From the Editors
One night a few months ago, while spending some time in Beirut, I needed to get from the Sinn al-Fil neighborhood to that of Ras Beirut, and called a taxi to pick me up. After driving around for twenty minutes, it became clear that the cab driver had no idea how to get us out of the urban planning nightmare that is Sinn al-Fil. So we flagged down a family in a silver SUV to ask directions.
“Brother, how do I get to Beirut?” the taxi driver asked.
SUV driver stared at him. “We ARE in Beirut, man. Where do you think you are? Where do you need to go?”
Taxi man: “No, I need to get to Ras Beirut, near the Military Club.”
SUV driver: “Habibi, Ras Beirut, Sinn al-Fil… killo [it’s all] Beirut!”
The SUV driver was right: we were in Beirut. Sinn el-Fil is a neighborhood in the northern part of the city and abuts the dregs of what was once the Beirut River before water supply diversions and climate changes caused it to dry up into a shallow chasm, a topographical scar. Ras Beirut (lit., the head of Beirut), lies to the southwest, a relatively tiny enclave that includes the bustling area of Hamra and the American University of Beirut (AUB), among other points.
This little exchange was just the latest in a series of pivotal moments over the last several years that drove home to me just how unclear Beirut’s borders are considered to be – its conceptual ones, at least – and how much they remain in flux in the minds of people who flow through them, whether residents or tourists. The ramifications of this are myriad and range from the seemingly innocuous to the more serious. Perhaps most salient among the latter has to do with the relationship between Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiya (itself Arabic for suburb) and the rest of the city. Dahiya, is famous (or infamous) for being considered as a “stronghold” of the group Hizballah. In fact, the half million residents are largely, though not entirely, Lebanese Shi‘a, who live, play, love, and work there. When Dahiya was heavily bombarded by Israel in 2006, and entire blocks were completely razed to the ground, refugees squatted in schools and a host of other buildings even while a strong strand of public discourse decried “the city was being overrun,” and that they were “ruining our tourist season.” With the May 2008 “events,” when clashes between Hizballah and pro-government factions led to the presence of armed Hizballah militiamen in areas like Ras Beirut, the discourse continued with cries of how downtown was “becoming like Dahiya,” and how the Shi‘a had no concept of civilized urban life. Further, it became intertwined with the idea of "going back where they came from" – i.e. Dahiya, or south Lebanon, or, as some argued, Iran.
This attitude that Dahiya and its residents do not comprise part of the city of Beirut, indeed, do not possess what Henri Lefebvre first delineated as “the right to the city” (its spaces, its resources), is one with historical roots going back to the 1930s French mandate years and is too involved for a snappy blog post. But the question of what, where, and who constitutes Beirut is one that has been appearing with regular frequency and in distinct ways over the last couple of years. It is one that is intricately bound up with the country’s tourism industry as well as the debates over its national, and sectarian, history.
In October 2008, Beirut was named one of Lonely Planet’s “top ten liveliest cities.” In early 2009, a survey hosted by the New York Times resulted in Beirut being voted the number one tourist destination in the world. Not bad for a city that barely garnered a mention in early 20th century guidebooks except as a place to sleep and rest horses en route to/from Damascus, a city considered much more “authentically Oriental." While tourism has been central to Lebanon’s economy for nearly eight decades, the post-2008 boom in tourists was notable not merely for the numbers (1.8 million in 2009, well over 2 million in 2010), but because the face of Beirut’s istiyaf was different from any time since the end of the civil war. Walking around Ras Beirut, which has become a tourist hub, you hardly heard Arabic anymore – in addition to the ubiquitous French and Germans (who had never really stopped coming), there were throngs of backpacked (U.S.) Americans of all ages, South Americans, as well as the much more novel sight of tourists from Korea, China, Japan, as well as India.
