Life in Beirut: Public Parks, Dolph Lundgren, Greek Mythology and Misleading Titles.

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.

20 Responses to “Life in Beirut: Public Parks, Dolph Lundgren, Greek Mythology and Misleading Titles.”

  1. Andy
    February 21, 2011 at 4:10 am #

    I think you hit on what bugged me about Beirut. I was only there for three and a half months, but this drove me insane. There were no public spaces except the Corniche, and eventually, walking up and down the pavement gets tiresome. It’s such a claustrophobia-inspiring city.

  2. SF
    February 21, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    Hi Nasri

    I hear you on public space and the claustrophobic status we are all in.
    if public space is a breathing tool, Beirut is a city without lungs.
    Public space is a microcosm of society and government. in Beirut’s case, there is a programmed vaccum of the public sphere, and public life is only enacted in private circles that keep getting smaller.
    But the worst is that Lebanese have somehow ” internalized” this issue. They are not aware of this harsh lack, nor it is on their top priorities.
    Inflation, costs of living, low wages, the fight to obtain basic services is keeping the working class busy from activism.
    Upper classes could always escape to Europe and the rest of the world.

    Have fun in Istanbul.

  3. mama noel
    February 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    OUR MAN. You are so true in your words. This is so authentic.
    and have I mentioned how well your write?

  4. Gass
    February 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Well I started to wonder why you didn’t recently post and I could tell the next one would be a rant (: I left Beirut after only 3 months of settling in. Couldn’t handle it; noisy, polluted air, noxious lifestyle… But I’m determined to come back and dip in again. After all I am only 3 hours away and have no choice but to visit close ones, or do I?

  5. Maria
    February 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    You forgot about Damas, and other wonders Syria may offer, that we overlook, just because we are Lebanese and we have been raised to look at it scornfully.
    In days like this, I often fantasize about a European-modeled neo-pan-arab union, where crossing borders is way easier, and transportation more developed.
    More of us would probably find wonderful things if they took to hitch-hiking the Middle East.
    After all, adventure is what we make it 😉

  6. Anneta
    February 22, 2011 at 12:18 am #

    This is a beautiful article, for lack of a better description. I’ve been here since I was 8, so that’s 15 whole years.

    The year 2011 however, marked that little threshold that once you tip over, there’s no going back to pacifying yourself with your favorite episode of whatever, a nice visit to an optimistic friend’s place, or a heartfelt conversation with someone close to you. You’re just FED UP. Fed up with the internet speed, electricity back and forths, water shortages, unmanaged dump spaces, corruption staring at you in the face…. and many more.

    Thank you for the article. Felt good to the heart to read.

  7. Tony Sayegh
    February 22, 2011 at 12:41 am #

    Hi Nasri:
    I enjoyed very much what you wrote and the style you employed
    to get your point across, very effectively I must add.
    I enjoy walking . The only city I know where walking is a big challenge
    and may be a threat to your life is Beirut. One almost needs
    a “Pegasus” to fly him across the city safely.
    The lack of passion for anything public should be a nightmare for someone
    who grew up in Europe like you. I still have not been able to
    explain to myself how quasi palatial apartments in Beirut can exist in buildings
    with sometimes very shabby lobbies. But it is the Levant after all, with all its
    individualism in high gear at all times.
    I am sure our cities will change to the better once your generation takes
    over. Let it be soon so my generation can still enjoy it.
    Enjoy Constantinople. You are going to discover there how Ottoman we still
    are in Lebanon.
    Regards,
    Tony

  8. Marillionlb
    February 22, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    After reading your post I started reminiscing about England, Barnes green and Richmond park. I also remembered when I was young riding my tricycle at “Jneinet Al Sanaye3” in Beirut. My generation had the chance to have a few open spaces to enjoy before greed took over; yalla your turn to reverse such a process, so don’t be too hard on Lebanon, just ask you Samir and May how they lived their childhood and you will be amazed as to what Lebanon had to offer then. Never give up, on the contrary strive for change, and maybe your generation (or your children) will actually make a difference.

