Before with My Father, After for My Son

Three generations live in the shadow of a fractured city.

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There was once an East Beirut and a West Beirut, and the Green Line divided the two parts of the city. It extended from the Al Lailaki-Al Hadath axis to the Sodeco-Damascus Road axis and expanded into a no man’s land buffer zone, which encompassed all of downtown Beirut. Aside from this no man’s land, life in both sides of the city followed the rhythm of war and its terms of order, chaos, and instability. People in each part of the city led lives independent of the other half; they were isolated from the other side just as they were engaged in bloody political hostility with it most of the time.

With the partition of Beirut, life withdrew from the city’s central district. The area fell into tatters, a field of abandoned buildings, rubble, scorched ruins, and walls ridden with bullets and shells. It became a zone of ambushes, sniper posts, and barriers of concrete and sand – a place of harrowing darkness and deafening daytime silence.

From 1975 until 1991, every part of Beirut was planned to be a self-sufficient, standalone city, and alternative spaces emerged to compensate for the loss of a downtown. New markets and ntransport hubs arose as substitutes for the central district. The Pigeon Rocks Market established itself along the Corniche until it was demolished in late 1982. Street vendors then overtook Rue Hamra, which later gave way to the Mar Elias and Barbour markets. In terms of transport, West Beirut’s Cola and Barbir and East Beirut’s Dora and Adlieh replaced the defunct central hub in downtown, and independent transportation networks formed in each area.

As time passed, these neighborhood-cities exacerbated the divisions of Beirut as a whole. As the security climate worsened and armed clashes continued, fueled by narrow communal identities, people attempted to minimize so-called security risks and dangers by staying close to home and sticking to the neighborhood. People were fixated on demographic segregation and sought to “cleanse” their neighborhoods by evicting certain communities and eliminating multiculturalism. A brain drain of urban elites occurred, and rural-to-urban migrants, displaced by the war and uprooted from their homes, replaced these émigrés. As populations shifted, sectarian identities hardened at the expense of national identity.

These political and demographic forces led to the pursuit of homogenous, autonomous neighborhoods. In every part of the city, merchants and investors built schools, supermarkets, barber shops, auto repair shops, boutiques, and movie theaters (wherever possible) as well as bakeries and restaurants, all in an attempt to create secure areas of vital amenities such that residents never had to venture out into the realm of the unknown, dangerous city. The withdrawal was first and foremost a physical phenomenon accompanied by political, cultural, and urban transformations.

Sixteen years sufficed to turn Beirut into an array of small, sectarian cities, each surrounded by intangible walls marked by political banners hanging above the streets, political party symbols plastering street walls, and local neighborhood accents. Above all, it was the prevalent social practices that discouraged mixing between groups and instituted an axiomatic acceptance of estrangement and division between the two parts of the capital.

Certainly, there were multicultural corners of the city that held strong. Despite economic decline, Ras Beirut and Hamra in West Beirut, for instance, maintained a space for relatively holistic, urban living that tried to continue the traditions of civility, time management, socializing, communication, and individualism, as well as individual freedom. This pocket became a site of nostalgia for the capital – its perks, pleasures, and bustling center.

In the late eighties, the pursuit of peace (no matter the cost) re-emerged, and this dream was coupled with a “return” to the city center and with the idea of reinstating an integrated, cohesive city.


In 1991, we went down to the devastated city center. Hellish trees shot out from the pavement and the floors of abandoned buildings, and we could match the layers of rubble to each period of conflict: the Two-Year War, the late seventies, post-1982, post-1985, and the last battle. Putrid water, mud, and a film of dirty gray coated every surface. There were dark holes, mysterious entry-ways, and shadows, still and diabolic. Twisted metal jutted out from this side and that, and rust and shrapnel burrowed in every crevice. There were ubiquitous ruins, scorched by fire, that had seen countless winters and rubbish toasted by the suns of summers past. The place was strewn with rotten soda cans from fighters, and we shall never know whether they lived or died right there.

It was an apocalyptic scene, neglected and charred. We took some pictures, and then we left.

At that point, we realized that there would be no “return” to the center, that we would have to invent a new city center, one that did not resemble the old central district that I remember from two trips I made with my father as a seven-year-old. On the first trip, my father took me to watch the film Beware of Zouzou because our Christian neighbors used to call me Zouzou. He had a Mercedes 180 and worked as a driver based at the Saifi taxi station. He kept a club, like a baseball bat, by his seat. It was indispensable for roaming the streets of the central district back then, for fending off the gendarmerie and Division 16 as well as the thugs of the Phalange Party and Deuxieme Bureau, thieves from the port nearby, small-time traffickers, and midnight con men. My father had blue beads, an amulet against the evil eye that dangled from the rear-view mirror, and he wore well-pressed white shirts. On this trip, he took me in his car from our home in Nabaa, and as we passed by the pastirma (cured meat) shops in Bourj Hammoud and Dora, he picked me up a grilled meat sandwich, which we used to eat only on special occasions and when we went picnicking in the mountains. I remember him talking to his friends about the horse races – the winning and losing horses. We continued our journey by car, my gaze fixed on my father’s arm shifting gears now and again, until we arrived at the Saifi taxi station.

