Nothing stays new for long in the torpor of Beirut, where everything is worn out by so much violence. If the word “ruin” suggests a comparison with the remains of ancient Tyre or Pompeii, it shouldn’t be used to describe Beirut, not even the blasted remains of the central city. The age and monumental character of the ancient ruins exclude human presence, and we view them from the distance of time, but the decay of Beirut is happening right before our eyes.
For me the destruction of Beirut is less painful than the neglect that is visible in the walls so often rebuilt but never repainted, in the piles of garbage overlooked by the street cleaners, in the tacit acceptance of cars parked on the sidewalk, in the gruesome disintegration of abandoned building sites, in the decrepit luxury apartment buildings and their barren foyers, once so brilliantly lit and graced with greenery. The war has a different aspect in the slums, where the pace of construction is so frantic that it spills over on the streets and sidewalks. In winter the streets become rivers of putrid mud, thanks to the lack of maintenance and the ubiquitous sand which is used everywhere in construction and defensive barriers. After the mud engulfs the last symbolic patches of asphalt, it dries to the consistency of clay and finally gets churned up into clouds of reddish black dust during the dry season.
The new apartment blocks are built very high, close together and poorly finished. Already falling apart, they begin to approximate the time-worn misery of the old luxury apartment buildings. The slums have been shelled more often than anywhere else in Beirut, and one senses the precariousness of human life behind the cardboard shelters glimpsed through the gaping holes in the walls.
Beirut is cleft down the center by a long ribbon of ruins (the so-called Green Line), and yet it continues to grow. Each half is developing in the opposite direction, as if to avoid contact with the other half. The southern suburb follows a different course. This area has been a center of Shi‘i concentration for many years, and despite its proximity to the front it has attracted many of the people pushed out of the northern suburbs since 1976. Surrounded by Christian and Druze territory where Shi‘i expansion would be difficult if not impossible, its only outlet is the abandoned Green Line. Meanwhile, Christian neighborhoods near the front are shrinking and Christian East Beirut expands vigorously to the north.
Public space is dwindling as the state withers away. The Pine Forest was the first to feel the pinch. Once considered the lungs of the city, it has gradually been turned into a cemetery. Schools and altars have grown up around the graves as each community seeks the blessings of the dead. Years ago the state decided that a public garden would be more defensible than a forest. In a futile effort, it tried to create a municipal park in the only section it still controlled. When the civil war started, the last of the woods stood within the Green Line, and the Israeli invasion in 1982 destroyed most of the trees left standing by the civil war.
State land is not the only space affected by the demise of the state. Private property ordinarily used by the public has been forced to yield to the norms of communal separation. We soon learned that going to the movies, sitting in a cafe, or simply walking along the sea could be an extremely serious undertaking whose potential danger has previously been disguised by a rigid system of political repression. The fragmentation of public space and its annexation by the private sector are not limited to the communal division of the city or militia control of the economic functions normally managed by the state (e.g., security, the ports, the airport, the courts, the casinos, tobacco imports). Perhaps more significant are the individual encroachments on public space and the growing self-sufficiency in terms of basic services formerly provided by the state.
Encroachment on public space and private efforts to compensate for the lack of public services are complementary in that each social unit (be it a family, a small business or even an individual) establishes its autonomy before and against all others. Families respond to blackouts and the rationing of electricity by purchasing generators, storage batteries or gas lamps which at least provide power for housekeeping. The residents of an apartment building sink a well to make up for the chronic shortage of water, while those who can afford it use bottled water for everything. Television sets and video recorders make it easier to forego theaters considered too distant and dangerous.
The trend toward self-sufficiency in relation to the city does not automatically lead to mutual assistance at the neighborhood level or even within a single apartment building. Some buildings do get along without a manager, a functioning central heating system, cleaning and maintenance service and the intercom. The iron bars protecting the foyer may symbolize the solidarity of the building’s occupants against the outside world, but the reinforced steel door mounted over the door to each apartment isolates the family inside and heightens its separation from the rest of the building. To complete the picture, a section of the street or the sidewalk is blocked off to serve as a private parking space or to prevent strange cars from parking there, or to reserve a spot for a vendor’s stall. Parking is forbidden along the whole street where militias have their offices or their leaders have homes. Sometimes the street is simply closed to through traffic, which gives it the false unity of a federation of dread.
