Can Beirut Be Paris Again?
Freed from Syrian domination, Lebanon’s capital could shine.
Before it became the poster child for urban disaster areas in the mid-1970s, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part. Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore city and country to pieces. More than 100,000 people were killed during a period when Lebanon’s population was under 4 million. The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Syria, not Lebanon, is suffering the horrors of civil war. With Syria’s Bashar al-Assad possibly on his way out—or at least too busy to export mayhem to his neighbors—will Beirut have the chance to regain its lost glory?
Before 1975, when Beirut was still Paris, Syria was the unstable place in the region. Indeed, it was among the least stable countries on earth. During the 1950s and early 1960s, military coups came as often as Christmas. Not until the Baath Party seized power in 1963 did Syria settle down, and then only because the Baathists erected a Soviet-style police state that terrorized the population into passivity.
Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, took power in 1970, and he cleverly figured out that Syria’s inherent instability could be exported to Lebanon. Roughly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population is Druze, with the rest divided evenly among Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. The Christians have historical ties to the West dating back to the Crusades; the Sunnis are backed by much of the Arab world (which, outside Iraq, is overwhelmingly Sunni); the Shiites’ patron is Iran, one of only a handful of Shiite-majority countries in the world. Lebanon’s three main communities agreed long ago that the best way to prevent one group from lording it over the others was to have a weak central government and share power. But a country that was small, divided by nature, and weak by design was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbor.
True, Syria didn’t start the Lebanese war, which was sparked in Beirut by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias. But the Syrian army invaded Lebanon during the war and became one of the most destructive belligerents there. After the war ended in 1990, the Syrian military continued to occupy Lebanon until 2005, when the Cedar Revolution forced it to withdraw. Even then, Damascus could lay waste to Lebanon from the inside via its violent local proxies: the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Amal (another party), and especially the Hezbollah militia. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities had required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place—partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel and partly because it could be used to subdue Beirut if Damascus’s new vassal got a little too uppity.
Hezbollah served both purposes after the Syrian army’s withdrawal. It started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And though Hezbollah and its local allies lost the most recent election, they’re in charge of the government anyway, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008.
So it hardly mattered that the Lebanese managed to evict the Syrians in the Cedar Revolution; Bashar al-Assad, who took power in Syria in 2000, could still rule from afar. But he won’t be able to do that if he loses the war that’s currently raging in Syria. The Free Syrian Army is battling alongside the al-Qaida-linked terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra to topple the Assad regime, which has already lost control of huge swaths of the country. The conflict is partly sectarian: the Assad family belongs to Syria’s heterodox Alawite minority, while the rebels, part of the Sunni Muslim majority, are getting money and guns from wealthy Sunni Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula. But the war has inevitably dragged in regional politics. Israel has launched air strikes against Syrian depots to prevent weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia and Iran are backing Assad to the end, as is Hezbollah. At the time of this writing, the United States has pledged to increase aid to the rebels, though it’s not clear what exactly that aid will be. In a word, Syria has become Lebanonized.
That’s not a brand-new development for the country. “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”
The obvious analogy is Iraq: both countries were formed as a result of French and British negotiations after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. “Historically, there was never a state called Syria,” says Eli Khoury, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Levant and cofounder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. Syria, like Iraq, was wired together with a minority-backed Baath Party dictatorship. Neither country is an internally coherent nation like Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco. “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron,” Khoury points out. “It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.” Or as Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist, puts it: “I don’t see Syria as heading toward transition. I see Syria as heading toward disintegration.”
If that happens, how will it affect Beirut? To answer that question, it helps to understand this city’s strange ethnic geography. During the long civil war, Beirut split apart into mutually hostile cantons. Christian militias squared off against Palestinian and Sunni ones across a gash known as the Green Line, which ripped through the center of the city on a northwest-by-southeast axis. To this day, the city remains divided along that line: the eastern half is almost entirely Christian, the western half predominantly Sunni. And the southern suburbs are all but monolithically Shiite.
The Christian half of the city sustained less damage during the war than the Sunni half did, and it is consequently the more French-looking of the two today. Its culture is also more French, since many Lebanese Christians feel a political, cultural, and religious kinship with France and the French language that Lebanese Muslims do not. The western side of the city is more culturally Arab and also, since so many of its buildings were flattened during the war, architecturally bland. Though the Sunnis there are more liberal and cosmopolitan than most Sunni Arabs elsewhere, their culture, religion, language, and loyalties are, for the most part, in sync with those of their more conservative Middle Eastern neighbors.