From there, he took me to a strange café on the second floor of an old building. It was redolent of arguileh smoke and full of loud voices. I took pride in the fact that I was the only kid among all those men. My father had taken me to his special world of pungent odors and vitality, with tables covered in teacups, cards, coffee, cigarettes, and newspapers. I had a bottle of 7UP with a wax straw that gave the soda a light aroma.

We went down to the wide square. “This is the state’s donkey,” he said, referring to the public beige buses. Then, he took me to the heart of the square, to the site of the flower clock that announced the time on the hour and was also a spacious garden. People used to pay a photographer to take their picture next to the clock. Afterwards, it was time to go to the cinema. There was that giant cutout of Souad Hosni in her belly-dancing outfit that ran the length of the Rivoli Building, with the name Zouzou written in large lettering. Souad dominated the Beirut central district, and I stood beneath her with my father, amidst a swirling crowd and cacophony of honking.

On the second trip, we watched a kung fu film starring Bruce Lee. I remember, on that trip, my father marveled at the new Byblos Building. When we arrived, he took me to the shop Saarti to buy me black trousers like the ones elegant men used to wear. We then continued on to a nut roastery and juice shop.

As for the third trip, which I can hardly remember, it was with my mother, and we went to see Farid Al Atrash’s film Tune of My Life. Farid Al Atrash died a few days later, the war broke out, the central district died, and my father passed away. It all happened at once. Thus, from 1975 until 1991, I lived without a city center and without my father.

When I went down to the devastated city center with my partner in 1991, we quickly withdrew to West Beirut, coming to terms with the fact that we had to continue living between a real half-city and another imagined half.


With the birth of my son in 1993, the bulldozers began working in downtown Beirut. Refugees and squatters were relocated from crucial sites, buildings were revamped, and their verandas restored with luster. Building encroachments were removed, walls painted and cleaned, sidewalks paved, streetlights installed, cabling reconfigured, and stray wires discarded. Garbage collectors appeared, trash bins and dumpsters were put out; beautification works flourished, storefronts were renovated, barriers removed, political slogans wiped off walls, sewers repaired, phone lines fixed, and trees planted. Police regained respect (to an extent), traffic was organized, and violations penalized. Consequently, the roads reopened, and Lebanese flocked to the city center as domestic tourists, just as foreigners, Arabs, and other nationals visited the new downtown Beirut. The city was welcoming anew foreigners and tourists and abandoning some of its so-called local character.

People started to brush off the dust of the war. Taxi drivers began to get rid of their wrecked, tattered, and dilapidated Mercedes and bought newer ones. Women appeared to be increasingly at ease in bold, and sometimes frivolous, styles. Men also started to appear more elegant, since the new generation had office jobs that required suits and ties. They were proud because they realized they were different from us, the people molded by the war and its relentless meanderings. The new generation diligently kept up with the changes and happenings in the city, from art festivals to outdoor concerts, and they trekked out to faraway destinations in Lebanon to party. At the same time, satellite TV, mobile phones, and computers were generating a new culture of technology at a dizzying speed, providing the youth with an identity that broke from the past.

It was at that time when the first mockup of Solidere’s master plan of downtown Beirut appeared: a virtual image that combined red brick and stone elements, which historically ornamented architecture, with glass and metal, the materials of the future. I compared the mockup with the images still fixed in my memory from the three trips I made in my childhood to the city center before the war. The blue and red mockup looks like something out of a movie, I thought with sarcasm.

As this virtual master plan was being promoted, a real estate rush struck Beirut. Everyone was living with the fantasy that Beirut would become supremely deluxe. That entire period can be summed up by a photograph I once saw in a newspaper: a raggedy-looking man standing among the ruins in Martyrs’ Square, carrying in one hand a poster depicting the square before the war and in the other a poster supposedly showing the master plan, to sell it to passersby and visitors – a shattered present, a golden past, and a marvelous future. Reality was worth nothing. It had to be erased from memory and cast into oblivion, while virtual reality was marketed on a large scale. It was this virtual reality that started to lead the economy, capturing the public’s attention, driving the discourse, and figuring into cultural production. Everyone was asking: what kind of city do we want? This master plan became the central issue, even in politics.

