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.

Skin diseases abound, and ulcerated limbs are exhibited on filthy mats. There is an assortment of truncated arms and legs, the tragedies of nature augmented by the work of the war. Bodies ending with hips make their way on a variety of devices: roller skates attached to the hips, or slippers on the hands, or various sorts of abbreviated wheelbarrows. In the midst of the vast crowd one is overwhelmed by the lonely agony of each of these desperate lives.

There are small children, barefoot and filthy, tagging along behind passersby, clutching at them only to be shaken off like so many flies. There are palsied old men and women, sitting with their backs against marble walls, some with heads hung in senile sleep, some with faces upturned, wrinkled and dim-eyed, whimpering for money. Yet others sit with a mute look quite beyond despair, staring up at you as though with mild curiosity, wondering how you and they came to share this strange world.

Some of the blind beggars were as firm a fixture before the war as the white marble façade of Antoine’s Bookshop. One of them, in particular, has become familiar, standing in front of Antoine’s, cane extended in one hand and in the other the small green sheets of the National Lottery, his eyes rimmed with a matching, unseeing green. I have often wondered whether he chose the bookshop for his post as a deliberately ironic gesture.

The mischievous, ubiquitous “Chiclets boys” of prewar days, darting around with little boxes of their wares and dirty bare feet, have largely disappeared, having graduated, one presumes, to plying guns instead of chewing gum. But the begging gypsy girls can still be seen, gold teeth flashing, absent-mindedly chanting their tireless supplications: “God keep you,” “God send you health,” “God keep your children,” “God send you success,” “God send you a bride,”—or a groom, or whatever need their sharp eyes discern—“God send you success in school.” Then there were and are still the young mothers, with bare-bottomed toddlers either reluctantly dragged by their hands or lying insensible on the women’s laps, drugged for convenience or desperately ill, depending on your perception and the extent of your sympathy.

And now, since the war, to all these have been added those whose minds are as crippled as the bodies of the others and who have chosen Hamra as their favorite haunt. There is a woman who can sometimes be seen lying flat on the sidewalk, stepped over by the passing crowds, or sometimes sitting on the curb, heedless of the cars that almost knock her off it, talking to herself at great length and with many gestures of defiance and anger. She wears a lopsided look: One of her eyes is wide open and the other shut, as though she were in a perpetual state of winking. Every now and then a grin breaks the grime that covers her face to reveal an equally lopsided mouth, one side of it full of teeth and the other completely lacking. Her filthy gray hair gives her an appearance of age, but once, when I came face to face with her, I could see that she was probably quite young. She seems to survive only through the charity of the numerous food vendors in the area, from whose outstretched hands I have seen her receive a falafel sandwich, a Coke, or a slice of shawarma wrapped in a piece of bread.

There is the man with the enormous belly who sits, filthy and cross-legged, yogi-style, on the sidewalk, obsessively tearing strips of aluminum and placing them in small piles. There is the welldressed man who sidles out of shadowy doorways to whisper obscenities in the ear of a passing victim who, recoiling in a panic, hurries desperately away. He then retreats back into the shadows until his next sally. There is another who seems always engaged in undressing on Hamra. Once, as he became aware of my glance, he stared at me and I gasped at the murderous look in his eyes.

And if these people represent an extreme of human ruin, they have many companions in misery. They constitute a kind of hideous chorus, one chanting, one singing, one calling, one trying to sell worthless trinkets, one begging, one silent. Helpless witness to all this agony, I had come to avoid the area, unwilling to see what I could do nothing about, too aware of the pain not to be freshly shocked each time I saw it.

On one of the rare occasions recently when I did walk on Hamra, I did so with a couple, old friends of ours who had been away for years and who had returned now to visit a dying parent. Preserved by their exile from the ravages of the war, they were fresh and fashionable still, and they expressed their horror and disbelief at what they saw as the demise of their own territory: “This is incredible! What has happened to Hamra! It was the Champs Elysées of Beirut, the Fifth Avenue, the Regent Street!”

I walked with them in growing sullenness, I think, and then reluctantly accepted their invitation to join them in taking a cup of coffee at one of the sidewalk cafés. To avoid the noise, we decided to sit inside rather than on the pavement. As we entered they saw a couple they had not seen for years and stood for a few minutes chatting with them. With some relief, I took out my still unread copy of that day’s L’Orient-Le Jour. I glanced at the headline—“Journée d’enfer au sud“—and read of the latest horrors in the south. The account of yesterday’s battle between two militias in West Beirut, which had left many dead and wounded and which had started over a traffic accident, was the second major story of the day. Having finished reading it, I glanced with some amusement at the advertisements, noting the sales at the Charles Jourdan and Yves St. Laurent boutiques, the forthcoming opening of the luxurious restaurant in East Beirut whose advent had been promised in extravagant terms for months, and the latest of the myriad new cinemas cropping up as well in East Beirut. I read of the latest robberies and holdups on both sides of the city and was turning to read L’Orient’s account of the latest fiasco in the attempt to form a new government when my friends returned and ordered coffee.

Suddenly, gunfire exploded on the street outside, and dozens of people scurried into the café to take refuge from the battle. We discovered from one of the waiters that two of the vendors, belonging to rival militias, had quarrelled, whipped out their Kalashnikovs from under their wares, and were having an old-fashioned shoot-out on Hamra.

