Beirut: The Hamra

The streets of Beirut, even those that are relatively intact, provide a shifting landscape of memories and sorrow. Whenever I walk by one house, for instance, I remember with fresh pain my friend who lived in it and who was killed at a barricade one night years ago. At a street corner, I remember when the shell landed and killed the mother of my son’s friend. By another house, I think of the family that was kidnapped and has not been heard of since, and by yet another, I remember the friend who left the country and never came back. Each of these physical landmarks, and so many others like them, are milestones in my inner journey of pain. Memories wash over the map, and layers of time alter its shadings.

But there is another kind of change even more difficult to describe: In some places altered appearance is a function of an organic mutation, a kind of metamorphosis from one state of existence to another, from one meaning and function in the city’s life to another, from one social, economic, or political symbol to another. In some cases, the changed meaning of a place is a direct reflection of the changed meaning of the country, and of the progress of the war. I live in the western part of the city, and, with the exception of the downtown area, it is this part that has seen the most change of this sort. No more dramatic example exists than in one of the major arteries of West Beirut, Hamra Street. Hamra is situated in that area called Ras Beirut, which is dominated by the American University of Beirut and many other centers of learning, and whose principal characteristic remains to this day a mixed population of coexisting faiths and the open-mindedness that goes with that.

Before the war, many of the banks and businesses downtown opened important branches in the Hamra neighborhood. Some even moved their main offices there. In addition, cosmopolitan cafés, restaurants, and stylish cinemas, along with the most elegant boutiques in the city, made it the social center of Beirut for the middle classes and the wealthy. The proximity of the American University and the major newspaper offices made it also the center for the intelligentsia.

Fashion and style were important elements of antebellum Beirut—indeed, it could probably be safely argued that there was still, even during the war, more fashion and style here than in many other less violent places. The erosion of that fashionable veneer and the verve that went with it is sad not in itself so much as in the corresponding loss of a certain sense of humor, a cheerful insouciance in waving away more important things as irrelevant and insignificant. Somehow, style and fashion, with their emphasis on the passing and the new, had been a defense against that grim earnestness with which tyrannical ideologies had been embraced elsewhere in the modern world.

This lightness was symbolic, in a …

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