[This article was first published in An-Nahar on June 21, 2019]
Today’s urban hike is from Achrafieh to #Hamra Street, four kilometers away. Ten minutes in, I reach the Green Line, splitting Beirut into two warring zones in the civil war. During the war, it felt like it was much further away. East Beirut versus West Beirut. It got its name because a jungle of trees grew there among the landmines protected by the tranquility of war. It was one of the only areas of significant greenery in the city. Beirut’s Central Park, but with only ghosts. Anywhere else in the world, concrete structures displaced forests and trees, but here, the reverse occurred. A decisive environmental victory. The cleanest air in the city … if you dared venture there.
I navigate my way through the imaginary militia checkpoints, slitting throats based on your sect, as stated on your national ID Card, mandatory to carry and evidence in your improvised trial and death sentence — an image etched in my brain from childhood, which I can never purge.
As I cross into West Beirut, the street names abruptly change from something like the French-sounding Général Jean Misiklier Avenue to the guttural-sounding Abdul-Hamid Shrimbo Street, a reflection of shifting ideologies and allegiances.
I pass a familiar old building. I can almost still see my aunt Najat on the balcony letting down the straw basket tied with a string all the way down to a guy’s cart. He would put vegetables in the basket and take the cash — all this happening while they’re negotiating loudly across several floors — old school home delivery.
A few minutes later, I reach Hamra. The blue property in the old Lebanese version of the Monopoly board game — probably wouldn’t be blue if they constructed the board game today. Maybe Rabieh or Solidere would be blue today.
Now, I’m having my morning coffee near where Costa Cafe used to be, site of an attempted suicide bombing a couple of years ago. Even in a calloused country like Lebanon, that story dominated the airwaves for several days. I wonder if Costa employees got raises. Did that incident increase or decrease business. Are suicide bombers like lightning, never striking the same spot twice?
The news reports stated that a bomber dispatched by ISIS — we don’t use none of that “alleged” sh*t here in Lebanon — entered the joint late, but may not have wanted to waste the explosives, nails, and shrapnel on the sparse patrons at that hour. So what’s a terrorist to do to kill time, while he waits to kill innocent civilians? He politely stood in line, ordered a coffee from the barista, and sat at a table next to one with a customer on his laptop surfing the net or maybe writing an article. He sipped his coffee while more of Costa’s, and his own, customers arrive. But then, some heroic members of our abundant security apparatus engulfed him, disrupting his own “heroic” endeavor. They couldn’t shoot, of course, so a hand-to-hand fight ensued, just like on those American TV shows, after which the bad guy was subdued and carted away. The security guys were wearing civilian clothes, Oakley sunglasses, and that dark blue vest, but with Arabic markings, instead of the yellow “FBI” etched on the back.
While everyone was shocked at a near-miss here, people were pleased with how this portion, at least, of our taxpayer funds added value.
The media, and its consumers, were thirsty for more detail, so more juicy stuff started to flow with every iteration of the story, no doubt leaked from inside — a scoop given to the leaker’s favorite reporter. Like the fact that the bomber was from Sidon. The tourist brochures would tell you that it’s the eighth oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, going back 6,000 years.
Another leak comes. They had infiltrated this branch of ISIS in Sidon, so had actionable intelligence, and sprinkled agents all around Costa, waiting for him. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but marvel at their bravery, but, nevertheless, wondered how someone charges a suicide bomber wearing explosives. Then, I started to wonder why they intercepted him at the end point of the attack, when there were so many people around. I mean if they already had the information, they could have interdicted the attack at several nodes earlier in the process. They could have raided his house in Sidon before he left, or rushed him as he was walking out to the car, or anywhere along the forty kilometer trip from Sidon to Hamra, perhaps on a deserted section of the highway, with some snipers in place. But no, they decided to do it at his final destination, the last possible opportunity to thwart the attack, at Costa, in one of the most crowded neighborhoods in town.
I start to daydream, projecting myself to another era in Hamra’s history. I can almost see the revolutionaries from decades ago, with their long, thick sideburns, and shirts unbuttoned to their belly buttons, showing heavy gold chains and smaller, but no less heavy, gold wrist “plaques.” Liberating occupied territories with their mouths, running them off mercilessly in the cafes, back in Hamra’s heyday. If you look carefully today, you can still see the remnants of intellectuals, journalists, spies, and exiled opposition from neighboring countries, sipping their cappuccino and solving the world’s problems. Opposition to what? Everything, but as in the golden age, no practical solutions. Still the same problems and same putrid system.
Kim Philby, the highest ranking defector from MI6 (British Intelligence) to the Soviet Union, lived a couple of blocks from here in 1963. Israeli soldiers, occupying Beirut during the 1982 invasion, were attacked as they were sipping coffees near this very spot. Terry Anderson, the longest held hostage during the civil war, was kidnapped a few blocks away. Sarkis Soghanalian, on whom was based the composite character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie Lord of War, made part of his $1.6 billion net worth on this very street. The largest bank heist in history (until then); was executed in 1976 near here on the British Bank of the #Middle East (now HSBC). The armed robbery yielded an estimated $50 million for the perpetrators and landed us in the Guinness Book of Records, before we had to settle for the wimpy largest hummos plate award like these days.
My mother’s uncle died in a car bomb a few hundred meters from here. I heard the giant explosion as I sat in history class in school, studying the achievements of Arab empires over a millennium ago. I didn’t realize at that moment that I was listening to him die … or that I was witnessing real history, the most important history, for my relatively insignificant life. A history not taught in schools, but only in arghile cafes, by uncles, parents, grandparents, and other old folks, reciting their versions of heroic feats in our inexplicable civil war, which ended in 1990 … but never ended.
Hamra, the former Champs-Élysées of Beirut. I somehow remember this street as being much more grandiose and gigantic. It looks like an alleyway today. Either I’ve grown too much or it has shrunk. I’m not sure.
And where’s Modca and Horsehoe and Wimpy and Toyland? And what are all these ubiquitous franchises doing polluting the old culture of the place?
The waiter comes, “Bonjour.”
Why is he speaking French to me? Is something identifying me as coming from the French-speaking Canton?
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“#Syria“, he says. I’m surprised he admitted it so readily. Most Syrians are told to say they’re from Akkar to avoid a racist backlash. Turns out he’s a university graduate in Fine Arts from Damascus, escaping his own war and intruding on mine … and melting into the anonymity of Hamra Street.
Why do I only get inspired in this neighborhood? It jolts and awakens innermost emotions, fears, terror, insecurities, and aspirations that I forgot existed.
Hamra will always be a blue property to me.
Four thousand years ago, this area was inhabited by Canaanites who were wiped out by God, according to the bible, but the LA Times in 2017 reported that DNA tests had shown that 93% of Lebanese were Canaanites. If we can survive the wrath of God, surely we can survive anything. Wherever you are, happy birthday Uncle Riad.