Still, East and West Beirut seem nearly identical if you compare them with the southern suburbs. Collectively known as the dahiyeh, which means “suburb” in Arabic, they are Hezbollah’s de facto capital. The central government has no writ there. Hezbollah provides the security, schools, hospitals, and other public services. Drive down the streets, and you’ll see the flags of Hezbollah and Iran but rarely the flag of Lebanon. The dahiyeh looks and feels like a ramshackle Iranian satellite, even though you can walk there from central Beirut in an hour. Once known as the “belt of misery,” the area is still a slum. Most of the buildings are 12-story apartment towers built without permits or attention to aesthetics of any kind—especially the French kind. There are places in East Beirut where, if you try hard enough and squint, you could fool yourself into believing that you’re in France. You could never get away with that in the dahiyeh.
When armed conflict breaks out, the dividing lines among these three parts of Beirut are the flash points. At one of these, a half-mile south of the city center along the old Green Line, is what’s commonly called the Yellow House, or what’s left of it. This once-beautiful row of apartments and shops was the posh home of some of Beirut’s finest before the civil war. Now it’s a bullet-pocked stone skeleton. Though it’s finally being renovated after decades of sitting in ruin, the chewed-up facade will be encased in glass and only the interior refurbished. The building will become a war museum, its husk preserved as a constant reminder that urban civil war is one of the worst catastrophes that the human race can inflict on itself.
Restoration has also taken place in downtown Beirut. Most of the area has been rebuilt; stone buildings that delightfully blend Parisian and Ottoman styles have been lovingly restored. But the area feels antiseptic and fake, as though it had been built yesterday as an imitation of Beirut’s past. It wasn’t; the city center simply sustained such heavy damage during the civil war that all the old buildings had to be completely resurfaced. These buildings are so clean that they seem unreal, especially compared with the rest of the city, which is chaotic and wild, like most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cities. Downtown Beirut seems more pristine than the most pristine parts of Paris; you get the impression of a Levantine Disneyland.
Then there’s a large area, immediately northwest of downtown, that the war razed entirely. It has been rebuilt from scratch as something called the Souks of Beirut—an open-air mall with a hint of traditional style to remind the visitor of Middle Eastern bazaars. The shops, which tend to be too expensive not only for most Lebanese citizens but for middle-class Americans like me, cater to wealthy Gulf Arabs on vacation. The development certainly looks better than the rubble field it replaced, but most Beirutis feel a bit alienated by it. And it sucked half the merchants out of downtown: Beirut’s economy can sustain only so many high-end restaurants and stores. There’s such a thing as rebuilding too quickly.
In fact, much of the city may be doing that. In the name of postwar progress, many of Beirut’s most beautiful buildings and even entire streets are being demolished and replaced with high-rises. Some of the towers, like those along the city’s new waterfront, are outstanding architecturally; others are generic blocks, little more than vertical placeholders, that are replacing some of the most charming urban vistas in the Middle East. “Construction in Lebanon has reached an alarming stage where much of the architectural memory of a city like Beirut is being erased,” says Michael Young, the opinion-page editor at Beirut’s Daily Star. “Where once we had a relatively charming Mediterranean city, what we now have increasingly is a city of impersonal high-rises, many of them of questionable architectural value. Everywhere there is concrete and almost no green space.” A graduate of the American University of Beirut adds that the city is “destroying ruins that are over 2,000 years old to build structures that could very likely be uninhabitable within a year because the political situation could dramatically worsen.” By which he means, of course, that these new buildings could be destroyed by war.
Beirut sometimes looks like what you’d get if you put Paris, Miami, and Baghdad into a blender and pressed PUREE. Gleaming glass skyscrapers rise above French-style villas adjacent to bullet-pocked walls and mortar-shattered towers. Hip entrepreneurs set up luxury boutiques next to crumbling modern-day ruins. A Ferrari showroom sits across the street from a parking lot that was recently a rubble field. Beirut’s fabulous cuisine never went away; neither did its high-end shopping districts, cafés, nightclubs, and bars. But English has eclipsed French as the second-most-spoken language. None of the new construction looks even the slightest bit French.
Downtown Beirut does have a major selling point: cars are banished from most of it, an arrangement that provides an island of breathing space in a sea of noise and danger. The rest of the city is a pedestrian nightmare. Streets are so narrow that cars are often parked on the sidewalks, forcing everyone on foot into roadways turned into rivers of steel by the worst drivers in the world, at least outside Albania. Stop signs are regarded as suggestions; the few traffic lights are obeyed only when traffic is at its busiest, and even then, drivers constantly run red lights. Now, for the first time in its history, the city is installing parking meters. Parking meters in Beirut! They’re as incongruous as a topless bar would be in Saudi Arabia. Nobody takes them seriously. I recently walked down a street where every parked car—one after another, for several blocks in a row—had a ticket tucked under its windshield wipers.