While we were deliberating the master plan, home and flat rental prices soared in all parts of the capital. The master plan added a high potential value to real estate, prompting those like me, those who had just started their professional and family lives at the end of the war and who had no inheritance, to realize that they had to leave the capital or else face the humiliation of being kicked out of “paradise.”

The myths, stories, and fantasies associated with “rebuilding and reconstruction” had embedded in our minds that the neighborhoods and suburbs of Beirut would not be the same in just a few years. Magic would soon dominate the urban landscape. For instance, it was rumored that the new airport would revolutionize the development of the southern suburbs. A pan-Arab highway would pass through that area, and Al Hadath, a university city, would be constructed according to the highest international standards.

The Silicon Valley of the Middle East would emerge south of Beirut with an easy-to-access free-trade zone and elegant residential complexes, infrastructure, hotels, and parks. The coast from Jnah to Khaldeh would become the Riviera of the Middle East. The Elissar Project, the equivalent of Solidere in the southern suburbs, would make each suburb no longer just a suburb, but an extension of the capital itself. With this Hong Kong-like economic boom, the standard of living would rise, and life in the public sphere and inside these new developments would be lavish. This was all packaged alongside the perks of Lebanon’s magnificent climate, snow on the mountain-tops and sunny beaches lining the coast. The message was clear: Head to Lebanon now with your family, buy a cheap flat in Mreijeh near the airport, and before long, you will find yourself in a real estate paradise. Jump on the opportunity, and enjoy a bright future.

“A raggedy-looking man standing among the ruins in Martyrs’ Square, carrying in one hand a poster depicting the square before the war and in the other a poster showing the master plan – a shattered present, a golden past, and a marvelous future.”

I did not think twice. I bought a flat in installments. I stayed there for who knows how long: two months, six months? I don’t want to remember. What happened was that the displaced refugees from Wadi Abou Jamil in the central district marched on the area with big fat compensation checks in their pockets and bought all the apartments in the environs. Then they destroyed them, or rather, redesigned them to fit their lifestyles, recreating here what they had become accustomed to on many levels – social, political, and urban. They de-stroyed the virtual master plan I had in my mind: the elegant Beirut expanding to the edge of the mountain, assimilating to the suburbs, its fabric and morphology.

The defiant southern suburbs were the site of many historical events that stymied imaginations and instituted bitter facts on the ground: the weak state and treasury, Syrian tutelage and its costs, the Israeli occupation and its costs, the resistance and its implications, and the power that the warlords still wielded as well as their mafia-like pattern of relations. This all contributed to keeping the master plan in check and restricting it to the city center.

Not one year later, I drove myself out of the suburbs and left Lebanon entirely, heading to Kuwait. I got rid of the flat and lost my job while the bulldozers kept working, night and day, in downtown Beirut.


I returned to the capital in 1999, armed with a new virtual master plan of Beirut. I was coming from the Gulf – Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and occasional visits to Dubai, so what I imagined in my mind was informed by the topographies of the Gulf: endless curving highways, villas and palaces on the outskirts and in the suburbs, and a commercial city center at the heart of the city. There would be a stock exchange building, police station, Palace of Justice, museum, park, fish market, old market, and seaside promenade dotted with luxury hotels. At a distance from the capital, the industrial zone would lie on one side and an airport on the other. The urban plan would be an arrangement with no place for improvisation, an order that leaves no room for chaos.

I hated that about the Gulf. To me it was like a movie set built for Westerners in the middle of the desert, but it felt lonely and isolated. Still, I tried to adapt that master plan in my mind to something suitable for Beirut, if only to eliminate its signature chaos. I saw that this would mean resuming the city’s destruction and disfigurement and projecting another city onto it.

Immediately after I returned, I realized that entering the capital once again required throwing away my old map: the cafés on Rue Hamra changed. The small bar had been neglected, forgotten, and abandoned by its usual patrons. The seaside cafeteria, where we used to spend summer nights, lost its poetry, becoming a playground for children and a family destination. The way people moved, the daily rhythm of life had been altered. The culture of malls arose as global fast food chains mushroomed everywhere. All of the old movie theaters disappeared and were replaced by movie complexes elsewhere.

