­ple relaunched the protests with a vengeance after the explo­sion, meet­ing more army repres­sion, and pulling down the gov­ern­ment but not the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem. Dur­ing the lull in the rev­o­lu­tion, all were pre­oc­cu­pied with the tri­als of dai­ly life even more than the pan­dem­ic, with find­ing pro­vi­sions and food with mea­gre means, increas­ing unem­ployed, and pre­vent­ed from with­draw­ing their own mon­ey from their bank accounts. A large part of the mid­dle class has slipped below the thresh­old of pover­ty, and increas­ing num­bers of the poor and refugees are going hun­gry, espe­cial­ly in Tripoli and the North. Mean­while, the cor­rupt elite has escaped beyond the bor­ders with the coun­try’s dol­lars, push­ing Lebanon fur­ther into bank­rupt­cy and destitution.

Which Bank Was This?, Downtown Beirut, September 2, 2020 (Photo: Rea Karameh)
Which Bank Was This?, Down­town Beirut, Sep­tem­ber 2, 2020 (pho­to: Rea Karameh).

The cat­a­clysms of 2020 in Lebanon and glob­al­ly have arrest­ed metaphor­ic lan­guage. (May it soon be set free, and I now post more poet­ry on social media.) So “banks turned into fortress­es” in Beirut is not an image. Men at work cov­ered Bank Audi down­town with high met­al shields, turn­ing it into a giant hock­ey puck with writ­ing on it, or an indus­tri­al vac­u­um clean­er that siphons the peo­ple’s dol­lars off to the for­eign bank accounts of the rich and pow­er­ful. (Many lux­u­ry stores and most of the banks are like­wise bar­ri­cad­ed, like they had been, peo­ple remem­ber with appre­hen­sion, before the civ­il war.) When I entered the café in Mar­seille where I am now sit­ting, and inquired about its change of name, the man­ag­er explained that the roof caved in on one of the own­er’s busi­ness­es, and he decid­ed to revamp and rename his two remain­ing cafés. Despite the lock­down reces­sion in France, I nat­u­ral­ly assumed she refers not metaphor­i­cal­ly to yet anoth­er busi­ness clos­ing down, but quite lit­er­al­ly to a phys­i­cal dis­as­ter (and indeed it was). And when we heard that Beirut’s cen­ter explod­ed, we knew this was not a metaphor­ic ref­er­ence to the rev­o­lu­tion pick­ing up.

Since its onset, the Lebanese rev­o­lu­tion is demand­ing full democ­ra­cy. There was a mas­sive, can­dle-lit demon­stra­tion in sup­port of wom­en’s rights, small­er demon­stra­tions for Syr­i­an and Pales­tin­ian refugees’ rights, and more mar­gin­al still were protests in sup­port of for­eign inden­tured work­ers’ rights in Lebanon. The cur­rent demand for struc­tur­al change, a new con­sti­tu­tion and a sec­u­lar state, has gained con­sid­er­able force, but we must rec­og­nize what sec­tors of soci­ety could ful­ly dis­man­tle sec­tar­i­an­ism. This would be the new gen­er­a­tions that, fol­low­ing the Beirut Port explo­sion, flowed in from all over Beirut and Lebanon. These good­will troupes arrived direct­ly to repair homes, clean debris, cook for peo­ple who need meals, form­ing a grass-roots, col­lec­tive lead­er­ship. No gov­ern­ment offi­cials or relief-ser­vices showed up. 

OM Bank: BLOM's New Disguise, Beirut, September 3, 2020 (Photo: Nada Dallal Doughan)
OM Bank: BLOM’s New Dis­guise, Beirut, Sep­tem­ber 3, 2020 (pho­to: Nada Dal­lal Doughan).
Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, May 2019 (Photo: Munir Atalla and Shezza Abboushi Dallal)
Alexan­der Flem­ing Street, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, May 2019 (pho­to: Munir Atal­la and Shez­za Abboushi Dallal)

Kel­lon ya3ne kel­lon (ALL of them and we mean ALL): the war­lords and end­less­ly recy­cled politi­cians lead­ing the Lebanese gov­ern­ments over the years will be dif­fi­cult to force out not because Hizbal­lah is the might­i­est mil­i­tary force of Lebanon (which in its hey­day suc­ceed­ed in defeat­ing the Israeli army and occu­pa­tion forces, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the South where the Israelis want­ed to con­tin­ue to steal pre­cious water from the Litani Riv­er). Nor will the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem be dif­fi­cult to dis­man­tle because the Chris­t­ian sects are dwin­dling in num­bers and do not wish to lose pro­tec­tive polit­i­cal con­trol in a sec­u­lar state with a clear Mus­lim major­i­ty. These fears and pow­er strug­gles are of course very real. But bring­ing to an end the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem is in the hands of the peo­ple, the younger gen­er­a­tions in particular. 


Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, August 6, 2020 (Photo: Baris Dogrusöz)
Alexan­der Flem­ing Street, Mar Mikhaël, Beirut, August 6, 2020 (pho­to: Baris Dogrusöz).

