McGreevy: Beautiful Beirut
Patrick McGreevy writes from Beirut:
‘ Beautiful Beirut
Is a moment of crisis a time to understand a place? Or only a time to romanticize or demonize because our vision is hopelessly clouded by desire or fear? Are desires and fears ever disseverable from the places we experience and shape?
As a group of mostly US citizens talked on the eve of evacuation, the conversation eventually turned to this: why and how does Beirut get under your skin? It was a conversation no doubt quickened by events, and it has continued among Beirut’s residents and visitors, current and former, by phone, by email and in person: what is the ineffable hold this city has on us?
Is it simply the beauty of the place: the sun, the sea, the mountains, the people themselves?
Is it the sensuousness: the fruit, the sweets, the arak, the bodies?
Is it the easy hospitality: the people on the street and the Cornishe who smile and say “Ahlan! Welcome!” Or the fact that you can get by quite well in English or French, even if you just dropped in from Dubuque, Altoona, or Trois Riviere (you may be teased about the Quebecois accent). Or is it that, once you invest some time to learn about Lebanon and its language, you are presented with an intriguing and sometimes dark complexity?
Is it the vitality? The same air one breathes in Tehran, Istanbul, Montreal. The noise, the dust, the taxis, the sound of human voices mixing three languages in a single sentence? To understand the city, Walter Benjamin suggested, you must just walk until you are completely lost. In Beirut, a few steps will do.
Is it the history: the coast where the Nile and Mesopotamia first encountered each other? Where East still meets West? But interaction has often been violent and ugly: could it be the very danger, the friction that makes the sparks?
Is it the stories? Of Elizar sailing to found Carthage, of Aphrodite meeting Adonis for a fateful incestuous kiss, of Alexander laying siege to Tyre, of Sabra, Chitilla, Qana? Stories of brutality and tenderness—the full range of human opinion and emotion? On his first flight to Beirut, my brother Marty met an Arab man who had named his daughter Golda in reverence for a woman most Arabs considered a fabled enemy. In Beirut, you can still buy swastika patches to sew on your shoulder.
Is it, then, the anarchy itself? Driving in Beirut, at first, can seem completely out of control, like being washed down a tube. If you let yourself flow, it eventually seems absolutely normal. After months of Beirut driving, I had to ask myself why I was so much more relaxed than when driving in the States? Then it occurred to me: there are no police, no one in your rear-view mirror, no one to give you a ticket: all responsibility was yours. Then I began to notice the nature of the anarchy all around me; without an imposed order, some things worked better. It all depended on us.
Beirut is a city of relentless surprise. As my friend Susanne told me, the city constantly confronts your assumptions about stability, shocking you out of complacency. When proclaiming “you shall not go down twice to the same river,” Heraclitus could have been talking about the streets of Beirut. We easily accept the first meaning—“The River is different,” Jorge Luis Borges suggests, but the second one sneaks up on us: “I am different.”
The foreign resident must guard against the oriental dream of the traveler seeking transcendence rather than encounter. In the former “I am different” because I have found the secret heart of the Orient that its own residents miss. In the latter, “I am different” because I have unlearned a great deal. Because the dream of Beirut is a dream of encounter, foreigners are not foreign: they are close to its heart. Though it is a city on the periphery of power—a patient on the operating table, with Dr. Syria, Dr. Israel, and Dr. America attending—one nevertheless feels close to a possibility being born, a feint hope.
Despite the clutter, the noise, the dust and the blood, Beirut has a kind of beauty. The American writer Joyce Carol Oates once described her own hometown as a thing of “utter ineffable beauty,” but she added that beauty is not “mere prettiness but something more brutal, possessed of the power to rend one’s heart.”
Patrick McGreevy ‘