Sifting through Beirut's Stifling Past

by Iain Akerman

If you have the patience, you can find almost anything on the market floor at Souk al-Ahad. Hiding beneath pink plastic pianos, among stuffed Hello Kitties, giant soup ladles and mountains of miscellaneous clothing, fading lives are scattered like dice. You have to search for them, but they are there.

At the souk’s far end, before the concrete pillars that prop up a motorway flyover, lies a canopied area that runs parallel to the road overhead. It is quieter in this enclave, away from the loudspeakers and the disorientating tapestry of proletarian endeavour, far from the sweet seller piping swirls of saccharine dough into a bubbling vat of oil and the juice vendor squashing oranges in a hand-operated citrus press. And at its furthest reaches, you will find an assortment of booksellers and antique dealers, some of whom flog plastic bags filled with the remnants of strangers’ pasts.

The photographs within are often intimate and may bear messages scribbled in fading ink and the barely discernible traces of fingerprints. There are names, too, and dates. 25th April 1952. 28th March. Even a school identity card for the year 1949 to 1950, that belonged to one Reem Inam Asad Abi Musleh. Of all the photographs I love, one in particular stands out. It is of a wedding in Zahlé and there is something magical about it: the young girl with a chain of white flowers in her hair; the emotionless groom; the sea of rustic faces darkened by the Levantine sun. There are others, too. It is impossible to work out where some have been taken, but for a few, the locations are recognisable – places such as Ain Ksour, Aley. One photo, likely taken there, is of two young women smiling as they play in the snow.

It is late afternoon in Beirut and Areej Mahmoud, a young man with thoughtful eyes, and I are examining photos and discussing the peculiarities of Lebanese nostalgia. That golden glow that surrounds the past and sidelines the present. “The bride reminds me of an aunt,” says Areej. “The clothes of the groom remind me of the clothes that my father wears in old photos. The crowd looks like a large family, like mine. Some people have hard faces, perhaps from Mount Lebanon (a place that I know very well).” His attention turns to the second image. “The girls in the snow look like they could be in a village similar to where I grew up. They could be people that I know. The brick house in the background is very familiar. My assumptions may be false, but my first reading is driven by a need to see something familiar. My second is more investigative. I see differences and how the people and the places in the photos seem very distant. I believe this ‘distant familiarity’ may be why we love looking at old photos.”

At the heart of this nostalgia, of this ‘distant familiarity’ and distorted collective memory, is imagery – of the ordinary, of the mundane, of towns and cities before the war, of simplicity and cultural icons. You can see it in the large-scale murals of artist Yazan Halwani and threaded through every multimedia piece by Alfred Tarazi; even on the bags designed by Sarah Beydoun.

“The grim reality of the present makes it necessary for us [as a country] to resurrect images from the ‘golden years’,” shares Areej. “Whether they were indeed golden years or not becomes irrelevant. Our desire to believe that our country has what it takes to thrive sees us searching for evidence from the far past, before the civil war, often imposing positive attributes on images from a time that our generation does not know.”

“There is a trend,” says my friend Helen Assaf, a cigarette never far from her lips, “towards taking the nostalgia of the past and fusing it with the contemporary. Kind of reinventing the past, in a way. And the greatest pull of the past is its cultural richness. Its music and entertainment.”

These images of the past – cityscapes, cultural icons, people – are ubiquitous. They can be seen on the sides of buildings, in art galleries, in cafés and bars.

“Lebanon in my mind, before the war, is a yellow and blue postcard,” says the poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani. “I don’t know why the colours yellow and blue to me are the nostalgic colours of Beirut. Maybe because of the sun, maybe because of water – I don’t know. But I feel like there was a certain simplicity.”

She is sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea. Inside are suitcases from her former family home in Damascus and messy sheets.

“I always loved the old buildings of Beirut, even though the plumbing may never have worked properly, or they were really cold or really hot and were infested with cockroaches. But in our mind, they were these beautiful family homes with gardens and fruits and beautiful women in bikinis. The men had lovely moustaches and drank arak and sang and there was oud and dancing – stuff like this. Yeah, this is the collective nostalgia of Lebanon.”

She once told me that Beirut was a city of ghosts, haunted by splintered souls and broken, brown-eyed men. She has that love/hate relationship with the city and wider Lebanon that most of those who have lived there do.

As an outsider, I never saw it that way. I took it for what it was. An ugly and pockmarked city scarred by war and butchered by the greed of a political and commercial elite. It epitomised the failures of government and the horrors of unregulated urban growth. But slowly, over the course of 11 years, it became a city of music and sensuality. It became the sea at dusk and uncontrollable laughter. It became the intimacy of a derelict bed and the sensation of a lover’s body.

