Beirut: The Un-Broken Mosaic.
The buildings in Beirut still wear bullet holes from an era we would all wish to soon forget. Their façade an ugly reminder of public violence that neither the Lebanese government nor the media could hide. If bombed out buildings and war stories from baby-faced teens are not reminder enough of Lebanon’s torn past, the echoes of hammers and bulldozers in a frenzied re-building effort paint a clear picture of Beirut’s effort to move on. So I visited. I travelled to Beirut on the dawn of growth and change. Luckily for me, some of Lebanon’s best traditions have remained exactly the same, and were waiting there for me to admire and taste.
Beirut’s history is a tangled one, as they have tried for decades to blend a mosaic of religions, cultures, languages, money, policy, food, and people, and been un-successful on most fronts. Today, the Lebanon that I see is one that is once again, reinventing itself and it is the youth that seem to be at the forefront of the project. I had the pleasure of meeting with some old friends from my days living in the UAE’s Al Garbia region. I bought them a beer, and got right down to asking personal, sometimes inappropriate, and nagging questions…my specialty :)
Diya was a teenager during the height of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, and remembers this time well. Although his expression of the seriousness of the situation in and around Lebanon came across clearly, Diya likened his personal experience to being in a video game. Waking next to your weapons, leaving the house or shelter cautiously, and well aware that at the end of each street there were tanks, bombs, weapons more powerful than yours, and people, out of their mind with the only necessity they had: survival. Moving from place to place was even more dangerous for Diya and other Lebanese due to the presence of f-16 fighters flying above Lebanon. According to Diya “These f-16 fighters of the Israeli Defense Forces dropped a great number of leaflets from the sky on an almost daily basis, threatening to shoot at any moving light after 8 pm. This made it harder to move from one place to another with no electricity, scared to even use a torch.” I asked Diya if he sees this time reflected in the youth of today’s Beirut. From speaking with him, and seeing countless teens, exercising their right to be flamboyant, and throwing convention out the windows of their speeding cars, I understand Beirut as a city inhabited by angsty youth that lived through a war. “Why should we follow traffic laws after living through war?” Diya noted. And really, the chaos, and the youth, and the remembrance of the fragility of life are a great part of what makes Beirut in particular inimitable.
The uniqueness of architecture in Beirut, with bombed and dilapidated buildings, blends in a devastatingly beautiful way with the ruins of Baalbeck. Outside the city, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley stands what is in my opinion a far more impressive collection of Roman ruins than those inside Rome herself. The Baalbeck ruins were built over 7,000 years ago by the Romans to worship the God of the sun. It immediately reminds visitors to Lebanon that there is a lot going on here, and there has been for thousands of years. Lebanon has been occupied by the Romans, the French, Syrians, and today Palestinian refugees. If that weren’t enough of a mosaic, the Lebanese also have one of the most diverse governments of any nation; with a Sunni Prime Minister, a Shite Speaker of Parliament, and a Maronite Catholic President, required at all times. Unfortunately as we have seen, it is this remarkable mosaic that has made itself vulnerable to breaking.
All the turmoil, begs the question “What are we fighting for?” I mean, why is it that everyone is fighting over this country? WELL, despite being able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea in the morning and ski at Faraya Mzaar in the afternoon, young, vibrant locals, and a truly unique mix of glamor and Bedouin traditions, there is the food…no let me be more specific the MEAT! If I didn’t get gout on this trip it was only because I was too afraid to sneak beer into the Hezbollah. Down dodgy alleys you find svieha: dough pockets filled with minced, fatty lamb and spices reminding us of the foreign lands that have at one time or another had influence over Lebanon’s cuisine. Diya and his girlfriend Natalie took me to one of the thousands of shwarma stands that litter Beirut. I like food you don’t even need to bother being polite with, and Lebanon tends to have the “dig in!” mentality down.
It was one of those quick trips, where I try to JUST get a taste of a city, eat some good food, drink some local brew, and have a holiday. But I couldn’t even try to do that in Beirut. There is too much political history in here, too many unique groups of people, too many religions, languages, influences, and freaking amazing food to NOT become completely enamored of this place. And I did get swept away in a city and a country that I had been afraid to visit. Go see for yourself, and don’t forget to write and tell me about it!