  9. gingerbeirut
    February 22, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    It can be stifling, but there are some pleasant public spaces to seek out (Mary-Ann at hello961.blogspot.com/ has found many great spots). Visit Horsh Beirut at least – it isn’t impossible to persuade the guards to let you in (www.gingerbeirut.com/cant-see-the-wood-for-the-walls/).
    And while you may come across some shocks to your idea of courtesy, it has to be said that the British are not top notch in social graces either. Just very different.
    Lastly, you don’t have to fly to end up somewhere completely different. Land travel is a fantastic cheap way to see the surrounding countries. Yes they speak Arabic, but their cultures are strikingly different in many ways. Or just get out of town – it’s nearly as dépaysant!

  10. NathD
    February 22, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Well just for the info, i used Pegasus Airlines to go to Istanbul! i made it in one piece although i was very skeptical since the safety measure video is done by KIDS! BUT… the plane lands in the Asian part of Istanbul which means you’ll have to get stuck in an 1 hour 30mins traffic jam to reach your hotel and an 1 hour 30mins to reach the airport on your way back… and of course pay around 60 euros each time.

    On another note, i loved your article and i also feel the same. I am blaming it on February… but i know when summer is here, i’ll blame it on the expats coming from all over the world! Our city has it flaws… but i still love it.

    Cheers

  11. Joe's Box
    February 22, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Nice reading!
    In fact i blame it on January and February not so much to do in the city or outside the city because of the weather, but Lebanon is not Only Beirut! every Lebanese should rediscover Lebanon a walk in Byblos, or by the sea…You will be surprised how many beautiful places you are missing when you are in front ofYour (perfectly arranged) desk! :O)

  12. Nasri Atallah
    February 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Andy – The claustrophobia is pretty intense. I guess the only place I don’t experience it is sitting by the thankfully ubiquitous Mediterranean. And maybe that’s why winter is particularly tough, even if it isn’t even remotely cold. It cuts off the one side of the city that allows you to look outward.

    SF – All very interesting points. If you have more articles on these subjects , I’d love some new reading material!

    Mama Noel – Thank you. And yeah, you have mentioned that before, but I never get tired of hearing it ☺

    Gass – lol. That’s a good point. Protracted periods of non-productivity usually mean there’s a rant coming on.

    Maria – I haven’t forgotten. ☺ But I’ve been to Damascus, Amman (and Dead Sea), the UAE, Qatar. It’s not like I haven’t ventured out into the region. I just like to hear different languages and feel really out of my element, you know. Which, btw, isn’t always something that Europe offered.

    Anneta – Thank you. It’s tough when all the little frustrations pile up into an unmanageable heap, I agree.

    Tony – Very true. I went through a couple of months where I insisted on walking everywhere in Beirut. That came to an end after I nearly got run over 3 times in the same day! And got shouted at, for crossing the street when my little luminous green guy was on the traffic light.
    That’s a very interesting point about shabby lobbies. I’d never made that observation. This complete disregard for public space really needs to be studied in more depth.
    Another problem is the appropriation of public space. Like valet parkers who decide that placing plastic chair on a parking spot makes it theirs. And they can’t comprehend how anyone would contest this.

    Marillionlb – ☺ Thank you for that. I have to admit, the desire to give up on the place is overwhelming sometimes. Thanks for the words of support.

    Gingerbeirut – Thanks for the links. I’m going to give the Horsh a shot, it’s worth it. And yeah, obviously poor manners exist the world over, I’m just saying the baseline in Beirut is often a bit challenging to live with. ☺

    NathD – lol. Sounds like a proper low-cost airline then. At least you land in Istanbul. Unlike some Ryan Air flights where you land in neighboring countries (no joke!).

