Beirut, mon amour

A return to the city of lanterns. Poet and writer Fatima Bhutto goes back to her mother’s home town. Photography by Ayla Hibri

Fatima Bhutto grew up in Damascus, Syria, and is the author most recently of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin) and Songs of Blood and Sword (Jonathan Cape).

Ayla Hibri is a photographer based in Beirut.


Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, is an ancient Phoenician port. The city was rocked in the 1970s and 1980s by civil war and Israeli occupation, which left their marks deep in the urban fabric.

Country: Lebanon
Area: 20 km2 (8 sq mi)
Population: 1,900,000
Time zone: GMT +2

Beirut _1_1

They say Beirut has been rebuilt seven times.
Seven times it was destroyed and seven times it was reborn.
No one can tell you what all the seven disasters were – earthquakes, my friend Iman says, as we walk around Maarad, all renovated and redesigned, filled with chic cafes and stores. Asides from the Roman ruins, centuries old, jutting out of the earth, and the bullet holes that pockmark the buildings, everything is very, very new.
“Lebanon is like the phoenix,” Iman tells me, “because every time we go down, we raise up again.”

Beirut is 5,000 years old and inhabited by the spirits of invaders and kings. There was no man of any influence who did not lay his hands on this city.

The Romans, Syrians, Ottomans and even the French and Israelis all tried but could not hold Beirut. My mother, Ghinwa, is Lebanese. She lived her childhood through the country’s brutal civil war. She was 13 years old when it started, shuffling between her family’s small flat near Hamra Street to the basement of their building when the shelling grew in intensity. She was 20 when she left, after the Israelis invaded, with their phosphorus bombs and pamphlets dropped from the sky. Leave if you want to live, she remembers the pamphlets said. Leave.

Long before I first saw Beirut, I heard about it. I heard the stories of the war; I heard the stories of the Phoenicians (who, according to the Lebanese, invented everything from shipping to the alphabet: the Phoenicians are the sun and the moon and the stars in the origin story of the Lebanese), and I heard about how my grandmother, Kafia, refused to leave Beirut at the height of fighting during the civil war because the road to Tripoli would have turned her back on the city she loved and she refused to leave looking away from Beirut.

I grew up in Damascus, Syria – where my Pakistani father met my Lebanese mother, both of them in exile. And though I spent my childhood between the two countries, between Lebanon and Syria, I was last in Beirut in 2011, just before the Arab Spring captured the Middle East and capsised hope into something terrifying.

On the drive from Rafic Hariri International Airport, I don’t recognise any of the buildings or landmarks. It wounds me, this feeling. How can I have forgotten Beirut in such a short time? I search the apartment blocks, the streets, even the tunnels, some of them dark since Beirut has been hit with water and electricity shortages, but nothing looks familiar. But then I remember. I never fly to Beirut. I’ve come by plane three times in my life. All the other times, I have driven on the road from Damascus. I haven’t been to Damascus in years and now, I find myself looking for it everywhere.

During the civil war, Beirut was separated between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East. I remember my mother’s stories of growing up right on the Green Line, listening to the sound of the church bells rung in harmony with the azan from the mosque. Everything in Beirut is demarcated by this line, East and West, and no matter where you zigzag in the city, there is someone to point to the earth and say, “This – this is where the war was fought.”

Eli, a round middle-aged man who drives a taxi, spent his youth away from Beirut, escaping most of the war. “You had two choices then,” he tells me, “to pick up the rifle or to fly away.” He flew, but made it back in time for the Israeli invasion in 1982. “They were a nightmare for us,” he says, shaking his head. “It was very, very bad.”

But the landmarks of the civil war and Israeli invasion that followed have largely disappeared. Nothing remains on the spot where the US Marine barracks were bombed, not a relic or a sign. Nor does anything remain of the US embassy that was also hit. “Nothing, there’s nothing there,” Eli says, trying to think of something to show me.

There is the old cinema, a futuristic bubble of 1960s kitsch architecture that was destroyed during the fighting and stands like a spectre before the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque, where assassinated prime minister Hariri is buried. And there is the Holiday Inn, looming like a dark shadow behind Beirut’s most historic and most glamorous hotel, the Phoenicia, ashen and undone, craters all along its façade, the windows all blown out. But that’s it in terms of landmarks. There are plenty of apartment buildings ravaged by the militias that waged gun battles along this ancient capital but no one remembers those stories.

