Mapping the invisible city of Beirut

In Beirut, there is the visible city of bars and restaurants and neighborhoods that everyone references in daily conversation.  This is the city that I described in an earlier post as looking something like Santa Monica and in this Beirut everyone is tired of talking about war: what the past wars were about or when the next war will come.  They want to talk about the exhibit they saw at Sfeir-Semler or how the city they love is being bulldozed in the real estate boom. But beneath this Beirut there is an invisible city, the Beirut mapped in the mind, and this is the city that every Beiruti fears one day will come to the surface.

Lebanon is a small country made bigger by its varied topography and religious diversity and the invisible Beirut, too, is something like that: it is a social, economic, political, and confessional map in a city of tremendous human variety.  When I was in Beirut, I caught glimpses of it in political posters and graffiti: where there is a picture of Nasrallah in Basta or Dahiya there is no Gemayel; where there is the stylized cedar of the Phalangists in Gemmayze or Achrafieh there is no Hezbollah.  I could sense this mapped Beirut but it was just out of reach.  I asked about the invisible city all the time, sometimes to the bemusement of Beirutis who thought no foreigner would care and no Beiruti would have to ask.  The architect and philosophe Tony Chakar alluded to the contours of this invisible city in trying to explain why artists and others were drawn to neighborhoods like Hamra and Mar Mikhael, “If Hamra were attacked by militias, no community would feel the need to defend it.  Not the Christians, not the Sunnis, no one.  And I like this. It means Hamra is a mixed area that has escaped, somewhat, the communitarian appropriation of the city. But these neutral places are few, and dwindling.” Only a Beiruti would talk about their city this way.

If there is ever another civil war, it is this invisible map that will define it.  It is not simply a matter of east and west — the Green Line of the last civil war — though it is partly that.  With a few exceptions, like Hamra, every area of the city knows to whom it belongs and who will defend it when the time comes.  Even the Beirutis who don’t want to think in these confessional terms still think in them.

It is in this way that a city otherwise totally unprepared for war can be said to have already drawn the battle lines for the next conflict.

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Update: Great minds, etc.  Within hours of posting this I saw that Hanin Ghaddar published a piece in the Times two days ago that was almost perfectly on point, suggesting that even Hamra is no longer an exception to the confessional mapping.  Read the piece, but for me this section calls the whole analysis into question:

Today, Hamra is dominated by the Syrian Embassy, which is protected by Baath party members and shabiha from the [Syrian Social Nationalist Party]. The neighborhood is still a hub for wild nightlife, but the S.S.N.P. has made sure to wipe away political diversity and freedom of speech, especially any expression of criticism against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

To say that Hamra is ‘dominated’ by the Syrian embassy reads as a joke, unless they’ve moved since I visited two years ago: housed in a particularly shabby office building with windows bricked up on the interior opposite the hipster hangout Prague Café — where I interviewed these guys, who edit the graphic quarterly Samandal — the embassy seemed to me to be making an entirely different political statement.  It was less ‘we dominate you’ and more ‘you are, by rights, a Syrian province unworthy of an embassy but we are obliged to have one so here take this.’   Save for a few bundles of rebar in the street to slow car bombers, the embassy was more feebly guarded than some Lebanese jewelry stores, as if to suggest everything of importance was happening somewhere else anyway.

Lebanese readers, please feel free to weigh in on this.  You can send me an email here or comment below.

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Click here to read about how my journey to Beirut ended up on a gallery wall at an exhibit at Sfeir-Semler.  Or here for the ways in which the visible city of Beirut resembles Santa Monica.  Or here to see the cool trilingual graphic quarterly Samandal published in Beirut.  Or here to see my photographs of Lebanon.

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One Response to “Mapping the invisible city of Beirut”

  1. […] here to read about the invisible map of Beirut showing the frontlines of any future civil war.  Or here to read all my posts on Lebanon and the […]

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