Welcome to Beirut, Lebanon where you can be everything you want to be – among the glitterati in sky high clubs with polished heels, discussing politics among the expatriot intelligentsia in bohemian backdoors, or setting up an evening argileh (water pipe) outpost in your car on the Corniche. Even as an observer of Beirut’s many worlds – the contradictions, the contrasts, the tragedies – I feel the unmistakable heartbeat, the pulsing arteries filled with suffocating cigarette fumes and a persistent, intense desperation to stay alive.
Over the next two months, I will be living, breathing and immersing myself into these arteries that give Beirut its vitality. The small metropolis is usually remarked by the West as a tragic reminder of a lost past – a once promising and brimming playground for Europe’s fickle elite looking for an Oriental escapade, now “post-Apocalypse” and not quite ready to be embraced. What these interpretations miss is the stunning entrepreneurial and creative havens in the city. There are haunting reminders of a traumatic 15 years of civil war, but this is not a place of paralysis or pervasive tragedy. Due in part to the slow return and permeation of one of the largest diasporas in the world, I have seen, heard and experienced some of the most inventive corridors of innovation, engaged political discussions and authentic expressive forms of art and culture in my first days here.
The characters and the mountains-to-the-sea setting add to the mythical hauteur of Beirut, quite literally absorbing those who adorn the popular “Beirut Addict” or “I ? Beirut” t-shirts. Ripe with café culture and hip bars, a concentration of young artists, musicians, and cosmopolitan intelligentsia that most Middle Eastern capitals are thought to coerce to the fringes, are openly part of Beirut’s heart. In a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, links are made quickly between those who transpire to document, create and regress through art in some way. In a week, I’ve encountered a refugee rights activist-cum-DJ, an MBA student turned documentary filmmaker, and a Lebanese formerly in exile using art as a means of postwar introspection and identity-forming experimentation.
Money Beirut is another character in the consumption heavy capital. Dubai may be the Middle Eastern headquarter of such scenes, but seven-star hotels, cranes and construction are now a commonplace feature for the downtown area of Beirut. The same area that is the parading ground for the Beiruti and his car – the royal chariot, the flashy and overzealous luxury car integral to Beiruti society, on display at any hour of any day.
Who are the Lebanese? This is a real, very necessary untangling of emotions for everyone who has a being of a post-war Lebanon in some sense or the other. Almost all those who frequent the cosmopolitan niches of the city left the country at some point during the 1975-1990 internal conflict years, easily numbing the painful stake that pierced the soul of the nation.
From this generation, many more probably have a more memorable association to the 34-day war against Israel in 2006. Thirty-four days where any feelings of numbness and vague recollections of a hostile past were punctured. An era of bloodletting for a politicized youth as Beirut’s lively future threatened to be eclipsed yet again.
And so the city reinvents herself, posing uncomfortable questions, perhaps for the first time, in an effort to become truly comfortable in its pluralistic and remarkably multi-ethnic skin. After decades of war and continuous political clashes that have affected every Lebanese person in far corners of the globe in some way, Beirut is the rightful center of expression and discursive agonizing to connect these poles. A diagnosis of its schizophrenic nature. Now more of a necessity, the heartbeat continues, as Beirut itches to uncover more of her mesmerizing self.