Photo by Francesco Lastrucci
My city of (historic) ruins: downtown Beirut
A love letter to Beirut at a time when much of home—be it native or adopted—has been reduced to rubble again.
Last October, on the night I drove up from the coast to join a group hiking the Lebanon Mountain Trail—a 293-mile highland corridor spanning the entire spine of the country, from Syria in the north to Israel in the south—protests ignited in the streets of Beirut. Had I left one day later, I wouldn’t have been able to cross the highway because of the blockades.
For the next 10 days, we walked more than 100 miles through mountain villages; past Roman temples and Phoenician ruins, bullet-riddled homes and abandoned bunkers, relics from the country’s many wars; and through a forest of thousand-years-old cedars that had witnessed empires rise and fall. We plucked ripe figs, mulberries, and walnuts along the way, all while Beirut, visible and glittering innocently from our height, roiled below.
Many of my fellow hikers with Lebanese ancestry—from places as far flung as New Hampshire, Toronto, and Melbourne—had come for the first time. Other Lebanese-born, like me, who had fled the country during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, came to reconnect with their homeland. My pilgrimage was more complicated.
As a child of Armenian immigrants whose ancestors had been displaced by war for generations, we did not have roots here. The Lebanese considered me a foreigner, despite the fact that I was born in the hills above Beirut, and so denied my citizenship. Being rejected by the land of my birth stung deeply, and after our late-night escape to America in 1975 at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, like a spurned lover, I turned my back and pretended not to care. When people asked if I was Lebanese, my answer was no.
What I discovered while walking through the land of my youth is that belonging is more than bureaucracy or paperwork. It is visceral. A gut punch made up of sense memories that leave their mark deep in your bones: the familiar light and salted air, the smell of pines and stink of goats, the taste of parsley and lemon, the sound of church bells and the call to prayer—it is home.
On each of my successive visits over the years, the Beirut of my childhood and adulthood became indelibly intertwined. Fragments of nostalgic memories jumbled with more recent heartbreak as the city where I had spent the first nine years of my life—an idyll before the war—became paved over, traditional homes with their gardens of palm and fruit trees falling into ruin or bulldozed. The seaside road, replaced by a traffic-clogged highway lined with fast food chains. Beirut’s downtown, once a diverse neighborhood full of small shops and markets, rebuilt into an ersatz replica for luxury boutiques. All the while, surrounding infrastructure and services crumbled.
As I met cooks and farmers preserving the country’s culinary heritage, designers reviving its artisan culture, and activists preserving the breathtaking landscapes, my childhood nostalgia for a bygone time gave way to a more nuanced appreciation of this complex and contradictory place, whose indomitable people refuse to give up on their city, no matter how many times outside forces and internal corruption reduced it to rubble. The most recent explosion leveled buildings for miles around, but also whatever distance those of us who love this country may have felt. We are all Lebanese now.
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