“You know the tunnel near the Phoenicia Hotel?” Eli asks, remembering something. “The one with no lights, not that one, but the one after that? Yasser Arafat used to sleep in there to avoid Israeli shelling.” Now the invisible line between East and West competes against other, more recent lines.

Falafel Sahyoon or Zion was a family-owned business. For as long as Beirutis can remember, they made the best falafel in the city. Until the father died and his two sons split the shop into two separate Falafel Sahyoons after an argument. Today Falafel Sahyoon and Falafel Sahyoon sit side by side, under the shade of an abandoned, bullet-riddled grey building. The brothers sell exactly the same food, crispy chickpea patties wrapped in Arabic bread and slathered with tahini sauce and green chilies. But they don’t speak to each other. No one seems able to tell the difference between their falafels. Which is the best? I ask. Both are good, Iman says, it depends on you.

Meanwhile, downtown, the roads are being closed. A new set of lines are being drawn to prepare for the latest protest against government inefficiency. Frequent power cuts and a stand-off between the government and a sanitation company have brought people out onto the streets for the last two weeks. On Riad el Solh Square a Maronite Church and the Al-Amin mosque are so close, they could touch. Not all lines are separations.

We walk by graffiti scrawled on buildings and hoardings. Stand up for your rights, one reads. You stink but you don’t do shit, another one says, referencing the garbage situation (I haven’t seen a scrap of garbage since I got here). Muslim heart Christian is scrawled in gold. Write about this, Iman, a family friend, tells me. Write about the spirit of this city. Write about the beauty of the Middle East.

The things they don’t want me to write about:
For the love of god, don’t say you can swim in the morning and ski in the evening.
Don’t mention the words “Paris of the East”’ (or worse, “Switzerland of the Middle East”).
That there is a great nightlife here.
That everyone is beautiful, because they are. So beautiful.  
Please, a young woman in cut-off jeans says, we’re so bored of that shit. 

Beirut _2_1

Above left, Fatima stayed at the Phoenicia, Beirut’s most glamorous hotel, in the heart of the city. Right, The Phoenicia is next to Beirut’s Corniche and looks out over the port of Beirut and, below, the Raouché neighbourhood.

Beirut _1_2

Beirut _1_3

Fatima and Abdul Rahman Katanani on the streets of Sabra. The refugee camp here, home to Palestinian refugees since 1948, was the site of the brutal Sabra and Shatila massacre, which occured in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war. Militias allied with the Israeli Defence Forces killed thousands of Palestinian civilians here.

In my memory, Beirut always looks a little bit like sand. I think of the cobblestone streets, of the beach and the old houses painted shades of yellow, ochre and brown. But today Sabra and Shatila are actually covered with a beige film of grit. The blue of the sea is no longer visible from the roads and young men and women walk around Japanese-like with surgical masks over their faces as Beirut is hit by a sandstorm.

Abdul Rahman Katanani, a 32-year-old award-winning Palestinian artist, was born in the Sabra refugee camp. His parents lived in Shatila, a few minutes away, and survived the massacre in 1982 when Phalangist militias, given cover by Israeli troops, entered the camps and killed as many as 3,500 Palestinian refugees. Katanani was born in Gaza Hospital, before it was burned down in a battle between the Amal militia and Syrian troops. He went to a UN school in Shatila and later, his family – parents, sisters and grandparents – came back to Gaza Hospital, after it had become a refugee shelter, and made their lives in its makeshift rooms. Over 400 families live in the building now, Katanani says as we climb the stairs to his studio.

He works in barbed wire, sheet metal and other found material to create sculptures and installations. “I started collecting material, pots, pans, old clothes, mainly garbage,” Katanani says, remembering the beginning of his career. “People would say, ‘What’s this shit?’ But after two to three weeks they would see my work and say, ‘Take my shirt!’ They started to participate in my art because they saw that I was coming out of the ghetto of the camp.”

The lights go off.

Katanani has stayed here out of choice, because it’s his home, though it is difficult. Art isn’t encouraged in Sabra, he says, the largest threat being economic. “There’s a narrative that if you’re an artist you die poor or you cut your ear off,” Katanani laughs. “But I try to encourage young kids here. Make your art a visa, I tell children here in Sabra. I tell them that because the dream here is to travel. You can even do art through garbage. But it’s not easy, they complain. Nothing’s easy. Even if you want to eat you have to move your jaw.”

