Why you should discover Beirut, the intercultural capital of Lebanon

DISCOVER BEIRUT, 2017

A political, social and cultural potpourri

On arriving in Beirut, the dominant feeling can be labelled the “in-between”. Everything is perceived from all sides at once. An invisible Gordian knot constantly contrasts the nature of the city and its inhabitants. It isn’t only a question of the religious and denominational mosaic, or the socio-economic problem, or the weight of tradition confronted with modernity. Beirut seems to have lost hold of a common thread, and its projections make it a unique location. On the surface, all the elements of this political, social and cultural potpourri fit together perfectly but they aren’t always securely held together. The veneer is fragile and sensitive to heat.

En arrivant à Beyrouth, le sentiment dominant est marqué par l’entre-deux. Tout se perçoit de part et d’autre. Un nœud gordien invisible tranche constamment la nature de la ville et de ses habitants. Ce n’est pas seulement la question de la mosaïque religieuse et confessionnelle, ni la problématique socio-économique ou bien encore le poids de la tradition confronté à la modernité. Beyrouth semble avoir rompu un fil conducteur et ses projections en fond une terre singulière. Toutes les couches superposées de ce mille-feuille politique, social et culturel s’imbriquent parfaitement en surface mais ne sont pas forcément scellées de manière solide. Le vernis est fragile et sensible à la chaleur.

The stigma of war

The sated horizon of the war in all its variants has tightened its embrace on the Lebanese capital. Beneath the veneer of advertising posters gaping wounds still breath. It’s possible to conceal, cover and bandage protruding wounds, but the years of wars and conflict still leave stigmata in concrete and flesh. Real daily life is based on a fragile status quo which must constantly be renewed and redefined. This eruptive feeling immediately imposes itself on someone traveling through the city.

L’horizon repu de la Guerre dans toutes ses variantes a serré dans son étreinte la capitale libanaise. Sous le vernis des affiches publicitaires respire toujours des plaies béantes. Il est possible de masquer, de recouvrir et de bander les plaies saillantes mais les années de guerres et de conflits laissent néanmoins leurs stigmates dans le béton et la chair. La vie quotidienne et réelle repose sur un status quo fragile qui doit constamment se renouveler et se redéfinir. Ce sentiment éruptif s’impose immédiatement à celui qui parcourt la ville.

A public space in the making

Public space is still being created, and Beirut residents don’t use it on a daily basis. The urban and structural dimension is the most important factor in this. Dead-straight arterial roads cross the city and secondary roads leave no margin for the surrounding area. Cars are second nature, and it is with these that inhabitants take ownership of their city. The division of the city into “controlled”, “bannered” and denominational zones is also evident. When traveling on foot, it’s sometimes striking how simply crossing a road involves passing boundaries that are at first glance invisible. You suddenly feel the tension mount and become the object of weighed looks.

L’espace public est en gestation et les Beyrouthins n’en font pas un usage quotidien. La dimension urbaine et structurelle en elle-même en est le premier facteur. Des artères principales tirées au cordeau transpercent la ville et les voies secondaires ne laissent pas de marge pour les abords. La voiture est une seconde nature et c’est par elle que les habitants s’approprient leur ville. La segmentation de la ville en zones « contrôlées », « banniérisées » et confessionnelles s’impose également. Il est parfois frappant en circulant à pied de passer des frontières invisibles de prime abord, simplement en traversant une route et de sentir brutalement la tension naître et les regards pesés.

A cosmopolitan city?

If Beirut wants to be cosmopolitan, it is above all partisan. Territory is another form of belonging that juxtaposes neighborhoods. Just ask an inhabitant if the city has a center. Everyone has their own, and the periphery is permanently redefined. The appropriation of public space is severely restricted. Denominational “land” is reinforced by significant socioeconomic disparities even if the two ranges don’t completely overlap. Gaudy modern buildings adjoin neighborhoods burdened by poverty.

Si Beyrouth se veut cosmopolite, elle se vit avant tout partisane. Le territoire est une autre forme d’appartenance qui juxtapose des quartiers. Il suffit de demander à un Beyrouthin si la ville possède un centre. A chacun le sien et la périphérie est redélimitée en permanence. L’appropriation de l’espace public est radicalement restreinte. Les « terres » confessionnelles sont renforcées par des disparités socio-économiques prégnantes même si les deux champs ne se recouvrent pas totalement. Les buildings d’une modernité tapageuse jouxtent des quartiers hantés par la misère.

Between luxury and poverty

The juxtaposition between ostentatious luxury and poverty is all the more striking because of their simultaneous confrontational state and close proximity. The symbolic dimension, namely the production of a discourse and the subsequent perception of this, supports the initial idea. The most surprising and commonly-shared historical shortcut is to recall the Phoenician origin of Lebanon. Under the Phoenician flag everything’s fine. It is the only one that flutters in the mind, providing unity amongst all the others who are ready to unstitch it.

La confrontation du luxe ostentatoire et de la misère est d’autant plus frappante de par leur proximité et leur confrontation simultanée. La dimension symbolique, à savoir la production d’un discours et la perception qui en découle conforte l’idée initiale. Le raccourci historique le plus étonnant et communément partagé est de rappeler l’origine phénicienne du Liban. Sous le drapeau phénicien tout va bien. C’est le seul qui flotte dans les esprits et donne une unité au milieu de tous les autres qui sont prêts à en découdre.

Ambiguity between East and West

Another shortcut is to live for the immediate short term, here and now, elsewhere if possible. An immediacy which also expresses the ambiguity of an East-West in search of a modus vivendi that’s reconcilable or irretrievably lost. The tensions arising from the weight of social tradition, the civil war and regional crises are clearly expressed in the necessary sense of immediacy to be continuously overcome in a kind of uncontrolled race.

Un autre raccourci est de vivre dans un temps court et immédiat, ici et maintenant, ailleurs si possible. Un temps immédiat qui exprime aussi l’ambiguïté d’un Orient-Occident en quête d’un modus vivendi conciliable ou irrémédiablement perdu. Les tensions issues du poids des traditions sociales, de la guerre civile et des crises régionales s’expriment clairement dans le sentiment nécessaire de l’immédiateté à conquérir en permanence dans une sorte de course débridée.

 

 

Beirut has a particular and sensitive music. At once open-minded, sectarian, cosmopolitan, standardized, partisan, devout, and bling, the city is a work in progress, and its future can be reinvented beyond the borders that shackle it. The city is also a temporal in-between, or said otherwise, at a turning point in its history. Beirut is a city in the process of becoming.

Beyrouth possède une musique particulière et sensible. Tout à la fois ouverte, sectaire, cosmopolite, standardisée, partisane, dévote et bling-bling, la ville est en devenir et son futur peut se réinventer au-delà des frontières qui la cadenassent. La ville est aussi un entre-deux temporel ou autrement dit à un tournant de son histoire. Beyrouth est une ville en instance.

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