The street was suddenly deserted. Beirutis have broken all records for getting out of the way on time. It is incredible to see how quickly a street swarming with people can be transformed into ghostly emptiness. Shopkeepers close their doors and pull down their iron shutters, mothers scoop up their children and run, vendors scuttle away with their carts, and after an even more than usually furious beeping of horns, the traffic jam evaporates in no time at all.

As suddenly as the commotion started, it stopped, and as suddenly as Hamra was emptied, it filled up again; within a few minutes life went on as though nothing had happened.

Throughout this episode, my friends sat in frozen expectation of catastrophe, and as it ended, they relaxed and watched me light another cigarette. “Don’t you get nervous when these things happen?” he asked, as she eyed me curiously. “Of course I do. Can’t you tell?” I tried to shake off the feeling that I was being examined for signs of mental derangement.

He leaned over and earnestly looking at me, he said, “Look, why don’t you get out of here?” To my shaking head, he burst out impatiently, as she continued to stare. “There is no future here—can’t you see that? This place is hopeless.” He brightened. “Think of your children. Is this any place to raise a family? In the midst of all these gun battles, explosions, bombings, filth, chaos, anarchy?” He leaned over further, elbows pointing outward. “Do you remember that at the beginning of the war you said that one should either carry a gun or get out?” I did not, in fact, remember ever having said such a thing, but I nodded cooperatively; it was the kind of easy thing we were all prone to saying at the beginning of the war when everything seemed clearer, and choices presented themselves in that kind of light. “Well, then, why are you still here?”

I sat uncommunicatively shaking my head, and he became visibly impatient and beckoned to the waiter. He settled the bill and said to his wife without further ceremony, “Let’s go.” We left the café together and parted after polite handshakes.

As I walked home, I was overcome by a momentary panic at the thought that he might have been right in his rebuke. Perhaps one reason those who have gone away have earned the resentment, however unreasonable and however much denied, of those who have stayed is that they always serve to remind us of lost opportunities of departure. They remind us that we may be making a fatal—literally, fatal—mistake in choosing to stay. But soon the unpleasant feeling receded, leaving only melancholy.

On my way home I stopped at a friend’s house, but finding her out, I went as I so often do into a small bookshop next door. The first time the neighborhood changed military hands after a battle, which it has done several times over the years, I had been alarmed and depressed by the fact that the store window had undergone a drastic change. The book jackets displayed there announced a new ideological content to the shop’s supplies, one more in keeping with the new ruler’s ideas. But on going inside and talking to the proprietor, who responded in careful whispers, I discovered that the contents were the same, only rearranged. The same books and magazines were there, only harder to find. Thus caution, brought about by imminent danger, had led to prudent hypocrisy, and freedom of thought was preserved. I was to note this phenomenon on numerous other occasions and at many other bookstores, and I was always relieved.

It was getting late and already dark, so I did not linger but started toward the alley near my house. The street lights were out in the alley, one or two of them shot to smithereens by bullets, the others victims of years of municipal neglect. The only lights available were that of the moon, shining down coldly on all our troubles, and of the small light of the flashlight I always carry. As I faced the alley, I stopped and hesitated for a long moment before entering, so frighteningly empty did it appear. The mound of garbage seemed smaller than usual, and not even a single cat scrounged in it. The car-repair shop outside, where there was, in the daytime, always a bustle of activity surrounding bullet-ridden, windshield-shattered cars, was closed, its workers gone home.

Covering the alley like a natural canopy are the branches of a massive oak. This magnificent tree is left over from the years, long ago, when Beirut was a garden city, clothed with cypresses, oaks, and banyans. Today there is scarcely a redeeming touch of green anywhere. Already this ill-fated tree is going the way of so much else of the natural beauty here, through utility, carelessness, and stupidity. Hanging from a low branch is a wooden sign advertising a new shop; the middle branches are gradually falling victim to an assortment of electric, telephone, and even laundry lines; its trunk has inexplicably been painted a ghastly blue, matching the interior of a nearby grocery store. Passers-by absent-mindedly snap off bits of the lowest branches; trucks do worse damage as they crash against its side. One day, no doubt, it will be knocked over, chopped down, or otherwise destroyed, probably to make way for yet another ugly building.

That night even the tree was still. I started through the alley, carefully examining the latest graffiti in order to keep my mind off the possibility of a lurking thief or of a bomb hidden in the garbage. I read “The Shah is the Puppet of Imperialism,” “Revolution until Victory,” “Abu So-and-So’s Forces passed here.” I read posters demanding the immediate restitution of the Imam Musa Sadr, who had disappeared years ago; announcements of the latest movies showing at the neighborhood theaters; dozens of death notices, including those stamped with militia insignias and pictures of their young heroes beaming out of their own obituaries.

As I moved down the street, I felt a swelling confidence—one might even say a strange kind of warmth—that grew, I must admit, as I neared the end. This awful, ugly little street seemed in its abandoned desolation somehow no longer threatening but pitiful. I felt for it a kind of sympathy that astonished me, so accustomed was I here to feel only revulsion. The street had often reminded me of those poor, scarred bodies from which I had been turning helplessly away. But now in the moonlight—for I had very soon switched off my redundant flashlight—it took on a pathetic and desolate beauty that has ever since lingered in my mind.

Copyright © 1990 by Jean Said makdisi

This Issue

August 16, 1990