“Fairuz, [the famed singer] believe it or not, is part of the problem,” says Hind. “She singlehandedly created an entire concept for the Lebanese to become nostalgic for. She represents the village girl, the stories of love, the water, the mountain, the resistance, the power of the people – that kind of beautiful, simple love story. Fairuz created this kind of fantasy that people grew up listening to their whole life. Our mothers listened to her, our grandmothers, too and I think we wake up today and realise that everything Fairuz sang in the past 40 years has almost no bearing on reality.”

The photographer Ayla Hibri is in the early stages of organising an exhibition that explores the concept of time in Beirut. How things linger and linger and linger. She is in the south of Lebanon when I email her asking to talk. “I’d love to,” she replies. “Be warned, though. I am very angry and frustrated and am actively trying to let go of all these romantic notions of old Beirut.”

A few days later we speak.

“Did you know there are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon?” she asks. “I just spent six months there. It’s crazy. There’s such a Lebanese presence there that it’s like there’s a whole other country. They have the traditions, they eat tabbouleh, they eat hummus, they have Sunday lunches in clubs where a woman sings in Arabic and they all sing Fairuz’s songs together.”

“They haven’t been back to Lebanon in 40 or 50 years, but they’re so attached to the past, you have no idea. I’ve never seen more nostalgic people than the people outside of Lebanon. They’re stuck with this image from the past and they feed from it. And I think the reason they don’t come back is because they don’t want to shatter the vision that they have of this amazing Lebanon or Beirut.”

Ayla asks questions. Both of me and through her work. How much of her life does she owe to Beirut? What is this idea of home? Is it unnatural to be away from the habitat she was born and raised in? Shouldn’t the image of an imaginary or romanticised past be put to rest? Why do we hold on to it?

“You have destroyed cars on the side of the road for five years. Unfinished buildings. I want people to reflect on our current state,” she says. “Photos of an old Beirut and Lebanon before the war are frustrating because they make you realise it was better back then – we were more advanced then than we are now. Our culture was different. We were friendlier and happier as a people and now there’s this general air of… I wouldn’t say depression, because it’s been so constant it has become the normal state.”

“You know, we used to have trains back then,” she adds. “It’s weird. We see this better version of us that no longer exists. But at the same time, it’s crazy how we’ve learnt to cope with all this mess and keep going and keep going. Part of Beirut is super creative right now and there’s a lot of good energy. It just seems like we’re running after a train, though.”

How do you catch that train?

“This is a question we ask ourselves all the time. How do we heal this place? How do we fix it? Unless we change the system there’s nothing we can really do. I need to accept it as it is, because that’s why I always want to leave. I just want Beirut and Lebanon to heal and become a better place. I don’t want to go back to old Beirut. That doesn’t exist. I don’t care about that. What matters now is sanity in an insane world.”

I was once asked to walk along the corniche at night and count how many apartments are lit in the new buildings that clutter Beirut’s skyline. I didn’t, but I instinctively knew the answer. Within every new 10- or 11-storey building, only two or three apartments are occupied throughout the year. To make way for each of these monuments to corporate and political greed, two- or three-storey buildings housing 10 or 12 families had been destroyed, their inhabitants uprooted and carted off to religiously segregated suburbs. The attraction to Lebanon’s past is directly related to the frustrations with its present. No electricity, no water, no security, no president. This is Lebanon today.

Like the majority of young Lebanese, Areej also refuses to succumb to the allure of a mythologised past. “Romanticism and nostalgia are nauseating concepts for me,” he says. “And so I have always taken pleasure in picking fights with people who call Lebanon the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ or a ‘piece of heaven on Earth’ and ridiculing theories about the origin of Lebanon. Such theories cause conflict. Romantic Lebanese writers like Ameen Rihani gave me belly aches during Arabic literature class. The notions blind us to the realities of the past, making it appear superior to both the present and any possible future. I do not want Beirut to go back to its ‘golden years’. Nothing is left of those days except the good stories. But I would love to discover what Beirut’s future golden years will look like.”

A few days later, on a rooftop terrace in Mar Mikhael, a sense of peace and serenity has descended. A party plays out below and all around is dark, the blackness of night punctuated only by circles of golden light radiating from the occasional streetlamp. Beirut looks beautiful like this, sparkling in the darkness, though tattered and down-at-heel in the light. A friend once said that the city is as poetic as it is tragic. She always wanted to run after it, to fix the seams of its dress and to straighten its crooked bow tie. For Lebanon exists as much in the imagination as it does in reality. And I have memories that are not mine to further colour my image of it. One is of a young girl, perhaps four years old, eyes etched with fear and uncertainty, fleeing the civil war by boat in 1982. And like the city itself, I cherish it, even though it does not belong to me.