Rarely have I seen a cityscape more depressing than that part of Beirut we are expected to call its centre-ville. It once contained a real souk, a vital, organic city center. But this was flattened in the various wars, with Syria and Israel, over the past several decades, and was replaced by a ghost town of Fendi and Armani, the vapid aesthetic of a giant duty free shop, free of all duty to the past and to community. There is almost no one around but the security guards behind cement blocks, with their metal-detectors and their florescent vests. The main corridor of the souk has all the joy of a Daniel Libeskind monument. There are some mosques, too, equally well protected, and I sense I would be roughly as out of place inside as I would be at the Armani or Dior shop.
So I make my way back to Hamra Street, for now the real center of cosmopolitan Beirut, with thin men in berets who roll cigarettes and sit at cafés, with shop signs in a proud vestigial French-- not the kind that speaks of oppressive colonial structures, but the kind that testifies to a forgotten hope for a true cosmopolis. The proper names are transliterated à la française --Chaussures Fouad, Vêtements Ayoub-- and that is already enough, for me, to read them as belonging to a venerable lost era (there was an Ayoob's hardware store in my hometown in California, but that conjured very different sentiments). When was this era? It was Ottoman, perhaps, but the Turks left the Levantine upper and middle classes to choose, from under their political domination, whatever cultural orientation they chose.
Why France? There are plenty of Lebanese blondes, immortalized and lampooned in fiction and popular culture. There are also plenty of hair salons advertising various techniques of blondification. But somewhere between the dissimulation of the color-treatment of hair and the pure genetic expression of Nordic traits, there is the historical fact of the Crusades, and it does not take long here to hear some variation on the claim that all this the blondness comes from the Franks.
I was taken to a restaurant-bar on Hamra Street my first evening in this city and was reminded of a recent news item I had seen, on the growing problem of distinguishing between Islamist and hipster beards in this city of heterogeneous communities. Both Hezbollah as well as the clean-shaven Lebanese security forces want long, non-religious beards banned, and they periodically harass and attack the young men who wear them not because scripture requires it, but out of devotion only to global fashion. In the bar I was struck by how fine the difference is between these two primary significations of the beard in the contemporary world, but since the men who wore them were also holding drinks I knew I was among my own people.
Why did Begin besiege Beirut?To impress Jodie Foster.