Beirut, then and now. A son looks for where his father had lived and finds other histories in a haunted present.
It was the year my parents would marry in Kuwait. In the 1960s, as Goa was annexed by India and the creation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, signalled the growth of the oil-based Middle Eastern economy, many Goans made their way to the Gulf states due to the rise of employment opportunities there. The American company my father would be employed by for two decades sent him to Lebanon as a trainee in 1969, shortly before my mother would join him in Kuwait, the country where my sister and I would be born.
Nearly a half-century later, I try to locate the street on which my dad had worked and lived. He had always remembered Beirut fondly, a single twenty-something, then, out in the world on his own for the first time. As a friend and I make our way past the weekend crowd, enjoying views of the Mediterranean from the Corniche, the January sun glints off the windows of the towering Phoenician Hotel to our right. “Middle of the road as you start up on the slope”, my dad had instructed on WhatsApp, in response to my query of how far his office building might be in relation to the hotel that shares its name with the street he had called home. On our left, by the edge of Zaitunay Bay, the once glamorous St. George Hotel, now hollowed out, stands mutely as testament to Beirut’s heyday, its Golden Age. Previously damaged during the civil war, the hotel was the site of the 2005 car-bomb blast that killed then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A large banner cuts across its otherwise silent façade like a scream: “Stop Solidere”, it implores, in reference to the company at the helm of redeveloping downtown Beirut, but clearly not without controversy.
As I look for Phoenicia Street, its name recalling this country’s even more distant legendary past, I cannot help but think of that mythical bird reborn of the ashes, and wonder about Beirut’s future, its present so at odds with my father’s recollection of his youthful years in the city. In the midst of growing political instability, Syrians and Palestinians continue to seek refuge in Lebanon, these contemporary crises of displacement layered on already uncertain ground. ISIS, the Israeli occupation, and then the November 2015 bombing in southern Beirut that was eclipsed by news of the Paris attacks that same month. Refugee crises have fast become the most apparent political problem of this second decade of the 21st century, especially as many nations, such as Australia, have balked at taking in the world’s homeless. Yet, ironically, Lebanon has been the shelter of its politically displaced neighbours while dealing with its own instability.
On another day, a young boy follows me as I walk over to Café Younis in Hamra where I was to meet some friends. When my father lived here, this was one of his haunts. He would frequent its cafes with friends he had made from all over the Middle East and other parts of the globe. “Syrian, Syrian”, the lad said, attempting to catch my attention. “Hungry”, he whispered, a shoeshine box in one hand. The vibrant multicultural city was once known as the Paris of the East. Now, its cosmopolitanness is bred from other causes. It is with these lines that the seminal postcolonial text Orientalism (1978) opens: “On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown that ‘it had once seemed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.’ He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity…” Even as he exemplifies the Beirut of the past as the epitome of how the West imagines the East, the late Palestinian American writer Edward Said captures the ephemerality of a city lost, one still immersed in its own pain.
Of the impossibility of knowing these ghosts in the way only the haunted can, Said goes on to say, “Perhaps it seemed irrelevant that Orientals themselves had something at stake in the process, that even in the time of Chateaubriand and Nerval Orientals had lived there, and that now it was they who were suffering…” As if in illustration of Said’s observation of the juxtaposition of the fantastic past with the tumultuous present, the former somehow made more cognizable than the critical nature of reality, in the erstwhile Phoenician city of Tyre, millennia-old ruins stand monumentally in South Lebanon, almost rendering invisible the neighboring Palestinian refugee camp of modern provenance.
In Beirut city, amidst the newly rising buildings, there are creative signs of dissent. A stencil of an Anonymous mask on one wall, flowers bursting out of a rifle held by a gunman on another. As I wonder how long these bold displays of public art might last, I continue to confer with my dad who is in Goa. “There was a coffee shop outside”, he advises via messenger, attempting to orientate me. But the company building seems to be non-existent. I ask a few locals. No one has heard of it. I look around to see newer buildings, their silhouettes sharply contrasting with the older architecture of the 60s and 70s, invariably pock-marked with evidence of the civil war. A few blocks further, the ravaged Holiday Inn of the infamous “battle of the hotels” looms inhospitably. “I saw it go up in flames from my balcony”, a Lebanese American friend later finds occasion to convey when we talk about my trip and memories of her childhood. “My landlady must be dead by now. She was in her 60s, then”, dad tells me on the phone when we speak. He had also tried to contact a Lebanese friend he knew to show me around, only to discover that the man and his family were long gone. I had found Phoenicia Street, but it was no longer 1969.