The Eternal Magic of Beirut

Hariri, who was killed by a devastating truck bomb in 2005, loved yachts and planes and, more than anything else, enormous real estate projects, which is what the center of Beirut eventually became. To remake the city, he created a company called Solidere, which is a French acronym for the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. Squatters were removed from the city center, which was then essentially demolished. In addition, more than half a million square meters of land were reclaimed from the nearby sea.

Solidere’s stated goal was to attempt to revive the memory of the days before 1975, when Beirut was pluralistic, prosperous and throbbing with intensity. The company did retain and restore some of the bullet-riddled facades that had withstood the rampages of the various militias. But the development also wiped away centuries of history and most of Beirut’s rich architectural heritage. To get a sense of that, one only has to wander over to the Beirut Souks, which had functioned as a center of commerce at least since the time of the ancient Phoenicians. Solidere rebuilt the souks along its historical grid plan, which was supposed to assure continuity. It didn’t: The souks today are filled with shiny objects and marble floors. It is a great place to buy moisturizer, a $10,000 handbag or a Patek Philippe watch. But the new souks have far more in common with the Mall of America than with the many Levantine bazaars that have dominated the Arab marketplace for thousands of years.

“The most urgent question here is not how a collection of Pizza Huts, Safeways, McDonald’s and Body Shops gathered together as a ‘souk’ will recapture any lifestyle other than that of a shopping mall,” Saree Makdisi, who is professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, has written. Mr. Makdisi is of Lebanese descent and often writes about the development and preservation in the Arab world. “The point is not that this is a misnomer, nor that a traditional souk is necessarily more genuine and authentic than a shopping mall, but that something strange is happening to our sense of history when we can confuse a shopping mall with a souk.”

George Arbid agrees. A bearlike man with an oval face and a commanding beard, Arbid is director of the Arab Center for Architecture, and an associate professor at the American University of Beirut. Late one afternoon, he took me on a walk in the center of the city, not far from his office. Too often, he said, the word heritage has been used solely to describe Roman ruins and ancient times: “When I studied architecture” — which he did both in Beirut at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts and at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design — “the only modern architecture you could find in books was in the West. We were the ancient place. But look around. This is a modern society, and you can see that in the buildings, here and throughout the Middle East.”


Beirut-born decorator Serge Brunst’s collection includes paintings of maharajahs from the mid-1800’s.

Photograph by Stefan Ruiz. Produced by Leena Saidi.

Modernism is Arbid’s passion, and he recoils when people act as if the only choices for Beirut are to become another faceless airport city or remain frozen in a long-forgotten past. He knew that I was staying near the headquarters of Electricité du Liban, which was built in 1965, and asked me if I had noticed it. It would have been impossible to miss. Electrical service in Lebanon may not be something to brag about, but the building itself is magnificent. And yet there is no public access. “It survived the war,” he said. “Why on earth wall it off now?”

I asked Arbid about the Hariri years and the Solidere construction. “We were coming out of a ruinous war,” he said. “Hariri was perceived as a savior, a man of the free market who would help Beirut rise from the ashes. He did that for some people. But the question is for whom? Not for the middle classes, and certainly not for the poor. The new Beirut City Center is a development project.”

The project and its aftermath have raised an issue that has been debated with great urgency in the past decade: How do you prevent development from interfering with a civic discourse that has prevailed for centuries? As we walked down the streets of Ashrafieh, toward the sea, Arbid showed me how space has gradually given way to a sort of anonymous vertical compound. Up to the 1970s, modern architecture like that of the Electricité du Liban had reflected the local traditions of outdoor living. Buildings had arches and plenty of room for people to mingle. Pockets of green flourished. “That is the traditional Lebanese construction,” he said, “open and inviting.”

Then came the era of darkness. Literally. “Now we have 40-story buildings that are put together with one thought in mind: price per square foot,” he said. “I am not opposed to tall buildings in neighborhoods that can afford them, but the terraces of Lebanese tradition are gone, and so are the shops and meeting places on the ground floor.”

He was right. There are cleaners, banks, bakeries and restaurants threaded through the old residential blocks. The newest towers, many of which hover ominously above graceful old villas, are nothing but giant walls of glass. Many terraces have been replaced with windows that can’t even be opened. “Every one of these places is a gated community, a vertical gated community,” he said. “There are no shops, no public space, no place to chat.”

THESE DAYS, IT’S HARD to conjure a vision of Beirut’s permanent leisure class, or the world in which they lived, but it is still possible, barely, for those who spend some time with Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane. The only daughter of Alfred Bey Sursock and his Italian wife, Donna Maria Theresa Serra di Cassano, she lives in the Sursock Palace, which is on the Rue Sursock, just down the road from the newly renovated Sursock Museum, in the neighborhood most commonly called Sursock. The palace, miraculously untouched by 15 years of mortar fire, was built in the 19th century, soon after the Egyptians dredged the harbor and turned Beirut into a booming port.

The Sursocks are among the oldest and richest of the Christian families in Lebanon. And at the age of 94, Lady Cochrane, a Sursock by birth, may be the last great dame of the Levant. Lucid and acerbic, she seems like a cross between the Dowager Countess of Grantham and one of the less savory Mitford sisters. We had tea late one afternoon in her library, which, because it is the “coziest” place in the house, also serves as her sitting room. (This particular cozy room has 33-foot ceilings and mahogany walls and enormous 17th-century paintings. A collection of Flemish tapestries lines the entrance vestibule and dining room.)