The German Beauty
‘Isam was amazed. His practically new secondhand BMW was sitting undisturbed on the sidewalk where he had parked it the night before. He had been forced out of his own place by the shelling and had recently rented a furnished room but had yet to find covered parking for his German beauty. The value of the car had tripled in only a few months because of the falling Lebanese pound. He always left it slightly dirty to foil the enemy but that wouldn’t explain why it was still there.
It really is true, he thought. We are the most honest people in the world. I left 200,000 pounds out on the street all night and nobody touched it. We’re not all thieves. Five or six stolen cars, a bank robbery and a few shops and apartments cleaned out every day — that may be a bit much, but all it takes is a dozen gangs. There’s no authority in Beirut that could even pretend to discourage a determined thief. Aside from this minor detail, Beirut is like anywhere else — maybe a hundred thieves in a population of one and a half million. I know someone is going to say something about the rampant plunder of times past and the ever-present shakedown, but what does that prove? That New York is near?
Sacrifice in Three Stages
In the first stage, missiles are falling near the Green Line. Civilians aren’t really worried unless they have someone at the front. In the second stage, a few residential areas are hit, but not ours. We’re concerned for the victims, of course, and like most people we probably have a friend or a relative or at least a colleague in one of the targeted areas, but it’s undeniable that the thought uppermost in our minds is the fact that we have been spared.
In the third stage, bombs are falling all around our building. We run downstairs. There’s still time to argue over who was supposed to grab the kids. Some children tear out the door, panting and pale as death. Others are so placid you could kill them. They refuse to leave the TV set, or they insist on finishing a paragraph as they walk down the hall apparently oblivious to anything else. Very few children display a “normal,” reasonably controlled fear.
Now the bombs are raining down, closer and closer. We’re still alive with our family, and deep within our hearts we sacrifice the next street over, the building next to ours, the floor in our building that just got hit. These shameful thoughts last only a few seconds, at most a few minutes. The shelling moves off again. Many — too many — run to help the victims. Others come out on their balconies. Still others remain in the bathrooms, stairwells and shelters, prisoners of the third stage of degradation, clinging to the last square inch where they can possibly hope to survive. It sometimes happens that the third stage is not the last.
Space Measured in Time
Ten years ago, when the evening news anchor used to list the neighborhoods struck by stray bombs during the day, someone would say, “My God, I was there just two hours before it was hit!” Everyone in the room would turn toward the speaker, his relatives holding back tears, some getting up to come over and give the survivor a hug. Nowadays it wouldn’t be worth mentioning unless you had passed by a booby-trapped car only five or even three minutes before it blew up. Everyone knows that two minutes is all you need to cover the hundred yards marked for death. It’s tempting to tighten the screws by saying you almost stopped to look in a shop window or nearly got stuck in a traffic jam.
The lady of the house seems relaxed as she sits in her easy chair, pouring out a litany of complaints. Her visitors absently nod their heads. Each one has run through a similar litany whenever there was a receptive audience. “They’re killing us,” says the young woman. “Today it’s the electricity, and the next bulletin will announce new rationing because of the fighting last night. Were you able to sleep? Tomorrow we won’t have any water. If things really heat up there won’t be any gasoline. They’re killing us, there’s no doubt about it. Fm beginning to lose touch. The smallest noise makes me jump.”
She stops talking for a minute, then picks up again, as though to convince herself that she still has one card left. “Thank God, I’ve got my health. Knock on wood!” She taps the arm of her chair, then turns toward the door and starts to rise. “Yes! Who is it?”
Open Air Memories
Daily life in time of civil war means solitude. Staying at home every night limits one’s horizon to the flat world of a job and the equally deflating symbiosis of family life. Nighttime is no longer a time for fun, a matrix of invigorating exchange and unexpected encounters. Cooped up for the night with our eyes glued to the TV, we lose ourselves in the universal idiocy of image obsession and watch what’s left of our souls slowly draining away. Unless there’s a battle raging outside, the monotonous evening gives way to memories of the past, rarely to plans for the future.
Ordinary memories, but oddly skewed. For example, the memory of sandwiches eaten in the street at midnight after a film, but not the film itself. The headlights of a long line of cars coming home from Baalbek, but not the show itself, however sublime it may have been amidst the Roman ruins resplendent with a thousand lights. Memories of traveling by night, but not the nights of love.
The memory of thin rain at dawn on the Place des Canons, once the beating heart of the city. The memory of threading your way between human obstacles on the crowded sidewalk — it’s almost comical compared to the reality of inert objects blocking the way every ten steps now that you’re the only person around.