    Joe’s Box – I think you’re right. A stroll by a little port on a sunny day should do the trick, at least for the time being!

  13. Karl
    February 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    I love the blogosphere: here I am feeling overworked and nostalgic – trying to simultaneously finish off this month’s issue and cram two weeks of packing into a few days – and random browsing through local blogs leads me to an article that describes my mood perfectly.

    People have a glow around them when they’ve been out of the country for a while. I’ve been back here for almost a year (and am leaving over the weekend) and have watched plenty of colorful, glowing folk dim down to Lebanese Grey, until they can’t wait to leave again. You definitely need a vacation; but I’d hit Cyprus (even if you have before): it’s the closest thing that’s different enough to justify the trip and alter your mood, and it’s relatively affordable. Nothing like a weekend of sheftalia – and mild food poisoning – to give you a fresh start.

    Great post! You’ve grabbed yourself another blog fan.

  14. peepingtom
    February 25, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Your writing tends to get as obnoxious as living in this city.
    Get out for your life asap.
    @NathD you arrive on the Asian side but you don’t have to pay 60 euros to get to Europe. Take a Havas bus from the airport to Taksim for 10 usd, they’re comfy and don’t take more than an hour (usually less).

  15. Mona
    February 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Hi Nasri,
    I’ve been to Istanbul last year for a few days. Not exactly what I expected when I got there but still, loved it!
    I’m sure you know/googled the main attractions of the city. But the 2 places I remember most: (1) The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Sultanahmet. Really nice museum, if you’re into Islamic art, rugs, calligraphy etc. Right after I finished my tour I stayed on this really nice patio upstairs. The busy street downstairs was out of sight. All you could see up there is the trees, the tip of an Egyptian obelisk and the minarets of the Blue Mosque. It was the perfect end to a very nice trip. I probably loved it that much because it was exactly what Beirut could not offer: an extremely calm and serene moment surrounded by trees.
    (2) Denizler Kitabevi: Really charming old library down Istiklal street. It has a nice collection of old books (including 1st editions of old Arabic and French books), old maps/globes.

    Enjoy your trip!

    Hmm…PS: Great post. Did I mention I love your writing style?

  16. Kmarilen
    March 1, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    HI,

    When I was in Lebanon last summer, I heard of the NAhnoo association’s campaign to open up the Horsh Beirut for all Lebanese citizens.
    http://www.nahnoo.org/newsmore.asp?id=63

    I don’t know if they’re still working on it, but I’m quite sure they need all our support.

  17. ZaZa
    March 7, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    The park opposite the hippodrome is open to the public. There is a sweet bambo patio in the middle which is great to have bbqs on in the summer. Im always there – very much an essential part of my life here after having being brought up amongst the welsh hills :)

  18. Ronald
    March 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    I just discovered this blog, and Nasri, your writing is such a fun read… i feel the same about this country, unfortunately… Istanbul is a beautiful city to get lost in… was the Pegasus flight actually for 75$ as advertised?

  19. Just someone who disagrees
    March 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    Beirut is one of the few places in Lebanon that are as crowded as you’ve described. It’s actually one of the few areas that we can call cities.
    There are plenty of open spaces all over Lebanon and many of them are less than a one hour drive from Beirut. Different parts of Lebanon have their own very distinct personalities, and a trip to somewhere in Lebanon outside of Beirut might be more interesting than one to Istanbul.

    Also, Lebanese are pretty open to “rubbing shoulders with strangers.” I’ve been around the world, and i’ve never met a people as ready to give you a warm greeting or even strike up the longest conversation with you. Actually, Lebanese people are so ready to befriend each other that (in addition to this country’s small size) most people already know each other somehow.. I mean, you said it yourself: “Just ask around, everyone knows me.”
    I suggest next February you take a trip around Lebanon, and you won’t feel as depressed or claustrophobic.
    Lebanon is a mess, but open spaces and socializing are the least of its problems. You’ve given up too easy.

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