An image speaks more than a 1,000 words.
When I was walking last night and saw this image, I confirmed it.
The image shows a billboard on the side of the street, with the plans and sketches of a new and modern appartment building that is being built on a street in Mar Mikhael. This is a very cool area, full of old-style shops, buildings and restaurants. But older buildings are being slowly replaced by newer ones as the area gets gentrified.
What I liked about the image was the desperate move of a pedestrian who, seeing that his/her neighborhood is getting a "face lift" (like everything/everyone else in this city), took out a permanent marker and voiced his/her protest with a "Not my Beirut" scribble.
I liked this because I think it depicts, first, a very clear trend in this city to get rid of old, many times historically significant buildings, to replace them by some modern, stale and pseudo european looking constructions. Second, this image depicts two sides of society that I have encountered in my 18 months in Lebanon. There are the people who want to hide, facelift or upgrade Beirut. And there are the others, which this urban protester probably belongs to, who celebrate, cherish and try to preserve their heritage.
I wonder if after the horrors of a civil war (and forgive me for this very broad and generalizing assessment), one would want to forget the past, erase it, pretend it didn't happen to make it hurt a little less. In this context this modernization impulse would be more of a denial or self-healing mechanism, depending on whom of the two abovementioned categories of Beirutis you ask.
But in this impulse of wanting to be modern, to erase what happened before, Beirut is loosing little by little its soul. Take a walk on the new Zeituna Bay (which, by the way used to be famous back in the day as a place to find prostitutes), and you will feel in Miami. You will be surrounded by Chanel and plastic surgery. And it will be soooo Beirut, that you will feel you are not in Beirut.
Does that make sense? Beirut is aiming at not being Beirut.
As an outisder, an observer, a passer-by, I just think this is a pity. This place has so much to offer as it is. I would take Bourj Hamoud 100 times over ABC. It is alive. And it is not trying to be something it is not.
Being from Mexico City, I have always bragged about being "street smart" and knowing when an urban area is safe or scketchy.
In my mind, places are divided into 2 categories: safe places, meaning well-lit, clean and modern-ish looking, and sketchy places, with a dirty, dark or packed feel to them.
Sketchy places are to be avoided, because they are unsafe and God-knows-what can happen to you when you drive through them. Safe places are big avenues, where there is plenty of space to run in case of an emergency.
In a way, this is not entirely crazy, as criminality in Mexico City IS high, and the probability of being jumped in the street (knock on wood) is there.
When I moved to Lebanon, I brought myself along with my suitcase. And with me came all my ideas, opinions, and perceptions of the world; what I know to be true and untrue, right and wrong.
So, using my Mexico City standards, I started avoiding places like this one like the plague.
Jam-packed. Nowhere to go. No functioning street lights. Bullet holes on the walls.
Decaying buildings... And trash everywhere!
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine took me in her car through this street.
As a matter of fact it is near my office, and as it turns out, it takes me directly to where I live. She told me she goes though it all the time, as it helps her avoid the most congested streets and the crazy rush hour traffic. I was a bit nervous at first, but since I was not driving, I got a chance to pay closer attention to my surroundings.
And I was very surprised when I realized that we were going through an antique shop district!
Note: Pardon my photos, as they were taken from the car...
As I was saying, I start realizing that this is actually an amazing area. Can you see the gorgeous lamps in that store?
And those chandeliers back there?
Look at that gorgeous balcony up there!
Since that day, I take this road all the time, and sometimes hope the traffic won't move too fast so I get to see something new in the stores. And Beirut gave me yet another lesson: sheckty and safe are very restrictive in terms of what I allow myself to experience in Beirut (and in life).
This place is different, with different rules, and different standards. And I guess the only way to learn the new rules and experience this place is to step out of my comfort zone and allow myself to go to places that I normally wouldn't have gone to.
After all, Beirut has been pleasantly surprising so far... Why not be open to what it can offer?