Beirut never fails to amaze, to challenge people or make them wonder, to sweep them of their feet or have them shudder. Beirut always seems to be a surprise in itself for the unaccustomed soul that dares to wander in the tortuous maze of her streets. The newcomer seems to always have to go through the ritual process of exclamation: “Oh! So this is how it is in Lebanon! Oh, my my, but you have women wearing minishorts and some serious cleavage in broad daylight! What? And that Nasrallah look-a-like isn’t going to start throwing stones at her?” I know we’ve all been there, smiling politely to the tourist who thought he’d be catapulted in the as-seen-on-TV Beirut, now completely lost for words in the diversity that lazily springs before his eyes.
Yes, Beirut never fails to raise too many questions for her own good from people who do not know her.
But Beirut also never fails to amaze me, and most importantly, Beirut never fails me, her (remote, somehow estranged) child.
I arrived yesterday in my beloved city, taking in the familiar overcrowded streets, the faces, the smells, looking out for some novelties, some new building blocking the sea from people, some oh so vulgar billboard that will make you want to lie in a darkened room to recover. I got home, sat on the balcony, and silently stared hard at the amount of concrete I saw spread before my eyes. “How is it, I said to my mother, that something so ugly can generate so much love?”
For Beirut IS ugly. Its misshapen buildings built during the war and never properly finished, her mishmash of Dubai-style skyscrapers and old Arab houses still waiting to be restored, her Potemkin city centre, all these elements give an air of unfinished business to the lady: nothing ever seems definite or defined in this city. Maybe that’s what gives its inhabitants a sense of extreme urgency, as if, like the buildings of the city that surround them, their lives could end up just like that, unstructured and not properly finished.
Beirut never fails me, I don’t know how she manages, but she keeps me on the edge of my seat, not knowing what will come next. Talks of politics welcome you as soon as you arrive, will Israel attack us again, did you hear about the rumours regarding the Hariri bombing, who’s the last politician to have, once again, changed his mind about Syria, followed by some serious issues such as: have you heard about the latest bar/restaurant/beach that has recently opened that you simply must go to? And while your brain is still trying to jump from Israel to the international tribunal to Syria to trendy places, somebody points at distant fireworks, remarking matter-of-factly: oooohhh look, another wedding tonight, where do you think it is?
I look at her, my Beirut, willing for her to change, willing for her to keep the good and at least recognize and try to eradicate the not-so-good, willing to be part of the change, I look at her and I think: my love, you’re a bitter-sweet symphony, Richard Ashcroft sang about life, he could have written this song for you.
And as the music starts swelling in my ears, I hear the mix of ambulances, voices, honking and the distant murmur of the sea.
Oh yes, Beirut never fails me.