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Greetings from Hizbollah country


Nothing could more define Beirut than the Green Line, a block- wide strip of grass, rubble and plastic bags that winds from the National Museum to the edge of Solidere. At one point, the new nightclub district of Rue Monot almost touches it, so that the zinc and ceramic facades of bars called Marrakesh, Lime and Che’ press their backs against six- storey apartment blocks, still partially occupied, that have only three walls and shell craters for windows. Junkies live in the thick brush 100 metres from where BMWs are parked in guarded, spot-lit yards. 

It is along this line that the city divided into the predominantly Christian East, and the Muslim West.

From where the line ends, close to the Place des Martyrs, it is only 400 metres to where what must be the most beautiful inner city in the world has been built. For years the streets here were barricaded by steel gates and bricks. Snipers targeted each other, and artillery did the rest. Beneath the weight of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and tank rounds, the inner city collapsed. To look at the photographs now, it is hard to believe anyone could have had the vision or the strength of purpose to do any more than abandon it to the rats and weeds.

Instead, Lebanon created Solidere, a public company that rebuilt every building within the entire downtown district, and is now funded by the rents and leases. The Solidere projects (its name is from the French acronym of “Lebanese Company for Development and Reconstruction of the CBD”) covers 1.8 million square metres of land, plus a further 600,000 reclaimed from the harbour. Although “rebuilt” is hardly the word. Originals were not as much recreated as perfected. Although every building is recognisable in photographs, styles were harmonized into the perfect blend of French Colonial and Islamic Modern that now marks the district. Colours and types of stone were harmonized too, so that almost every building is based upon pink and tan stones that glow in the light reflected off the nearby ocean. Parks were added, fountains. A 700-year-old church and a neighbouring mosque were reconstructed so exactly, and using so much original material, that in photographs it is difficult to tell them apart.

The area is not what it was, of course. There are fewer apartments than there were, and many more cafes, and chains like HMV and Dunkin Donuts have meant there is little room for stores selling hardware or curtains. And there are plenty of people who will tell you democracy was superseded to create Solidere, that the district is sterile and was only ever intended as a playground for the rich. But at sunset, when hundreds of children are playing around the clock tower in Place D’Etoile and you can look out past the superstores and the packed cafes to the seaside fun-park lights, it seems a churlish accusation.

What Beirut has done defines it and honours it in a way that is perfectly, uniquely Lebanese. On a Sunday morning one can still walk along the Corniche, from Ain al-Mreisse to Pigeon Rocks, stop to take a swim in water that is delightfully clean on an outgoing tide, or just marvel at how anyone can jog when it’s 35°C.

You can walk through the marvellous campus at the American University in Beirut, with its shaded alleys and floodlit tennis courts and waterfalls, one of the United States’ most enduring and generous gifts to the region. Or you can take a taxi up through the seemingly endless sea of villas that coat the mountainside behind the city, as far up as Beit Mary, with its patisseries and million-dollar views, to cafes with dress codes and chauffeured cars.

The money is back; the banks, the businesses, the entrepreneurs. Oil money flows again, nourished with what one suspects might be a touch of guilt that so little was done to prevent the country’s dissolution. Ishmael, a young boxer turned security guard, tells me the Mafia came with it. “See that guy?” he asks, pointing to a very new 4WD. “Before the war he worked in a laundry. Now he gives me a new $10 every day for watching his car. I don’t know what he does, but it isn’t legal.”

Beirut is, again, seized by the need to run where others walk. No visit to the beach seems to be complete without a convertible to get there in, a half kilo of jewellery and the latest beachwear from Moschino or Benetton. There’s no ambivalence about the overtness of the display of wealth: Beirut was always supposed to be better, faster, flasher. Still, there is 25 per cent unemployment and public sector debt running at 155 per cent of GDP. Perhaps we should be surprised it still exists at all – after 10 years of civil war, a full scale Israeli invasion that preceded the 20 years of occupation of its southern provinces, and the pointless death of tens of thousands of its children – Lebanon is still unmistakeably Lebanon.

The eateries of Hamra are back with a vengeance, selling the glorious foods that have made Lebanese cuisine justifiably famous, such as kibbeh (baked balls of cracked wheat with spicy meat and rice filling) baba ganoushe (eggplant cooked and crushed into tahini) or frikkeh (boiled chicken cooked with wheat and served with pistachios and roasted almonds). Even here the Lebanese desire to be different is evident. The menus at one cafe I stop at uses Arabic words but Roman script, making it incomprehensible to 75 per cent of the population and 100 per cent of visitors. In a country where Arabic is the mother tongue of more than 90 per cent of the population, billboards, TV and even radio advertisements are largely in English.

For the tourist, Beirut is unique. If you have been here, you have not been to the Middle East but neither have you been to Europe. It is a blurred zone, like Malta or Hong Kong, a place where so many influences combine streets carry names like Rue Abdel Wahab El-Inglizi.

After several days in Beirut I am seized by a feeling I have had previously in Singapore: for a city that is saturated with history, there are no war museum, few monuments and no reminders of the war’s cost. There are few books on the subject available here, and fewer still printed locally. Not only has the enormous gulf between the rich of Beit Mary and the poor of Sabra not been bridged, but the link between past and future has been simply forgotten. It is as if no one can afford to remember. In the same way Singapore seems to suffer from a collective case of Obsessive Cleaning Disorder, Beirut seems to suffer from deliberate Amnesia. There is no past, there was no war.

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