The influx of tourists has been accompanied by a whole slew of guidebooks and guided walking tours, largely geared for the visitor from the west (including Lebanese living abroad). A quick inspection of Antoine’s bookstore on Hamra street showed twelve guidebooks in English and French published between July 2009 and June 2010 – none that I saw were in Arabic. While admittedly not the most scientific of surveys, my scan revealed a notable increase, particularly significant in that most of the guides are not Lonely Planet or Fodor’s or any of the other commercially popular ones; rather, they are more tailored guidebooks that often take the visitor off the beaten track discussed in the general guides. I call them boutique guidebooks: smaller and cuter than the average guide, they also target a much smaller audience perceived as well traveled, cynical, and discerning. Beyroutes: A Guide to Beirut (2nd ed. 2010), is one such publication. It is the first in the ARCHIS: Never Walk Alonely Planet series, which claims to publish guides “that take the human infrastructure of cities as a point of departure.” Beyroutes’ sections are divided by theme: “First Impression City,” “Official City,” “Emotional City,” and “Invented City.” Each section/theme includes what are intended as quirky aspects of certain neighborhoods in Beirut: Hamra, Ashrafiya, Dahiya, and Burj Hammoud.
In addition to practical advice, like the “cheap day in Beirut tour,” there are snippets of living in Beirut a visitor wouldn’t get elsewhere – where Ras Beirut teenagers go to make out, being gay in Sassine Square, how (not) to look suspicious in Dahiya, a bio of the “undertaker of East Beirut” – as well as historical vignettes, like how Beirut got its name, and the history of Dahiya’s urban planning. There is even an eight-page pullout guide entitled, “How to Survive in Dahiya.”
This “survival guide” is, well, a real piece of work. Ostensibly aiming “to set the record straight,” it does include somewhat useful advice, like where to find the best rotisserie chicken, where to shop, and what ‘Ashura is. The “iconic images” section identifies political and religious leaders whose pictures are plastered around the area. But the other sections, “driving and traffic,” “walking around,” “electricity,” “a bite to eat,” “shopping,” “a typical intersection” and “how to get a good bargain,” are more problematic for a number of reasons. In the first place, they give the impression of an area inherently beset by chaos and disorder: “Seeing five people on a scooter is totally normal even with a baby on board,” and, “it is not necessary to go around a roundabout.” Let me say here that I have never in over three decades of spending time in Lebanon seen five men and a baby riding a motor scooter. And if you drive counter to or through roundabout traffic, you're screwed. Those statements feel like they've been plucked out of a bad movie about an entirely different place than based on actual observation. Furthermore, the guide also replays tired stereotypes of large, poor Shi‘a families: “Have a big family to feed on a budget? Try Abu Ali’s Foul and Hummos … be prepared to wait in a one hour line and don’t forget tupperware.” This caricature completely hides the fact that Dahiya is also home to comfortably middle and upper middle classes.
But frankly, this guide is especially frustrating because it paradoxically demarcates Dahiya as an exception to the city of Beirut, even while the area is included in a guide to Beirut. Moreover, the "survival" techniques the pullout guide seeks to “advise” us on – like purse snatching by motorcyclists, electricity shortages, traffic jams, excessive honking, crowded sidewalks, the popularity of nargila cafes, and how to bargain – are not exclusive to Dahiya. They are endemic to the vast majority of Beirut in one way or another, regardless of class, religion, sect, or any other category. Which means, of course, that in that sense at least, Dahiya is no different from the rest of the city – indeed, it is very much part of that urban fabric. It is ironic yet somehow fitting that within the larger Beyroutes guide, the section on living in Dahiya is a special mini-guide, a pullout section – symptomatic of the area’s position and relationship to Beirut as part of the city yet still always different, slightly removed, a “special insert,” and one that can be ripped out – literally and figuratively – at any time.
(It is significant, too, that the other neighborhood mentioned in Beyroutes and synonymous with a particular group -- Burj Hammoud and the Armenians -- is not subjected to this special treatment.)
And finally, the mere notion of “surviving” Dahiya is problematic, particularly considering that this English-language guide is geared to people visiting Lebanon no doubt having imbibed stories of Dahiya as a Hizballah controlled, terror-inspired, area. In fact, if anyone needed a guide on how to survive in Dahiya it’s the residents themselves, who have been marginalized, neglected, and bombed by internal and external elements for the last several decades.
(Part 2 will discuss the variations of history endorsed by different walking tours of Beirut.)
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