Sunday, November 08, 2009

Beirut Journal: Day #2

Today was much less eventful than yesterday, but fascinating nonetheless. I left the hotel in the early afternoon & headed toward the sea. For me the rush & crash of waves has always given me some solace, perspective; unruly waters have always made me feel a little less alone. And being here, a foreigner who doesn’t speak the mother tongue, it’s really easy to live inside my own headspace. I think it’s called “culture shock,” & I want to avoid it at all costs, so finding some familiarity in this quite complicated & alien place is an absolute necessity.

On the way I came across a graffiti wall, which also gave me some comfort.

The corniche is only about 10 minutes away. When I got there I saw a mural of “King Pele” and the Nejmeh Football Club. As I was getting my camera focused, an older man putted up on a little scooter. He pointed at the mural and said, “That’s me.” The second from the right, on the bottom row. He said he played for the team for 13 years. We had a good laugh at his full head of hair then, as compared to now, shook hands & parted.

I continued down the corniche, buoyed by that encounter, & by all the people out. There were kids roller skating, swimming in the Mediterranean; people smoking sheesha, drinking coffee, and fishing. All in all, folks were enjoying this sunny Sunday afternoon.

Then a German fellow, Ky, asked me to take his picture, which I happily did. We struck up a conversation through which I learned:

1)He just finished his Ph. D in electrical engineering, and has been traveling for nine weeks.
2)He’s been to Russia, Azerbaijan, Japan, Korea, Syria & has just arrived in Lebanon.
3)He feels that Lebanon “hasn’t got anything interesting about it.”

“Really?” I gave him a sideways glance. “What would make it interesting to you?”
“Well, in Damascus I really enjoyed the souks. Yeah, it was dirtier, but, I don’t know. It somehow felt more interesting. It’s just so, washed here.”

It’s true that Beirut, the part that we were in, is pristine. Snazzy fitness clubs, five-star hotels, Porsche dealerships, Jimmy Choo shoes. Even a Starbucks. It’s a bit like being in newly gentrified areas of Seattle, actually. We continued walking & talking & came across some bombed out hotels. They were riddled with bullet-holes, literally in ruins, and right next to the Hard Rock Café. I wondered if my new German friend thought this was interesting.

I also got busy confronting my own ideas and ideals about development. Under “normal” circumstances I absolutely loathe so-called high-end development. High end business development does not have much to offer to working, and poor, people. About 30% of all Lebanese are living below the poverty line, and 8% of those people are considered extremely poor, according to the International Poverty Center ( Though many of the people of Lebanon are not starving, many of them are not doing all that well, and a Porsche, or a Lamborghini (which we saw) is but a pipe dream.

On the other hand, there are war-torn hotels, inhabitable. There’s a People who are trying to emerge out of three decades of wars and invasions. I don’t know what it means to be a 35 year old Lebanese. It must be a relief, if surreal, to take your kids swimming in the Mediterranean, especially if you had to dodge bullets to cross the street when you were their age.

I find that interesting.

I find my German friend’s myopia sad. Edward Said would find it disgusting. It’s that facet of Orientalism that relegates Peoples to some preconceived idea of who they are, or worse: who they should be.

The Lebanese of Beirut, evidentially, are not the open-air market people of Damascus. They are who they are. They exist in a context shaped by entirely different forces. To ignore their particular context, while dismissing them as uninteresting, is, well, foul. I mean, I don’t believe that the Hard Rock Café, or Starbucks or Jimmy Fucken Choo is going to do much to lift the Lebanese economy or the quality of life of the Lebanese people.

But 30 years of war sure didn’t either. And if I have to choose one over the other, well…

Upcoming articles:

Tomorrow there is supposed to be a big announcement that the government has finally formed, after six months of political infighting. I'll try to find out what some folks think about it.

…On Tuesday I’ll meet with Bilal Elamine, one of the founders of LeftTurn Magazine. I’ll talk to him about this, and see what he has to say about the internal movements for people-centered development.

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