Beirut is nevertheless by far the most cosmopolitan, liberal, and even Western of Arab cities. To an extent, you can chalk that up to the cultural influence of Lebanese Christians and imperial France. But the Sunni half of town is no less culturally developed than the Christian. Art galleries, fantastic bookstores, film and music festivals, and even gay bars—unthinkable in Baghdad or Cairo—proliferate in both parts of the city.
One reason for this liberality is that Beirut isn’t very religious. It’s hard to say what percentage of Beirutis believe in God and take religion seriously, but the bars and clubs are certainly much more crowded than the churches and mosques. When Lebanese self-identify as Christian, Sunni, Shiite, or Druze, they aren’t telling you what they believe; they’re telling you which community they belong to. Religious sects in the Eastern Mediterranean function as ethnicities, just as they do in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. Each sect has its own history, its own culture, its own aspirations and fears, and its own constellation of allies and enemies. Beirutis can’t drop all that baggage just by choosing to be secular. During times of armed conflict, you can be killed for what’s printed next to RELIGION on your identity card. At those times, you can find safety only within the confines of your sect.
Will the sectarian monster ravaging Syria again claw its way to the surface in Beirut? Sunni Muslims here support the Syrian opposition, by and large, while most of the Shiite community backs Assad. Hezbollah is now openly involved in the Syrian war—without anything resembling an exit plan—and is taking such heavy casualties that Young, writing for the online magazine NOW Lebanon, dubbed it Hezbollah’s Vietnam. Meanwhile, Lebanese Sunnis in the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, are giving shelter to their brethren in the Free Syrian Army, and some are even volunteering as soldiers.
Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shiites are therefore killing each other right now in Syria. It may be only a matter of time before they stop bothering to cross the border and start killing each other at home. “It’s a miracle a war here hasn’t already started,” says Samy Gemayel, a member of parliament and the son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel. “I don’t understand it. And I don’t know how long this can last. Because the more people get involved in Syria, the more people will die in Syria, and the more the grudges will grow, and the more problems we’ll have on the inside.”
The two sides may have restrained themselves because they know that neither can win a war inside Lebanon. Gemayel’s father summed up the futility of civil war when Lebanon was chewing off its own leg in the 1980s: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” Khoury concurs. “The beauty of Lebanon is that everyone is a minority and no one can kick anyone’s ass,” he says. “Everyone realizes that if they start a war, they aren’t going to get anything out of it.”
If Assad loses the Syrian war and doesn’t take Lebanon with him, Beirut will finally have relief from the cascade of disasters that have befallen it for the last 38 years. Lebanon would still have Hezbollah to deal with, of course, but the so-called Party of God would have lost one of its only two allies in the region. “Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size,” predicts Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament from the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli. “They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years.” Nadim Koteich, a talk-show host with Future Television, thinks that Assad’s fall would be a bigger problem for Hezbollah. “For decades, they’ve had this huge stable state behind them, along with a corridor for weapons coming out of Iran,” he points out. “They had this enormous machine and all its tools at their back. It will be a tremendous blow for them when they lose it.”
Beirut’s economy is in worse shape than I’ve ever seen it. Tourism is one of the city’s primary industries, but tumbleweeds blow through the hotel lobbies. Governments all over the world are issuing terrifying travel warnings about the city. The last two summer tourism seasons were busts; this summer will make three in a row. Restaurants and nightclubs are closing because they don’t have enough foreign customers and the locals don’t have enough money.
Still, the city looks wonderful. The amount of reconstruction is simply astounding. Some of it looks like Miami, true, but it’s all superior to anything built in Beirut between the end of World War II—when an abundance of cheap materials and a cratering of aesthetic standards ruined architecture all over the world—and the end of the civil war. The city made this progress despite Syria’s military occupation, despite Hezbollah’s war against Israel, despite the invasion of Beirut in 2008, despite the global economic downturn that has dragged on for years, and despite the civil war burning next door in Syria.
A city that could come so far while enduring all those trials should do even better with the Syrian boot off its neck. Whenever Assad’s regime is overthrown or reformed—and that seems to happen to all such nasty regimes in due time—Beirut, whether it’s the Paris of the Middle East or not, might once again become a great city.
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