From the Editors
(see Part 1)
Last summer, a friend (under some coercion… not from me) gave me a valuable gift – a 1954 Guide to World Travel issued by Pan Am airlines. In the section on Lebanon, it listed the average temperature in August as 83º Fahrenheit (~28º C). August, by far the hottest and most humid month, only 83 degrees? I mean, if you needed any further proof that the world is heating up, consider that the average temperature in Beirut this past summer was well about twenty degrees hotter. For a while it hit a record high of 120ºF, completely unheard of in those parts.
The point of this is not actually to talk about global warming, but to state the simple and obvious fact that … it got really freaking hot. Too hot to walk, in fact. But that didn’t stop scores of people from going on the guided walking tours of Beirut that have sprung up as part of the (re)integration of Lebanon within a global touristic “moment”, if you will, and not coincidentally following Beirut’s being named, among other things, the no. 1 tourist destination in a New York Times poll. While the guided walking tour has long been a popular mode of seeing a place, its popularity has been rising in cities in the U.K., Australia, Germany, and the US, to name just a few. Lebanon has joined this oh-so-illustrious list.
While there are self-guided walking tours of the Lebanese capital that take in its buildings and architecture (there’s even an app for that), my interest here is with the historical narratives offered by a couple of walking tours, and by extension what kind of Beirut–and whose Beirut–is being marketed and consumed in this way.
The Walk Beirut organization, founded by a group of young Lebanese university graduates, began offering guided tours of parts of the city in earnest early in 2009. I was told by one of the tour operators that Lebanese walk free if they bring a “foreigner.” Otherwise, everyone pays 30,000LL, or $20. Tours typically last four to five hours and are supposed to cover “pedestrian-friendly” routes to areas the organizers believe “are critical in grasping Beirut’s diverse history.” Tours begin at one of two spots near the AUB in Ras Beirut, proceed through the Hamra district and meander down to various points around the downtown area (owned and planned by the private development firm Solidere), as well as within the neighborhoods of Bashoura and Ashrafiyya. Along the way, walkers visit sites mostly pertinent to Beirut’s more modern history, beginning with the late Ottoman era, through the French mandate, the civil war, and post-war eras.
So what kind of history is being woven together by the various sites? In large part, it comes across as one of relatively contiguous occupation, conflict, or resistance, with a smattering of cultural production (like Hamra’s café and cinematic heyday) and a dash of nightlife. It’s a lot to cover, and the WB folks are to be commended for attempting to weave together quite discrete elements.
Where Walk Beirut starts to get stuck is both in connecting these diverse strands, and also in the kind of context it provides. The late Ottoman era, for example, centers on points like Martyrs’ Square, a public space historically used for rallies, and so named for the men who were executed there during WWI by the Ottomans in retaliation for agitating against the state, and the Grand Serail, the old Ottoman provincial government headquarters which later became the French mandate’s HQ. Other sites, like the Jewish quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil and the Beirut municipality building, for example, can be used as great entry points for discussing how the French mandate affected intercommunal politics and cleaved societies, but as of last summer they were not. The synagogue of Wadi Abu Jamil, built in the 1920s and recently restored, is one of two religious sites on the tour; the other–and an exception to this modern era history–is the ‘Umari mosque, by most accounts dating back to the 7th century, enlarged in the 12th century, and still in use today. Herein lies one aspect of the tour’s disjointedness and conflict with the history it purports to be imparting–why not discuss sites built during the same period as a consistent reflection of that era? It’s not enough to visit two religious sites (no church seems to be on the tour yet) in order to portray a multi-religious society if you’re simply going to use one as a relic of history and the other as an indication of how ostensibly tolerant that society is.
And here is where one begins to think that the idea behind Walk Beirut is not just about walking Beirut, or relating and consuming a history, but also addressing (and redressing) certain global images of the city as plagued by religious tension and war, while confirming other images of it as containing a heterogeneous population that has enjoyed a long tradition of socializing and partying.
The question of context also emerges in stops along the civil war era. Those include the Holiday Inn, a bullet-ridden behemoth of a building whose shell stands as an unintentional monument to the conflict, and a stroll along the green line, around which was consecrated spatial ideas of two Beiruts, east and west. Friends on a tour in early April reported a stop at a Hamra café, the site of the former Wimpy’s, where in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Beirut Khalid ‘Alwan walked in and shot dead several Israeli soldiers drinking coffee. This incident has become a well-known part of anti-occupation history in certain Lebanese and Beiruti circles. But the narrative relayed by the guide painted a picture whereby the main event was the shooting, without mention of the context of total devastation wrought upon the city by the Israeli invasion and its impact on a besieged population (a population, incidentally, whose memories of this period are still sharp). The point here is not of course to justify the killing of anyone. But the “Wimpy’s incident” cannot be told simply as the act of a lone gunman on a rampage. The larger context needs to be related so as to show how this act can also be perceived as one of desperation and resistance. Isn’t that what learning history is about? Understanding the ‘why’, and not just the ‘what’?
