• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 humorous sort of way, of something that Hamra exemplified: an almost boundless tolerance and freedom of thought. It was this that had made Hamra a center for the entire region. Its cafés had been meeting places for dissidents, intellectuals, and refugees. It was here that they could speak and listen, read and discuss each other’s books, often published in Beirut even if banned in their own countries. Journalists from everywhere filed their reports about large parts of Asia and Africa, as well as the Arab world, from their listening post here. Students and their teachers from the many Beirut universities sat for hours in animated and passionate discussion of national and regional issues. Beirut had been a window open to the world and everything in it, from the latest hemlines and colors, to the latest ideas. Now the window is in danger of closing, though it is not quite closed yet, not yet.

Indeed, antebellum Sharia al Hamra and the surrounding area were like a sacred temple to the elegant urban bourgeoisie, many of whom left the city altogether when the violence began to take its inexorable hold. The state and all its trappings, including the police and army, were on the decline, challenged by the new power of the militias. As the war progressed, crowds from the suburban slums and refugee camps, as well as rural areas, moved to the city. Often these people’s sons were the gun wielders, and the visible signs of a social revolution were most obvious here. That the establishment had banished them from its consciousness, that they now affirmed their own presence, was reflected right here on the open streets of the city.

The newcomers had started to tread the holy ground gingerly and then, finding that there was in fact nothing to it, that the barriers had only been in their minds, had come in greater and greater numbers until the character of the place was ineradicably altered. The crowds that walk along the street today are composed mostly of young men in shirt-sleeves ambling aimlessly along, as often as not in the middle of the street, heedless, except for an occasional exchange of good-humored curses with them, of the frustrated drivers in the never-ending traffic jam. Many of the men are bearded and unkempt. At one point some wore the cowboy hats and boots that had mysteriously appeared in enormous quantities during the war, rapidly becoming a kind of uniform for these boys who had taken over Hamra during the fighting and made it their realm. They would patrol the street in their Jeeps, clutching their duskhas,* their bodies covered with an assortment of arms, from pistols in holsters, to daggers in sheaths, to hand grenades jostling on their hips, to the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs. Here and there, a T-shirt could be spotted, with “Penn State” emblazoned on it, or “Oxford University,” or with the strangely out-of-place grin of Snoopy, or Charlie Brown in one of his accustomed dilemmas.

The women in the crowd are a far cry from their predecessors, By and large, bourgeois cosmopolitanism has retreated dramatically. Where pedicured, well-shod women trod before, coarse-skinned, hard-working feet walk now. Here and there a brilliant splash of color appears in the dress of a Kurdish woman, long white scarf flowing in the wind. Once I saw an old woman teetering along Hamra wearing a T-shirt that read “Keep Australia Clean.” An occasional former denizen of Hamra can be seen grimly picking her way through her abdicated territory, resentment and disgust firmly etched not only on her face, but in her posture and in the very manner in which she hurries down the street.

Piles of garbage dot the street. The municipal garbage truck seems, like Sisyphus, condemned to an eternally unfinished task. No sooner is one huge mound of refuse scooped up and piled onto the truck than another sprouts up in its place. Cigarette boxes, newspapers, sandwich wrappers, plastic bags patiently swept up by the street cleaners every morning—or at least those mornings when there are no battles—magically and instantly reappear. In spite of these constant efforts, one would think that Hamra had never been washed and, like a sick, scabby animal, is permanently scarred by its garbage.

Much of the downtown activities of the souks has been moved to Hamra. On the sidewalks in front of the elegant boutiques of yesteryear, many of which are closed or have changed hands—though some carry on a now-anachronistic trade—street vendors, once owners of small shops in the souks, lay their wares. Pajamas, pullovers, shirts, ties, aprons, nightgowns, leather jackets, umbrellas, shoes—all kinds of items lie on the sidewalks or on the backs of cars. Sometimes they are hung on wires slung between one lamppost and another. You can see people trying on clothing in the middle of the street as though they were in a private changing room, apparently heedless of the world around them.

Vendors push wooden carts down the street, hawking their wares. Here is a cart covered with green almonds; there, one sporting Ted Lapidus underwear. Here is one selling Sony radios; there, another with smuggled cigarettes. Here is a cart covered by watches, lighters, sunglasses, and key chains in dazzling array; there, another displaying every perfume known to France. Moving up and down the street, through and around the traffic, adding grandly to the noise and contributing to the traffic jam, is a series of cassette vendors pushing carts on which loudspeakers powered by car batteries achieve a kind of endless aural display. The deafening sound of popular songs rendered by derbake (drum) and accordions, violins and crude singers, thunder out full blast from the rival vendors, each going his own way, each choosing his own music, and so creating a hideous kaleidoscope of noise.

Pandemonium reigns in the traffic. You can hear car horns rendering “Au Claire de la Lune,” “Yankee Doodle.” “Happy Birthday,” “La Marsellaise,” or “God Save the King.” Themes from the Fifth and Ninth symphonies and dozens of other unlikely melodies blare out instead of, or rather together with, the more conventionally deafening beeps of the Fiats and Renaults not similarly equipped. And in the midst of these improbable sounds comes the urgent wail of sirens attached to badly maimed and rusted little cars, full to the brim with young men looking as if each had set himself the challenge of breaking all existing records of outrageous driving. The final touches to this mechanized orchestration of automobile sounds are the roar of small cars whose mufflers have sometimes been deliberately removed, shifting gears, followed by the inevitable screech of tires and the slamming on of brakes, along with the deafening thunder of motorcycles zooming by at top speed. Intermingled with all this come staccato curses, calls, and laughter, like human piccolos adding embellishments to the march of time and change.

The many cafés of Hamra have changed from their prewar days. Although still patronized by the journalists and intellectuals, they have lost some of their cosmopolitan nature. While espressos and cappuccinos are still served, in some of them shawarma has replaced chateaubriand as the pièce de résistance of the chef, and fast food the leisurely meals of long ago. The mondaines of Beirut no longer sit in these establishments, and men dominate by far their clientele.

If there were always beggars to be encountered on the street, today there is a far greater presence of a tragic human flotsam that no institution now functioning has the capacity to handle. The present visitor to Hamra unavoidably confronts deformities of the body that call up a paralyzing reaction in which compassion is lost to an overwhelming revulsion. There is the fat, elderly woman holding out one palm, with the other supporting what seems to be part of a protruding gut. There is the blind man whose age, if you can bear to look closely at him, you perceive cannot be more than thirty, but who seems ancient. His voice, chanting ayat from the Koran, pierces all other sounds. He walks, or rather shuffles, down the street, supported by a child of about ten, whose impassive countenance belies the horror of his life. The man seems to be losing control over his muscles: He jerks and starts and, every few paces, seems about to collapse but doesn’t, and goes on jerking and starting and shuffling as the child steers him down the street, palm outstretched. In their wake comes a younger child, bent over double, who walks on all fours, and twists and turns as he makes his agonized progress down the street.

  1. *

    Mounted, recoilless rifles.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print