Sunday, August 18, 2013

Beirut was Paris. Once. Not too long ago!

In what seems like eons ago, I fell in love with a country that I have never been to.  No, not that one, but Lebanon.  Regularly the country pops up in my life, even if only in the form of falafels!

So, there I was finally continuing with that stalled James Bond series with the goal of eventually getting to Skyfall, and watching The man with the golden gun, when Bond's quest takes him first to, yes, Beirut.  Lebanon and Beirut, yet again!

Of course, this was just before the nasty civil war began in Lebanon.  Beirut was one international, cosmopolitan city.  It was the Paris away from Paris.

And then everything changed.

The war. The background tensions between the US and USSR. Then the Shia revolution in Iran and the rise of Hezbollah. Now with the raging violence in Syria that is next door, not to forget the ever present tension with Israel, what a nasty turn of events over the forty years since Bond went there looking for the golden bullet.  (Yes, that is the ornament in the belly-dancer's innie!)

So, can Beirut ever become Paris again?

Restoration has also taken place in downtown Beirut. Most of the area has been rebuilt; stone buildings that delightfully blend Parisian and Ottoman styles have been lovingly restored. But the area feels antiseptic and fake, as though it had been built yesterday as an imitation of Beirut’s past. It wasn’t; the city center simply sustained such heavy damage during the civil war that all the old buildings had to be completely resurfaced. These buildings are so clean that they seem unreal, especially compared with the rest of the city, which is chaotic and wild, like most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cities. Downtown Beirut seems more pristine than the most pristine parts of Paris; you get the impression of a Levantine Disneyland.

Then there’s a large area, immediately northwest of downtown, that the war razed entirely. It has been rebuilt from scratch as something called the Souks of Beirut—an open-air mall with a hint of traditional style to remind the visitor of Middle Eastern bazaars. The shops, which tend to be too expensive not only for most Lebanese citizens but for middle-class Americans like me, cater to wealthy Gulf Arabs on vacation. The development certainly looks better than the rubble field it replaced, but most Beirutis feel a bit alienated by it. And it sucked half the merchants out of downtown: Beirut’s economy can sustain only so many high-end restaurants and stores. There’s such a thing as rebuilding too quickly.
Seems like a good news/bad news combination.

So, can Beirut become a glorious city once again?  Only if the Assad government falls quickly, the author notes, which resonates well with me too:
Beirut’s economy is in worse shape than I’ve ever seen it. Tourism is one of the city’s primary industries, but tumbleweeds blow through the hotel lobbies. Governments all over the world are issuing terrifying travel warnings about the city. The last two summer tourism seasons were busts; this summer will make three in a row. Restaurants and nightclubs are closing because they don’t have enough foreign customers and the locals don’t have enough money.
Still, the city looks wonderful. The amount of reconstruction is simply astounding. Some of it looks like Miami, true, but it’s all superior to anything built in Beirut between the end of World War II—when an abundance of cheap materials and a cratering of aesthetic standards ruined architecture all over the world—and the end of the civil war. The city made this progress despite Syria’s military occupation, despite Hezbollah’s war against Israel, despite the invasion of Beirut in 2008, despite the global economic downturn that has dragged on for years, and despite the civil war burning next door in Syria.
A city that could come so far while enduring all those trials should do even better with the Syrian boot off its neck. Whenever Assad’s regime is overthrown or reformed—and that seems to happen to all such nasty regimes in due time—Beirut, whether it’s the Paris of the Middle East or not, might once again become a great city.
Maybe, once again James Bond's adventures will take him to Beirut.

And, perhaps, one day I will finally get to Lebanon.


Ramesh said...

Oh yes Beirut was and is one of the great cities, as indeed is Tehran. Both have been blighted by war and fundamentalism and decline, but I do believe Beirut is still a great city.

Lebanese food is great and the women stunning - so what are you doing in boring Eugene ????

Sriram Khé said...

What? Eugene is boring? News to me!!! ;)

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