During those years, far from the plans for rebuilding and reconstruction, far from downtown, from the East-West Beirut mentality, the lights were glimmering in an almost forgotten back street. At the edge of Achrafieh between Abdul Wahab Al Inglizi and Monnot streets, a plan emerged organically in a part of town that was relatively spared by the war. The neighborhood was typical of so-called “Christian Beirut” – bourgeois, Mediterranean, and colonial. In terms of appearance and architecture, it embodied the nostalgic images of pre-war Beirut. There, post-war Beirut began anew with booze, music, and young people. There, intellectuals of East and West Beirut met and mingled with musicians, playwrights, and journalists, along with fashion designers who, all of a sudden, soared to local stardom as the image makers of tomorrow’s Lebanon. There, free love dropped its anchor. There, we discovered the emerging society of yuppies, young businessmen displaying wealth in a permanent celebration of themselves.

They were becoming role models of success, embodying a new set of ambitions, morals, and values. In that place, a new city was brewing with former leftists who had tired of their “revisionary” liberalism and democracy, former right-wingers whose fascism had cooled somewhat, and new activists from the universities.

There, in the nights of Monnot, plans for Lebanon’s future were taking shape. The battle for political freedom and rejection of tutelage began, and the battle for individual liberties and social liberal values launched. The battle for an economy of tourism and services took off, and the battle for cultural development and alternative urban planning began. A sphere of exchange where the two parts of the capital could convene and draft a social contract was born. It was like a virtual city center that sprung to life only at night.

In 2003, I went to visit the new downtown as a tourist. From the moment I stepped onto Maarad Street, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I knew right away: I was there to look around, not to live it. It was as though I had mistakenly entered a massive film set, with all the faces of the nouveau riche. Everyone looked like magazine cutouts, and families appeared to be straight out of a television series. The cafés lacked character and seemed to be designed for showing-off, or for the confused tourists or passersby. The buildings were empty and impeccable, part of an architectural exhibition in a World’s Fair at which we were only visitors.

This city center, the beating heart of the capital, was at that moment a playground for children with balls, balloons, and bicycles, which only aggravated my sense of alienation. This was neither the city center of 1974 nor the one that I visited with my future wife in 1991. It was the new place where my son practiced riding his bicycle. Behind Maarad Street, there in Martyrs’ Square, was a void, an empty space awaiting a virtual blueprint yet to be drafted. That void was not a public square. It was a no man’s land that still separated West Beirut from East Beirut, waiting for the miraculous uprisings of February/March 2005.

When I take the Fouad Chehab Ring Road from Hamra to Achrafieh, I realize that people cross back and forth from East to West Beirut and bypass that island, the city center, isolated from traffic and the arteries of daily business, society, and economy. It is an island, or in the tradition of the Commonwealth, a fenced plot and an exclusive social club, for the recreation and leisure of the elite. This impression is confirmed when I take the Bourj Abi Haidar-Salim Salam axis down to Riad Al Solh Square. As soon as I pass through Zouqaq Al Blatt, I immediately feel that I’ve moved from one urban landscape to another, even though the distance between them is no more than a few meters. The same goes for all buffer zones surrounding downtown Beirut. This is an urban-social-cultural dichotomy, suggesting that the rest of Beirut will not be affected by the master plan for this city center. Instead, the rest of the city is at the mercy of a de facto master plan which continues to deepen the cleavages of Beirut. The balkanization of the city into a constellation of conflicting sectarian mini-cities during the civil war remains a stubborn urban reality.


My son is now eighteen. Luckily for him, he has lived in both Hamra and Achrafieh. He parties in Monnot, Gemmayze, and Ras Beirut. He goes to ABC in Achrafieh and to Dunes in Verdun. He shops and hangs out in Sassine Square and on Rue Hamra. He speaks three languages: French, English, and Arabic. His friends live in Sin Al Fil, Achrafieh, Ain Al Rummaneh, Furn Al Shebbak, Shiah, Verdun, Karakol Al Druze, Corniche Al Mazraa, Hamra, Bir Hassan, and even as far as Mansourieh. Next year, he will go to college and will begin his independent life in the city.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that the city center is not my city anymore. It is my son’s city. But why is it that, so far, he does not have a real relationship with downtown? I began to imagine him and his generation, writing a life for the city center and for themselves, different from the one that we lived. A life in which they thread those invisible strings between the city’s parts and parcels, making memories on pavements, balconies, entrances, exits, alleys, streets, rooftops, rooms. I started imagining the arduous mission that my son will have to undertake: engineering a life that transcends the city and that adds to it, warm breaths and emotions that would unite it and bring its parts closer together.

