There is a story to be told about Beirut. Only a handful of places provoke as strong a reaction by the mere mention of their name. For many, in particular the generations of our parents and grandparents, Beirut is a veritable incarnation of hell on Earth. They are, however, hardly to blame for this assumption; the western media outlets provided an infernal depiction of the Lebanese Civil War, which broke out in 1975.
In the events that unfolded, Beirut became a city split into east and west along sectarian lines. There was brutal violence that lasted fifteen and a half years and by the end of the war well over 100,000 lives had been claimed in a country only around half the size of Wales. The war has left deep scars in Lebanon: the youngest generations are the only ones who haven’t lived through any of the war. A more recent, however much briefer, resurgence of violence in 2006 means many young, working Lebanese people have themselves had a taste of the pain their parents suffered.
This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the beautifully chaotic Lebanese capital and experiencing it in a whirlwind, eye-opening week. Arriving in Beirut, there is not a sense of anguish and heartbreak, as one might expect. There is no crippling hatred for one another on the streets. Instead, the Beirut of today breathes life and shows signs of acceptance. It is home to many creatives and young people with their individual hopes and aspirations. There is, in fact, very little that would suggest all of the destruction of years gone by, especially for those who do not know where to look.
This idea of new life and regeneration is particularly interesting when considering Beirut. Our word ‘regenerate’ is a gift from the Normans, coming from the French régénérer. The vestiges of French rule are also found throughout Lebanese society and even in their dialect of Arabic (you are about as likely to hear merci as you are shukran in a café along Beirut’s Mediterranean seafront). Interestingly, the Arabic word 'ahya, which means ‘regenerate’, is derived from the same root as the word ‘life’ and it has other meanings, including ‘to revive’ and ‘to lend life to’.
The sense of Beirut having a new lease of life can be felt around the city. There are a number of regeneration projects taking place around the port area, on land which has itself been reclaimed from the seabed and given new purpose.
Modern high-rises are beginning to dominate the skyline in the downtown, the main feature of which is the Beirut Souks, al high-end, modern shopping mall on the site of the old souks. As part of the complex, there are fashion stores, restaurants, an entertainment complex with a cinema and outdoor art installations.
Nevertheless, all of this exists alongside one of Beirut’s oldest mosques in the downtown area, its main cathedral and a section of building visibly damaged by the Civil War. The sizable bullet holes bored into the stonework by snipers are testament to the conflict that once defined the city. What is now the embodiment of the city’s future-looking vision was once the frontline of a brutal battle between warring compatriots. Beirut is in no way perfect, yet it is a city that does not mind bearing its scars — perhaps a healthy reminder for all of the fragility of peace in such a place.
These days, Beirut is a rich cultural hub; once the ‘Paris of the East’, it is now commonly described as the ‘Berlin of the East’. As unhelpful as these comparisons can be, the sentiment of Beirut as a symbol of modernity and more liberal attitudes, despite a troubled past, in a number of ways, holds true and points to an exciting future.
Beirut seems to still be growing and changing: for instance, acceptance of the LGBT+ community and support for women’s autonomy seems to be becoming more mainstream. However, the city is not without its modern-day problems, as economic instability and high inflation is stalling the Lebanese economy and a rigid political system prevents much political development.
How these important issues are dealt with and are overcome will, no doubt, outline the path which Beirut shall follow moving forward.
What is certain is that regeneration is happening all around us. New purpose often takes the place of ruin. However, if we do not expand our view to these ‘hell on Earth’ places — places that are often, at a given time, defined by ruin — we will continue to be blind to it.