Of all the pleasures one misses when moving to a new country, the most taxing are often also the simplest. I, for example, miss a certain sense of anonymity which comes with living in a sprawling metropolis. This same anonymity which allows you to head to the supermarket unshowered and in your Superman pajamas free from the anxiety of a possible encounter with a distant relative, colleague or classmate. There are plenty of these little things I miss, but by far the thing I miss most is walking.
Walking in the Middle East as a whole seems to be an activity that is frowned upon. Indeed it is a region where the car is ubiquitous and often gargantuan and gas-guzzling. It is a region where walking from one end of a mall to the other is considered physically strenuous, as evidenced by a recent Economist study which shows the region to have the highest obesity rate in the world (with Lebanon way at the top at number 1. Woohoo, world champs!). I can understand the aversion to walking outdoors in Arab countries in Saharan Africa or in the Gulf, where the climate isn’t adapted to the pursuit of casual wandering, but we in Lebanon have no excuse.
Overall, the climate is typically Mediterranean and temperate, set aside a couple of scorching months in the summer and a month of torrential downpour in the winter. Granted, the city is quite uneven topographically (which could exert a wheeze from the less fit, such as myself) and the sidewalks are an afterthought in the city’s urban planning, if one can speak of such a thing. Indeed, sidewalks seem to be built without really taking into account that anyone may be adventurous enough to walk along them. They are about 30 centimeters in width, and most of that is taken up by illegally parked cars. If you do find a spot unencumbered by an immobile (sometimes even mobile) vehicle, you have to spend your time playing dodge with a plethora of nonsensical, ignored and improbably placed traffic signs. But, nevertheless, if you decided to park your car and trek across town, you could do it with relative ease.
I have to admit, I never really bothered walking around Beirut before. Although I was addicted to walking everywhere in London and on weekend trips around Europe, I got sucked into the prevailing ease with which one goes through life here. People drive their cars from their home to their given destination where they proceed to valet the vehicle. If no valet is available, they go into a prolonged panic even though the street is littered with spaces and parking lots. However, over the indescribably busy holiday period, I came upon a novel idea. Drive close enough to where you’re going, park your car, and proceed to walk around form meeting to meeting for the rest of the day. Journeys started to take ten pleasant minutes instead of a stressful half-hour. I noticed buildings I’d driven past hundreds of times but never bothered to look at.
Cities everywhere are successions of comfort-zones we create for ourselves. Our living rooms, our office cubicles, our favorite cafes and bars. Wherever you live, you fall into a routine that involves roaming around from one of these areas to the next. The capitals of the world like London and New York start to become manageable when you settle into this pattern of habituation. However, the moments where you interact with these cities come from pounding their pavements and engaging with their hive-like public transports networks. That is where you overhear conversations, come up against interesting characters, catch fleeting glimpses of would-be lovers, sneak peeks over people’s shoulders to read to check the progress of their crossword puzzles. Sadly in Beirut, we don’t have access to this hive. Our cars become an additional comfort zone, where we fail to interact with our surroundings, beyond the occasional fender bender and flipped finger from a rolled-down window.
Let’s not forget, that much like any city, Beirut is has a treasure trove of alleyways, architecture and people to discover once you stand upright and put one foot in front of the other. There are streets in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael which you can only access by ascending uneven steps into pedestrian alleyways. A whole network of decrepit traditional colonial houses, replete with interesting characters awaits you. Having ventured into this labyrinth I’ve been met with the vicious gnarls of barely chained guard dogs as well as the warm smiles of ancient veiled widows tending to their colonies of feline companions. Elsewhere, wandering around the structured chaos of Hamra’s main thoroughfare and side streets is really the only way to discover the wealth of cafes, holes in the wall and jazz bars that litter the area. Aimlessly sauntering through its newly cobbled streets you’ll see blonde, blue eyed expats retracing the steps of their Missionary forefathers, although they’re probably more interested in the eponymous sexual position than the religious mission these days.
Once you abandon your car and walk around, you glide through traffic jams and drown out the sounds you hate. Much like swimming underwater on a sunny day, the sounds from the outside world become a dull and soothing thud, that leave you alone with your thoughts. Walking has long been viewed as the only true way to commune with a place or even to engage in creative thought. In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau says “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works on my legs”. Even in ancient Greece, the Peripatetic Philosophers, of which Aristotle was a member, owed their name to their inclination for walking whilst conjuring up great ideas. Maybe we owe some of our lackadaisical cultural pursuits in this town to our lack of curiosity to discovering it on foot. Next time you’re driving down the road for a kilometer journey, think of your health, the environment and your brain, park your car and hit our tiny and hazardous pavements.