I imagine him as a student at the American University of Beirut, riding the restored tram from the fifties on Bliss Street to Riad Al Solh Square. There, he meets his girlfriend at the entrance to the Grand Theatre, which is presenting a Souad Hosni Film Week, and they watch Beware of Zouzou. Together, they leave the movie theater laughing and make their way to the small Armenian shop in an alley off Maarad Street to eat pastirma and sausages. They take a stroll down toward the seaside, passing small kiosks around City Hall, where souvenirs, pictures, sweets, and cakes are sold. In the early evening, they end up in a giant park, there by the sea, people coming and going, or jogging, while kids play. There are street vendors, police, and young environmentalists distributing flyers while a band jams in the center of the park. They meet up with friends on the lawn next to the Martyrs’ Monument before they head to Virgin Megastore, each shopping for himself. Finally, my son takes the new tram from Bab Idriss to Damascus Road and then home, to Furn Al Shebbak.

I picture him going back and forth between Hamra, Bliss, downtown, Achrafieh, and Furn Al Shebbak, the son of a middle-class family, who eats cheap sandwiches and wears expensive shirts, who mocks the snobs but never appears shabby. He wants a grocery store on Maarad Street that does not sell Pepsi at an exorbitant price for tourists; he wants to dine in an elegant restaurant, where students are not driven out by a gold-plated menu. He wants a shop that sells a good cup of espresso on the go, a bargain bookshop, a clean sandwich kiosk. He wants an organized bus stop and a punctual tram line, a large garden for his dreams, and a pier that goes all the way from Dora to Ouzai. He wants to take part in a student protest here and go to an art museum. He wants Martyrs’ Square to be accessible, a place where he is not afraid to hang out. He wants to take care of business in a public toilet or find a students’ studio to rent and a gym, public library, and perhaps even small street for his fleeting vices.

“The balkanization of the city into several conflicting sectarian mini-cities during the civil war remains a stubborn urban reality.”

From the American University, he passes through Clemenceau, where expats live, having flooded the city following a boom in business and commerce. It is a place of international shops. He passes through Bourj Hammoud, Mar Mikhaël Annahr, and Gemmayze, where Ethiopians and South Asian communities have settled and flourished. They have their own neighbor-hoods and alleys with Buddhist, Hindu, Tamil, or Coptic characters, next to small hostels, shipping agencies, and industrial plants adjacent to the port, all on the outskirts of the friendly and longstanding Armenian neighborhoods. In the foothills of Achrafieh, he gets acquainted with neighborhoods that draw young singles, university students, and new immigrants, where buildings are constructed not for families but for those who want to live in small flats and minimalist studios. That area might be a new sanctuary for those who wish to retire to a private and free lifestyle, or even for newly-weds. He passes through the old streets between Mar Mitr and Sursouk neighborhood, which now have a new sheen thanks to the municipality’s efforts and urban planning laws which allow skyscrapers to stand alongside heritage buildings.

He walks around Nabaa, Sin Al Fil, Qasqas, Tareeq Al Jadeedeh, Bourj Abi Haidar, Zouqaq Al Blatt and Aisha Bakkar. Each of these areas has seen a mini-Solidere development, or a mixture of urban planning, economic development, and a significant demographic shift, with greater multiculturalism and more open spaces. He sees a large antique market between Bachoura and Basta, crafts, carpentry workshops, and glassware shops. He sees jewelry, fabric, and electronics markets. He notices new stadiums, flourishing football clubs, and boisterous crowds.

He and his peers also have a virtual “underground,” where the street life and youthful mischief infuses the city with an artistic and social vitality. It endows the capital with a sense of democracy in terms of development, housing, communication, and quality of life – for example, with a falafel shop on Foch Street where bourgeois women shop and a sushi joint in the heart of Barbour Street.

These are just a few features of the imagined master plan, where the elegance of Solidere’s blueprints, the chaos of Beirut today, and the cinematic Beirut of the past coexist in an atmosphere of innovation that combines architecture and spontaneity. Every plan is a response to the difficult question: how can we make stones breathe? My son and his generation shoulder the weight of these challenges, for Beirut cannot remain the impossible dream that we have long imagined.

Based on a translation by Sabine Taoukjian

Youssef Bazzi is a Lebanese poet, writer, and the author of Yasser Arafat Looked at me and Smiled (Ashkal Alwan).
Yasser Arafat Looked at me and Smiled
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
Rim El Jundi, A Sun on His Suitcase, 2008, acrylic and mixed media, 100x100 cm.
Rim El Jundi, At Risk, 2009, acrylic and mixed media, 90x150 cm.
Rim El Jundi, Beirut Sky, 2008, acrylic and mixed media, 100x170 cm.
Rim El Jundi, In the Meanwhile, 2009, acrylic and mixed media, 90x150 cm.
Rim El Jundi, Invasion of Hamra Street, 2008, acrylic and mixed media, 80x120 cm.
Rim El Jundi, The Habitant, 2008, acrylic and mixed media, 100x100 cm.
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