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The Struggle over Beirut’s History

The Struggle over Beirut’s History

Monday, 27 July, 2020 - 11:00

Some Lebanese are taking refuge in nostalgia today, as usually happens when one feels that a phase is ending and a way of life is waning. Their current nostalgia revolves around Beirut, their capital. The period they are feeling nostalgic for, their belle époque, is the 1960s in particular.

This decade, while it is appealing universally, is emphatically appealing to the Lebanese. It extends from the settlement reached by the United States and Egypt that made Fouad Chehab president in 1958 until the 1967 war and the subsequent tensions at the border with Israel after the Palestinian resistance was established. The subsequent 1969 Cairo Agreement that announced the state's duality was the climax and the end.

This decade witnessed the flourishing of Lebanese capitalism and its expansion to the peripheries of the country, but it was also characterized by a relatively large degree of stability, an expansion of the middle class and Beirut’s presence, at the same time, at the heart of the world. In that decade, the city seemed simultaneously charming and enchanted.

However, in the Lebanese’ divergent interpretations of their “belle époque”, we find yet another manifestation of their sectarian and cultural contentions. For each of them chooses reasons and meanings different to those of the others. Among the various interpretations, today, two have a strong and somewhat clamorous presence.

We have a touristic folkloric tale that presents Beirut as a city for foreign visitors, providing them with hotels, cafes, banks and entertainment. Beirut, in this story, is not the capital of every region, including the miserable ones in the south, north and Bekaa, nor is it walled with poor people who were its belt of misery. It is only the capital of a few archaeological sites in Baalbek, Jbeil and Sidon, as well as a few ski resorts in Faqra and Laqlouq. As for the city's makers, they are but a mere handful of the patrons of the tourism and hospitality industries who host musicians and foreign actors and organize folkloric festivals, theater performances and concerts. Bankers and businessmen are the most prominent among them, accompanied by their “velvet salon madams", the crème de la crème.

The counter-narrative to the tourist tale is one of arms; Beirut had become what it became because it welcomed fighters, wrote about fighters, or held demonstrations that called for one sort of conflict or another. According to this story, Beirut is the city that adored Gamal Abdel Nasser and in which the novelist who was assassinated by Israel, Ghassan Kanafani, resided. George Habash and Wadih Haddad, the founders of the Arab Nationalist Movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine graduated from its American university, where an Arab Nationalist ideologue, Constantine Zuriek, gave classes.

The tourism narrative is traditionally a Christian one. It was inherited, during the Rafik Hariri era, by the Sunnis, who added an emphasis on construction and reconstruction. The arms narrative, traditionally Sunni, was inherited by the Shiites during the Hezbollah era. They changed its figures and events without altering the centrality of struggle and resistance. Some of its eloquent narrators were brought up in Arab Nationalist and Palestinian parties.

In fact, the Beirut of the 1960s is bigger than either narrative makes it out to be. Each of them only tells of fragments of its many parts. The city was not made by businessmen and notables, even with the benevolent efforts on the part of some among them. Their role is dwarfed by the role of those among its sons and immigrants from the peripheries and the outside who worked and toiled, becoming its sons themselves.

Moreover, one of the reasons for Beirut's importance and uniqueness was its role in creating a welcoming society, receiving and embracing strangers and making them feel that they had become part of its fabric. Of course, Beirut is not a demonstration or two or 20 demonstrations, though these mobilizations sometimes manifested the city's vitality and democratic opposition, or the desire of those who felt alienated from it to integrate into it. As for the idea that Beirut could be summed up in one or two plays calling for "arming the masses" (who, fortunately, were not armed at the time), this does not even summarize its theater, let alone the city itself.

The city was, at the same time, its cafés, hotels, restaurants, banks, hospitals, newspapers, publishing houses, universities, cinemas and theaters, those who supported the authorities and those who opposed them, resistance and defeatism and right and left. The Arab intellectuals enthusiastic about fighting a certain enemy flocked to it as did Arab capitalists smuggling their capital out of the countries ruled by militant nationalist regimes with a certain love for arms. Arab and Western tourists came as well. Its Lebanese university produced a new elite that broke the sectarian and territorial centrality of Christian Mount Lebanon, and its American, Jesuit and Arab universities opened it up to the various sources of education from the region and the world, and consequently to the world's many markets, allowing its students to meet each of these markets’ requisites and demands. If we were to sum it up in one word, it would be freedom. This exactly what creates our nostalgia revolves around Beirut, regardless of the parties’ different interpretations of it.

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