No Relief, Nothing Accomplished
We still have leisure activities, daytime diversions for the most part: golf and tennis for the rich, the beach for the less well-off, and strolling along the corniche for the poor. Once in a while someone will take it upon himself to invite friends to dinner. Although we never accept such an invitation casually, we do go after making plans with the other guests for getting there and back and asking the neighbors to take care of the kids in case something happens. Usually nothing happens. Stickups aren’t much more common at night than during the day. The only difference is that we’ll be all alone in the middle of the night crossing a city where absolutely anything can happen.
Time for work is plentiful but irregular, upset by the general relaxation of discipline. Workdays are truncated by the insecurity of late afternoons and interspersed with days of forced inactivity. Time moves forward in a zigzag, snags on unpredictability and defies planning ahead. Projects that require the coordinated effort of several people are held up by circumstances that make one or another unavailable. A woman may be unable to go out because of the security situation, or because her child’s school is temporarily closed for some reason. The disruption of services leads to the further squandering of time and energy. A man may be forced to travel all over the city in search of a bottle of butane or a few gallons of gas. His situation is not unlike that of the government, which doesn’t have enough paper to keep up with the paper work. The rationing of electricity interferes with housekeeping and discourages students, who have to study by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Our ineffectiveness produces a kind of indolence that stays with us even during periods of calm when we try to catch up. Classes that meet no more than three months in a year are said to be “condensed” and promoted to the next level. The hectic progress of a year’s work produces a dullness that is more counterproductive than the dullness of routine. Even though our ineffectiveness may be unavoidable, it makes us question our goals. We begin to lose self-respect because of the long periods during which we do nothing but vegetate. Galloping inflation forces many to look for a second job. The war gives civil servants an excuse to devote less time to their “official” job and attend to other business. Breadwinners are reduced to marginal employment, living like parasites on the remittances of relatives working abroad. Some people become part of the war machine that offers the small fry a regular pittance, and the big fish a fortune commensurate with their lack of scruples.
How do we create a life of our own when the long and the short term depend on things beyond our control? Perhaps this is one of the tricks the war uses to preempt people’s lives. Those who embrace the war actually seem to be more in control. Perhaps the fact of being so rarely invited to choose what happens to us makes it difficult to order the memories of a decade in which our very lives have been on the line. People mistake yesterday’s paper for today’s, they can barely recall what happened last week or when the Israelis left Beirut, and they certainly can’t remember the last time Richard Murphy visited Ba‘abda. They forget the year when they first had to leave their home and rent a furnished apartment. Human memory seems to have an affinity for events in which the subject can still be considered the subject.
For many whose ideals were formed in the pre-war period, before the massacres and assassinations, the plunder and destruction, the war has been a personal catastrophe and a time of utter disillusionment. The hotheaded revolutionaries, the sworn enemies of the state and the fanatic activists all fail to recognize their dreams in the current upheaval. No longer part of the action, they feel betrayed by a war that has shown them the dark side of their own rhetoric. They end up disowning their dreams, cut off from something that was supposed to give meaning to their entire life.
So much for the past. The present is snatched away and whatever it brings is held in abeyance while we wait for the present to pass. The war robs life of its positive sense of time and turns it into one long watch for the end of the war. We don’t even necessarily hope to see the end of the war, but we reject the war as the definitive shape of our existence. We put off certain decisions and postpone the satisfaction of certain needs even though it may not really be necessary. We act as though the future can only happen later, in a different context. The intervening years hardly count, or count for less than the anticipated post-war era. It doesn’t help to tell ourselves that the wait is too long, that the ease and pleasure of life in the mythical pre-war era will never return, that even if the post-war era does arrive it won’t be brilliant — and it looks like it won’t be.
Last week an Italian colleague visited Beirut for a business meeting. Luciani was in town for two days and he was rather unnerved by it. We had taken measures not so much to protect as to reassure him, but it didn’t help. He said he found the city more tense than last year. Nevertheless, in under an hour we managed to set a definite timetable for an important project, the kind of timetable that is only feasible in countries where you can calculate the number of work hours up to the year 2000.
As Luciani rose to leave he glanced out the window. Almost without thinking he said, “What a beautiful view of the sea.” “It’s practically all that’s left,” I quipped, immediately regretting the deliberate bitterness of my remark. Luciani replied, “No, that’s not true! Never say that!” The emotional sincerity of his response still consoles me.
—Translated from the French by Diane Belle James