Further down the walking tour spectrum, there is Solidere’s “heritage trail,” which hasn’t yet begun tours but is nevertheless worth bringing into this as a contrast to Walk Beirut. Touted as an opportunity “to travel back in time … in the city’s historic core,” the company claims to connect archeological sites, monuments, and buildings it sees as important to Beirut’s history. The trail is planned to begin at the Beirut souks, site of a “2,500 year old ancient street grid and Ottoman access gates,” and travel through the Phoenician-Persian quarter, old city walls, along Byzantine mosaics, and Mamluk-era Zawiyat Ibn Iraq and a mosque, among other things. It further covers Roman history, like the old cardo maximus and restored baths, and Byzantine, Mamluk, and Ottoman monuments, including the Grand Serail, military hospital (now CDR), and the clock tower at Nijmeh Square (the original part of the Hamidian-era modernization, now … a Rolex). It continues along the streets named after French generals, and covers architectural sites like the Beirut Municipality building and Riad al-Solh Square, as well as Martyrs’ Square–without mentioning that the company is allowing office and residential buildings to be erected there for the first time in the city’s modern history, once again ineluctably altering both space and collective memory.
Some of the absences in the written narrative of Solidere’s heritage trail are worth noting. The particular neighborhoods are mentioned elsewhere on the company’s website within the section entitled “city history” (and not in fact on the company’s “heritage trail” section), but they are discussed primarily in the context of architectural aesthetics and how Solidere’s planners envision “restoring” these neighborhoods. The particular neighborhood histories are elided. Wadi Abu Jamil, “commanding superb natural and geographic qualities,” is never mentioned as the former longtime Jewish quarter, nor how that fact is important in the overall tapestry of the city’s history. Zoqaq al-Balat, itself a neighborhood with a rich history and mixed population, is merely the site of “heritage mansions."
Given that this pedestrian trail is conceived and operated by Solidere, it is perhaps unsurprising that all the sites along the trail fall within the firm’s territorial domain, thus from the outset circumscribing what it calls “Beirut’s heritage” to a space that covers less than two square kilometers (or three quarters of a square mile). This is hardly a sufficient position by any stretch of the imagination from which to claim to represent an entire city’s history. Or is it the "core" of Beirut that city center and nothing else? What exactly defines a "core"? Roman ruins? What are visitors supposed to understand from this? Moreover, the history to be imparted on the trail is of a more, shall we say, conventional type – monuments, archeological sites, attention (even preoccupation) with traversing millennia, with only one site, as of this writing, dating back to a period post-WWII (Riad al-Solh Square).
Similarly, the Walk Beirut tour barely covers a lot of ground. To be sure, this is in large part dictated by the exigencies of distance and time. Even though spatially Beirut is an urban hiccup, a tour would still take all day if, say, Mar Elias, Gemmayze, and Dahiya were included. And in fairness, the Walk Beirut folks have altered (and improved) their tours just over the last several months. Don’t get me wrong: these walking tours definitely provide an important service, to foreigners wanting snippets of urban and national history as well as Lebanese who, due to the fractured nature of history as a school subject, may be unfamiliar with particular versions, or histories of specific areas. And without a doubt, the Walk Beirut tour in particular reveals certain complexities of the multi-layered city that is Beirut, and one whose history and traditions go “way back.” Be that as it may, the nicely packaged, self-contained narratives by both tours of what Beirut’s history “is” – Greco-Roman, multi-religious, cosmopolitan yet conflicted, vulnerable yet steadfast – come off as surprisingly provincial, enough to raise questions about just who is supposed to comprise this ancient city in these modern times and precisely how those urban boundaries lie (in both senses). And in so doing, the tours' narratives discursively separate Beirut from the rest of Lebanon, effectively rendering it an exception to the country even as they seduce visitors into thinking it represents the whole.
If tourism is emerging within the Lebanese public sphere as a space within which alternative narratives of history and the city are offered, it can also be one where those who have historically been excised from these narratives can provide their own. One recent example is the Hizballah-run tour for students and journalists held earlier this year, which ranged different parts of the country pertinent to the group's own self-constructed narrative of nationalism and resistance.
The boutique guidebooks (discussed in Part 1) and walking tours are sought after by an increasing number of people–visitors, tourists, residents–with the goal of accessing the “real” Beirut, in as much as that authenticity is represented by “inside stories,” sites (like a synagogue) considered novelties in an Arab country, and side streets not swarming with other tourists. As of this writing, however, what looks to be happening is that the tours are reaffirming–in theme and dénouement, even if not in content–what the generic 50s and 60s guides, like Pan Am’s Guide to World Travel, did with Lebanon: cleaned it up, shrank it, and made it palatable. The “real” Beirut–whatever and wherever that is–isn’t in any guide or tour. It comes with living, eating, working, loving, and negotiating the city’s innards.
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