Will our image of Beirut as a cultural capital ever come back?

The Lebanese city is having an identity crisis, in which it can't seem to break a cycle of failure

This picture taken on February 17, 2021 from the area of Dbayeh at the northern outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut shows waves crashing along the seashore during stormy weather with the Beirut skyline prominent in the background.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID
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A walk around Beirut these days will reveal that large numbers of buildings in the city, including some of its most beautiful old mansions, lie abandoned and ready to be torn down. There are many reasons for this, not least that many owners see little reason to renovate their properties when they hope to sell the land at a higher price.

This seems an apt image for this moment in Lebanon. Beirut is living a crisis of identity, as for the first time in decades the city radiates only failure. Lebanon has collapsed economically and hundreds of thousands of people have fallen into poverty or emigrated, so the crumbling of Beirut’s architectural heritage symbolises a clean break between the city’s enthralling past and disintegrating present.

But how true is this image? This is not the first time that Beirut has faced such a crisis. Indeed, each new crisis seems to bring with it another lasting dimension of the city’s identity. Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990 has forever marked the country as a place of war, with Beirut at its centre. Even more than three decades after the end of the conflict, many foreigners still imagine that people are murdering each other.

A homeless woman sits on a mattress under a poster of Iranian President Ali Khamenei and Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine, in Haret Hreik, in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs, on February 14, 2021.  / AFP / -
A homeless woman sits on a mattress under a poster of Iranian President Ali Khamenei and Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine, in Haret Hreik, a suburb of Beirut, on February 14, 2021. AFP

Yet that wartime identity had replaced several others that Beirut had taken on in its pre-war period. That of the beguiling cultural heart of the Arab world, where the region’s intellectuals, political exiles, and journalists had moved to escape the tyrants at home. Beirut was a city, it was often said, that published books and gambled with ideas, in contrast to the dreary Arab nationalist orders ruled by officers in most other countries of the region.

Bad came with the good. Between the late 1960s and the civil war in 1975, Beirut was also the capital of the revolution, as Palestinian militant groups and European left-wing organisations planned attacks against western targets and Israel from the city. Beirut’s intellectual openness and free-wheeling identity took on a self-destructive facet, promising to upend Lebanon’s delicate stability.

When the war ended in 1990 and Lebanon was in ruins, Beirut reinvented itself again, as a place of resurrection – a phoenix rising from its ashes, to quote former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel in 1983, who had to wait almost a decade for that prediction to become true. The impresario of this revival would be Rafik Hariri, who became Lebanon’s prime minister in 1992.

Hariri would wrestle with Beirut’s conflicting identities, never quite getting the mix right. He had wanted simply to re-create the business entrepot of the pre-war era, but his vision hit up against two other aspects of the city’s identity. Many of the intellectuals, particularly those on the left, railed against his capitalist vision for the city, which they regarded as both elitist and somewhat vulgar.

Beirut was a city, it was often said, that published books and gambled with ideas

In the eyes of his critics, lacking in Hariri’s vision was any stirring idea of a greater purpose that Beirut could serve. As the novelist Elias Khoury lamented to me in an interview in 1993: “Lebanon’s new ruling class wants to make [it] … into a small Hong Kong for Arab-Israeli peace. This is one option. We have another: to make Lebanon part of a search for democracy, identity and change in the Arab world.”

Khoury’s pessimism, in retrospect, must have been tempered by Hariri’s fate in 2005, when the former prime minister was assassinated. By then, many Lebanese could see that Hariri, for all the criticism directed against him for helping to create a parasitical post-war financial order, was also relatively liberal in embracing pluralism.

This was in contrast to the second group pushing against his vision for Beirut, namely Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers. They yearned for the time when the city was a “capital of resistance” against Israel and the US. In the first years of reconstruction, the politician Walid Joumblatt summed up this impossible dichotomy nicely when he said that Lebanon had to choose between being either the Hong Kong or the Hanoi of the Middle East.

While those who killed Hariri thought they had done so, they never adequately resolved the main paradox of Beirut – of being a place open to the outside and to liberal ideas, while also being a citadel of “resistance” mistrustful of openness and tolerance. In the decade and a half since Hariri’s assassination, these two components of Lebanon are still struggling over what Beirut should embody.

In August 2020, it appeared that those who aspired to an open Beirut were permanently silenced when half the city was torn apart by an enormous explosion at its port. Many of Beirut’s older quarters, along with their inhabitants, were devastated. The purveyors of resistance, it was said, were involved in storing and protecting the ammonium nitrate that had wreaked such destruction.

But in the aftermath, it was those who still sought an open, cosmopolitan Beirut who rebuilt the city. They showed, not for the last time, that even in the bleakest of moments there are facets of Beirut that cannot be silenced. Those who think they can impose one absolute identity on it should beware. Beirut has always been defined by its infidelities. In time, it grows tired of those who think the city is theirs.

Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a Lebanon columnist for The National