Lady Cochrane, dressed crisply in a brown blouse, silk salmon foulard and houndstooth skirt, met me in the middle of the great hall, which features a double flight of marble stairs at its center. I asked the most obvious question first: Were you here during the civil war?

“Always,” she replied, as if my question was slightly insulting. “It’s where I live.”

Even today it is hard to walk three blocks in Beirut without seeing a building pockmarked with machine gun fire or mortar rounds, and yet the Sursock Palace was pristine. I wondered how that was possible.

“ I believe we were somehow respected,” she said matter-of-factly. “Because one day I was in the middle of the hall where you came in.” A crowd of what she referred to as “young ruffians” walked into the house. “I knew that these people would go from house to house, burgle and ruin them,” she said. (I wondered whether the words “ruffian,” and “burgle” had ever before been used to describe the vengeful packs of murderers that held sway in Beirut during the war.)

“I was alone,” she said, “and I thought, this is terrible. There must have been 50 of them. With big guns. I thought, they are just going to murder me. They saw me at a distance, and then they all went upstairs,” she said. “I tried to stay calm as best I could. After a time, they came down and I thought they must have just destroyed everything or stolen things.” She said this all with a kind of effortless serenity.

“But they did not pinch one single thing,” she continued, shaking her head in amazement 30 years later. “Except for an old poniard that had been hanging on the wall. There were two of them with exquisite Chinese handles. Very rare. They stole one and left the other where it was. I have always felt quite certain they didn’t care about the handle. Probably threw it away. They only wanted the dagger itself.”

Lady Cochrane explained that her staff had buried most of the valuables at the start of the hostilities. And there were a lot of them to bury. (“After it was over my own butler had trouble finding everything,” she said. “He hid it all so well.”)

She is horrified by the city she now inhabits. “When I was a child, Beirut was the most beautiful city. Full of gardens. Then bad government got a hold of the place. Now, after years of war and neglect it is nothing but a generalized slum.”

It was perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but I had to ask one more question: What had happened?

“Democracy, young man,” she said. “Democracy. We never had a proper leader, and eventually the place began to fall apart.”

MY VISIT WITH LADY COCHRANE left me in need of an infusion of hope, and so I went to see Marwa Arsanios, a 37-year-old art professor at the American University, who co-founded an organization called 98 Weeks, and who has shown her own artwork throughout the world. Arsanios wanted to create a place where artists could focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and begin to address the questions that consume so many of them: “How do you build a community in a time when the traditional leadership is gone?” she said. “How do you establish something that lasts in a place that only changes?”

“This is a really weird moment,” she continued. “Nobody really knows what will happen here, but everybody thinks something will happen.” Like so many of her creative friends, she stays in part because of the city’s fragility; Beirut, whatever else it is or may become, still has possibilities. Like Arsanios, most of the elite — particularly the many wealthy members of the diaspora — could flee in an instant if they had to. But (again, like Arsanios) many among them continue to see Beirut as a special place, and, despite its surroundings, exhilarating and alive. Although the euphoria of the Arab Spring has faded, replaced for many with fear and confusion, Arsanios is hopeful. “When we started, political life was frozen,” she said. “Journalism was bad and universities were dead. The art community became a refuge. And it has given us strength.”

The following night I had drinks with Arsanios and several of her colleagues from the American University. They were cleareyed but not glum. Each was committed to the future of the city — as a place for art, civic discourse and free inquiry. But they all realized the path might not be simple. I thought about what The Economist recently described as the “global empathy gap” between sufferings of the West and those in Beirut. Last November, the shootings and bombs that killed 130 people in a series of attacks in Paris set off an international wave of sympathy and regret. The night before, the same group, ISIS, devoted, among so many other hatreds, to war against Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for exploding bombs that killed 43 people in Beirut. The world seemed to shrug.

Nonetheless, I walked back to my hotel, alone and in silence — as I had every night since I arrived. Despite the fact that the crime rate in most of Beirut is low, nobody who lives according to the dictums of the State Department would do that. “The Lebanese government cannot guarantee the protection of U.S. citizens in the country against sudden outbreaks of violence,” its travel alert warns. “Public demonstrations occur with little warning and may become violent.” Of course, this is also true in many American cities. But on the alert went: “U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Lebanon despite this Travel Warning should keep a low profile, assess their personal security, and vary times and routes for all required travel.”

I did none of those things — nor was any of it necessary. There are parts of Beirut that are clearly unsafe; but tourists don’t, as a rule, hang out in Hezbollah-controlled territory. The city I visited was peaceful, even serene, and nobody I spoke to suggested it wasn’t. The loudest noise usually came from the most energetic nightclubs.

But as I neared my hotel that night I suddenly heard the rapid fire of heavy machine guns, and the harsh whistle of mortar rounds. I was about to dive under the nearest car when I saw several old men, standing on the street next to the giant warehouse that seemed to be under attack. They were all laughing. At me.

“What the hell is going on?” I screamed into the dark as I realized that none of those mortars had actually hit anything. An old man who sold motor oil on the side of the road walked up to me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “It’s only a movie,” he said, clearly delighted. “They are shooting it inside the warehouse. The guns aren’t real.”

Correction: May 4, 2016

An earlier version of a caption for picture No. 16 in the accompanying slide show misidentified the time of day the picture was taken. It was sunset, not sunrise.

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