What of course enabled suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments so crim­i­nal­ly cor­rupt that the cen­ter of Beirut is now paved with glass shards and rubble—lives and liveli­hoods lost, the peo­ple trau­ma­tized and heart-bro­ken more than ever before, even in a long his­to­ry of war and loss—is mass con­sent to sec­tar­i­an rule. And cor­rup­tion can­not exist exclu­sive­ly in the upper ech­e­lons of soci­ety. What sus­tains gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion is social cor­rup­tion embed­ded in Lebanon’s “hid­den” and vast sys­tems of exploita­tion and exclu­sion: for­eign inden­tured servi­tude and refugees held in cap­tiv­i­ty. Why include these real­i­ties in our under­stand­ing of cor­rup­tion in Lebanon?  Inden­tured servi­tude is the struc­tur­al under­bel­ly that cre­ates cor­rupt­ed fam­i­lies, from rich to low­er-mid­dle class (regard­less of how well ser­vants are paid or treat­ed, or how much more they make serv­ing Lebanese fam­i­lies than would be pos­si­ble in their home coun­tries, liv­ing with their own fam­i­lies). The prob­lem is struc­tur­al, an anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem that cor­rupts, in domes­tic spheres, near­ly an entire soci­ety, rein­forc­ing dis­crim­i­na­to­ry ideas and prac­tices. We can­not build a mod­ern, sec­u­lar state and sus­tain such heart-break­ing exploita­tion and exclu­sion in all of Lebanon, from enor­mous refugee pop­u­la­tions who are denied basic rights (the Pales­tini­ans for gen­er­a­tions now) to the inden­tured ser­vants who are aban­doned in the streets and in front of the Ethiopi­an Embassy of Beirut, for exam­ple, when fam­i­lies, since in the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, could no longer pay their salaries. These sys­tems do not sim­ply par­al­lel but sup­port gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion. And yet the far-reach­ing impact of these anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems are dis­missed and ignored, and any crit­i­cism of them meets with a deaf­en­ing silence at best. Much of Lebanese soci­ety par­takes in this exclu­sion and exploita­tion. This is chang­ing in small cir­cles of activists who call for the abol­ish­ment of inden­tured servi­tude as an impor­tant pil­lar of corruption. 

Sabra Palestinian Refugee Camp, Souq Sabra, Beirut, April 2019 (Photo: Jenine Abboushi)
Sabra Pales­tin­ian Refugee Camp, Souq Sabra, Beirut, April 2019.

Ide­al­ly, lead­er­ship posi­tions in a new gov­ern­ment should be lim­it­ed to the street clean­ers, repair­ers, and cooks feed­ing the peo­ple, who have now relaunched the rev­o­lu­tion fol­low­ing the 2750 met­ric tons of alu­minum nitrate that all the politi­cians and war­lords in Lebanon left to explode in the heart of Beirut on August 4, 2020. The mul­ti­tudes of young gen­er­a­tions espe­cial­ly who are now clean­ing, rebuild­ing, cook­ing, and protesting—they are Lebanon’s hope. These are the peo­ple that will be less taint­ed by a belief in the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem and long-stand­ing myth that it enhances sta­bil­i­ty. Many grew up being served by inden­tured ser­vants, and they are train­ing them­selves in auton­o­my and free­dom, through the labor of repair­ing their home­town and cap­i­tal, build­ing com­mu­ni­ty on new terms, imag­in­ing a new sys­tem of gov­ern­ment for Lebanon. 

This kind of labor and acts of sol­i­dar­i­ty train new ways of see­ing. Yet this must be accom­pa­nied by an hon­est reck­on­ing with the sys­tems of cor­rup­tion in domes­tic life, state denial of refugee inte­gra­tion and rights, as well as wom­en’s legal rights. Cor­rup­tion is always deep-seat­ed. We do not wish to sim­ply per­pet­u­ate such large-scale sys­tems of exploita­tion and exclu­sion in a new gov­ern­ment. This would defeat the project of a sec­u­lar, demo­c­ra­t­ic state. The stakes are so very high, and it is cru­cial that these exploita­tion and exclu­sion sys­tems be tak­en to the streets now. Oth­er­wise Lebanon risks per­pet­u­at­ing cor­rupt polit­i­cal pow­er and ensu­ing tragedies. There are more forces that will try to pro­tect the sec­tar­i­an sys­tem as well as cor­rup­tion. But the rev­o­lu­tion is the most impor­tant play­er in the field, and it needs to protest cor­rup­tion in the kitchen and the gov­ern­ment simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.  Let us sup­port these remark­able young peo­ple all over Lebanon, help them work to ful­ly dis­man­tle these exploita­tive and cor­rupt sys­tems, to con­tin­ue to trans­form think­ing and prac­tice, cre­at­ing alter­na­tive social and polit­i­cal sys­tems and lead the coun­try. As Man­dela once remind­ed us: “It always seems impos­si­ble until it’s done.”



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Lisa Hajjar
Lisa Hajjar
2 years ago

Such a gor­geous, trag­ic, hope­ful piece.

Laura Wexler
Laura Wexler
2 years ago

This is a beau­ti­ful essay of brief glimpses long remem­bered, and of endur­ing mem­o­ries of the city sift­ed, re-sift­ed, recur­ring and revolv­ing. It’s use of pho­tographs as por­tals to these length­en­ing glimpses is crit­i­cal­ly astute, and it’s obser­va­tions and inti­ma­tions of rev­o­lu­tion are full of poignant pos­si­bil­i­ty. I loved read­ing it. I will teach it in my course on pho­tog­ra­phy and mem­o­ry as soon as I am able. What a plea­sure and deep instruction.

Elise Salem
Elise Salem
2 years ago

I was thor­ough­ly cap­ti­vat­ed by this con­tem­pla­tive, lyri­cal and tren­chant reflec­tion on our impos­si­ble Beirut. There is so much here to learn from, to teach and to debate. Thank you for this gen­er­ous and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten piece.

Reem M
Reem M
2 years ago

Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten piece about an inde­scrib­able city we all love to love, hate and be frus­trat­ed with! Beirut through the years in the eyes of some­one who inti­mate­ly under­stands its nuances. 

Lamia Fakhoury
Lamia Fakhoury
2 years ago

مقال رائع.. شعرت وكأني شاهد عيان