THE BEIRUT DIARIES – A CITY SPLIT BY GREEN
The old Green Line which split Beirut into a largely Muslim West and mostly Christian East during the bad old days of the civil war can be traced now amongst the glitzy bars and clubs of Achrafiye’s Monot Street , tiptoeing above the modern Gulf experiment that has become DownTown Beirut.
Walking down Monot Street late on a Tuesday night after delicious sushi and Sapporo, the beautiful blow dries and Dolce & Gabbana handbags might distract an observer from the shadows that lie by the side of the street, hiding behind the Mercedes, Mini Coopers and Jeeps.
Walking down the old Green Line, there remains a dried-up energy that is not yet fully spent. It lines, like sap, the shrapnel holes in the handsome French-era villas whose top stories have been blown away, and whose shattered staircases lead only to pigeon nests. It whispers out of the weeds that are growing where once there were windows. Invisible hands at play. But if the casual observer were to walk down Monot Street on a Tuesday night, he would be unlikely to see the shadows and sap and hands. By Friday night, they would be covered up by the scent of Armani perfume and a catwalk purchased at the newly opened Beirut Souks, housing Missoni, Mango and even Isabel Marant.
So, if on that same Friday night, the observer risked life and limb to walk in a westerly direction, towards the Corniche and the once-intellectual quarter of Hamra, he may be surprised to see a city of two distinct halves.
Friday marked the end of Ramadan across the Muslim world. The thirty day fast finally over, the local Muslim population who had not driven to “the South” came out en masse to celebrate Eid in West Beirut. The sea-lining promenade, known as the Corniche, thronged with an assortment of people. A little bespectacled girl drove her rental Beirut-by-bike at speed as she was chased by her bare-chested brother on roller skates, both narrowly missing the sweetcorn vendor whose pot of boiling water was balanced precariously atop a brown, rusted bicycle. Families sat on plastic chairs which they had brought with them to relax by the seaside railings, blowing bubbles into the argilehs which young men were bringing from their makeshift palm tree shop, coals flying through the air. Through the haze of melon mist, two types of coffee vendor competed for custom: An elderly man carried a thermos of hot water and Nescafe sachets alongside his tray of paper cups whilst a bearded man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Fidel Castro charmed passing women with his shouts of “Ahwe (coffee), Ahwe, how you doing?” Joey, from Friends clearly takes much responsibility. Capitalism wins out over communism on both sides of the city, as street hawkers ventured out to sell plates of little green olives and kaik bread with cheese to the groups of family and friends watching an Egyptian drama serial being screened, or listening to music that blared from open car doors onto the Corniche.
A different kind of fashion show
Celebrating in their finest clothes, the fashion show continued long into the night. The favoured look for young women was floral maxi dresses tucked over pink or purple long sleeved t-shirts, topped off with a glittery headscarf and accessories to match. A few Gulf Arabs wandered through the crowds, easily spotted by men wearing keffiyeh headscarves and their women covered from head to toe in black niqabs. There was another surprising population who was gathering in small groups by the railings – young Bangladeshi men and women, clearly domestic workers here, dressed in vivid orange salwar kameez and gold jewellery, excited by their own evening away from employers’ homes. Usually, the Philipino, Sri Lankan and Eritrean maids are visible in the streets, and it was unusual to see so many Bangladeshis. In the hierarchy of status, these unfortunate people remain at the bottom of the social ladder and Eid clearly allowed them an escape to friends and lovers, maybe, who spoke in their tongue.
Massive explosions seemed to rock the air. Nobody blinked. It was the fireworks catapulting across the haughty stature of the Riviera hotel, proudly glancing down over the Corniche towards the Rauche rocks. Children threw smoke bombs and drew their names with sparklers in front of McDonalds, and the Manara Palace restaurant was packed with customers vying for fish.
Down on the rocks, a couple of elderly fishermen left their lines hanging out to sea whilst boys clambered noisily although the sun had set many hours ago. The number 15 bus plied its slow trade down the seaside road, a young girl in hijab dancing at the back of the bus as popular music sang out through the open doors and windows, passengers clapping in appreciative enthusiasm for her performance.
Returning to the other side
The observer hails a service taxi back to Achrafiye. He is too absorbed in what he has seen to notice that the shadows still lurk in the twenty-year old holes where the Green Line once divided the city. He does not realize that he is driving from one city to another. He does not realize that there are people who are actively considering creating one city from another, even three countries from one small piece of land where the mountains literally touch the sea. Invisible hands are drawing in the rubble, crescents, and crosses, and flags and arms; but who can blame the observer for trying not to watch the pixels of division which have caused too much suffering, too much pain. In a moment of reflection, he prays for the fragility of unity to remain constant.
His friends are calling him back to an art exhibition where an ice-cold glass of Ksara has his name written all over it. The shadows creep back to that dark place where shadows live. At least for now, the bright lights are shining in Beirut and the city is defiantly alive.
September 15th 2010.