Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m pretty obsessive compulsive. I arrange everything in a neat grid system on my desk in what can only be described as a veritable orgy of parallels and perpendiculars. I fluff up the cushions on my couch the second someone gets off it, much to the dismay of my houseguests. I have even been spotted at the supermarket rearranging unkempt aisles of cereal boxes or sloppy magazine displays, making sure the spacing is just right. I basically love the sight of things neatly organized. I guess you could say I’m OCD Light.
One thing I have lovingly organized is the bookmarks in my web browser. Besides the intricate folders and subfolders assorted by theme and region, I have a tab in my bookmark bar simply called “Morning”. It’s the first thing I click when I wake up and it basically opens up the world in 20 convenient websites. Facebook, Twitter, The Guardian, fffffound, Metro UK, Le Monde, Arts & Culture Daily, The Onion, Not Cot and so on. My morning dose of news, design, gossip, culture and escapism.
But once in a while I like to supplement this daily routine with something a bit meatier. Something that’s a throwback to my days studying politics and doing internships at the UN. So, a couple of weeks ago, I dug my teeth into an article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. IJURR to its friends.
As with all academic papers, reading the title of the journal took me the better part of a week. Then there’s always the cryptic title of the article to look forward to. When I was studying for a masters in international politics at SOAS, I always used to give my papers unnecessarily complicated names casually sprinkled with words I didn’t understand and semi columns and subtitles. Things like “Pseudo Dualistic Dychotomies in Post-War Glasgow: How Factory Workers Overcame the Unicornification of Labour and Triumphed Over Plethorism”. Obviously, this was mostly to overcompensate for the fact that I’d done very little to no research and the essay itself was unreadable.
I glanced at the title of the IJURR article I had in front of me: Towards a Phenomenology of Civil War: Hobbes Meets Benjamin in Beirut. Big words: Check. Semi colon: Check. Obscure academic reference: check. “This is going to be fun,” I thought to myself as I settled into my chair. And the article did not disappoint. It spoke to a whole bunch of frustrations I have with Beirut through a set of interviews with intellectuals and architects and other assorted know-it-alls.
It spoke of the latent civil unrest. The fact that the absence of war was not the same thing as the presence of peace. It spoke of the lack of public spaces, which is a topic that’s particularly close to my heart. I grew up about 6 meters away from one of the most beautiful public spaces the world has to offer, Hyde Park. Like most public parks the world over, it is a microcosm of society, enjoyed equally by everyone from vagrants to CEOs. And that is the purpose of a public space, to rub shoulders with people from different backgrounds. To listen grudgingly to the pseudo-musical plucking of guitar strings by some unwashed hippy vaguely attempting to sing something by Pink Floyd to a semi circle of stoned female admirers. To get hit in the back of the head by a fribee thrown haphardly by some American exchange student in a U of Wisconcin t-shirt and flip flops, as you’re trying to read the paper, and as you hand it back to him muttering unspeakable things about his mother under your breath. Sharing a public space is about connecting with someone you don’t know for even a fleeting second.
If there was ever a city that needed public space it’s Beirut. I’ve been to dinner parties where there are 20 people sitting in groups of 5, and where no one even bothers to introduce themselves to the 15 people they don’t know. People don’t know how to share a space. How on earth are we supposed to all get along if we don’t have spaces to interact? I just found out the city actually has a beautfiful public park by the Hippodrome. Only problem is, it’s not open to the public. Ah, Lebanon.
And by the way, malls aren’t a public space. They’re part of the Disneyfication of the city, as the article in question rightly points out. They are policed by armies of rent-a-cops who, presumably, expect to fight crime with their protruding bellies and neo-Soviet caps emblazoned with various names like: Killer Hawkeye Tiger Security SAL. Sometimes I feel sorry for these guys. They’re dressed like mercenary extras in a Dolph Lundgren movie, complete with desert camouflage pants and Ranger boots. Quite why you need Ranger boots to man the entrance to a parking lot is beyond me. Armed with nothing more than an inflated sense of self-importance, and a chemical detection device – which to me looks more like the antenna off the boom-box I had in 1994 – they wave you into a parking lot where you can spend the next 30 minutes trying to avoid stray shopping trolleys and cursing that guy with the Hummer who’s parked across 4 spaces.
The article also talks of a city without street names. A city where the closest approximation of a functioning address is “next to that construction site that was abandoned a year ago, and just before the grocer who sits on a white plastic chair on the pavement all day. Just ask around, everyone knows me”.
The article then talks about the interrogatory nature of dialogue in Beirut. No one is really looking to converse with you; rather they’re trying to extract information from you. Like Jack Bauers of the social sphere, they offer a barrage of intrusive questions. Where are you from? Who’s your father? What religion are you? Do you like onion soup? Why haven’t you had liposuction yet?
One architect interviewed in the article speaks of the weight of the city, of it’s crushing intensity weighing him down physically. I’ve been feeling this lately. I mean, I’m always grumpy, that’s my default setting. But recently it’s gotten worse. I haven’t been out of Beirut for three months. Now, three months isn’t a long time by any measure. But these particular three months in Beirut have felt like an eternity. I’ve lived in the city for a bit over a year and half, and I kind of feel my learning curve has levelled off onto a cold and desolate plateau. I feel I’ve run out of new and interesting things to do around town. Then again it might just be the fact that February is the most depressing month of the year.
Add to that the years of living in London, with access to pan-European flights for as little as $1.99 and the cabin fever I’m experiencing begins to make more sense. I’ve been dying to go for a weekend somewhere. Somewhere random and undiscovered. Like the weekends I used to take around Europe, where I’d book a last minute ticket on a low-cost airline to a city I’d never heard of. I just want to go somewhere where I don’t understand the language and feel like I don’t belong for a few days. I miss not belonging sometimes. Reading this article made me realize I haven’t really taken stock of the last year yet. I haven’t sat in a foreign capital, thinking about life back in Beirut and drinking bad coffee and being cursed at by the locals because my vague attempt at speaking their language consists of me just speaking English like I’m talking to a five year old.
But the prices for travel from Beirut are almost comically prohibitive. Flights to Europe would require me to sell a kidney to the Chinese Triads at this point. However, there is one affordable destination that seems to be shouting at me from every other billboard in the city. “Beirut – Istanbul 74.99” it yells, next to the red and yellow colours of Pegasus Airways. The overall design of the ad makes me feel like the planes this company operates are made out of Crayola. Playdough and the moustaches of men (and women) from Izmir. The only comforting element is that Pegasus in Greek Mythology was a noble winged horse. Had the airline been named after Icarus, I would have been far more concerned. And hey, whatever happens, it can’t be worse than Ryan Air.
So, my next trip is probably going to be to Istanbul. And I’d love your tips on places to visit, things to do and inspirational academic articles to read on the way. And if I make it back in one piece, I promise I’ll be less grumpy and I’ll take a fresh look at Beirut. Without academic articles, I’ll venture out onto the Corniche and wait for someone to hit me with a Frisbee or a piece of charcoal from a chicha, and I’ll make some friends.