The lights come back and an alarm beeps on Katanani’s phone. The tea he is brewing in the kitchen is ready. We are sitting next to two installations he is preparing for a solo show at New York’s Castor Gallery in March. One of the pieces is a large olive tree constructed from barbed wire. “We Palestinians connect to the olive tree because of the earth and the family that plants them,” he says. The wire represents the occupation. Palestine is everywhere in his work – even his signature, Abd, is written in the shape of a key. For the right of return, he says with a smile.

Katanani’s family was forced out of Jaffa in 1948 and they haven’t been back since. Though they have lived in Lebanon for 67 years, as Palestinians, they have no right to work, buy property, vote or have a passport. “I’ve never been to Palestine,” Katanani says. “I’m described as Palestinian Lebanese but if they don’t give us any rights how can we belong? But I love Lebanon. It’s a contradiction.” The lights go off again.

There is no doubt that Beirut is the pride of the Arab world. It belongs somewhere deep in the consciousness of the region, embedded in the heart. And not only because of its beauty; not only because it is cosmopolitan. Because it is a sign of Arab success and endurance, because Beirut has always been open to the world. Because there is something firm and unyielding about the Lebanese, no matter their suffering and hardship.

Here people live with an intimate proximity to poetry. In the car one afternoon, Iman and the photographer on assignment with me seem to have tears in their eyes when they listen to Khalid al Haber’s “Shareah al Hamra”, a song about the famous street. Driving along the Corniche there is a roundabout with a statue dedicated to Gamal Abdul Nasser. Back in Hamra there is a rue Mahatma Gandhi.

When we pass by the massive Saudi Arabian embassy on Bliss Street, I notice the concrete fortress the Saudis have built around their gate, cutting into the street, and looking the way American embassies around the world usually do. That much security? I ask Iman. She nods. They must be afraid, I say. “They better be,” she replies.

Lebanon is home to the first LGBT organisation in the Middle East. When it was founded, it received a message of solidarity from Hezbollah. Kholoud, a young Sunni woman – religion is like ethnicity here; everyone declares themselves proudly – holds her hands to her heart and tells me, “If it weren’t for Hassan Nasrallah” –Hezbollah’s General Secretary – “it would be bye-bye.” For whom? I ask, for you? “For me, for Lebanon,” she replies. “I would not live here without him. I feel protected by him.”

People love and hate with equal ferocity here. It is how a country this small turned on itself, neighbour butchering neighbour, brother against brother. But in all the years I have been coming to Lebanon, I have only seen the love.

Near Achrafieh, the trees are plastered with signs that read, “Massage by professional man”, followed by a phone number. It is my favourite piece of new graffiti all over the city until I’m told it’s not ironic.

Near Sodeco Square, out of the corner of my eye, I see a long beige wall inscribed with Hebrew. I get out of the car to go and look. It’s a Jewish cemetery in the heart of Beirut. The gates are closed and there is no one left here. Nearby, two men sit on metal chairs, smoking cigarettes and playing cards.

On the day before the protest, the latest in the series of street demonstrations, I ask Eli if he’s not afraid that the movement for civil accountability and transparency might be hijacked. Aren’t you afraid of an Arab Spring here? I ask. But Eli shakes his head. “We already had an Arab Spring,” he says. “We had it for 30 years. It won’t come again.”

In Beirut there is music everywhere. 

Beirut _2_3

Sabra is a neighbourhood adjacent to the Shatila Refugee Camp, home to tens of thousands of refugees. It has surged in size since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, offering refuge to those fleeing that war-torn country.

On my last day, the city is preparing for the evening protest. The schools are shut because of the sandstorm. The roads are being closed and for the first time I can’t smell salt in the air of this seaside city, only dust.

I drive to Jbeil. The capital of the district, Byblos, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an old fishing port and the harbour is filled with small boats. It is also the resting place of Mar Charbel, the only Catholic saint from Lebanon. In Byblos, there are Virgin Marys in the arches and tucked into rooftop alcoves. And though its winding streets are empty, a man carries a censer filled with bakhoor, smelling of sandalwood and musk, and purifying the small souk of evil spirits and bad luck.

I meet Omar, an old school friend from Damascus. And though I haven’t seen him in seven years he hasn’t changed. We have sweet Arabic coffee and he tells me that he still goes to Damascus. How is it? I ask. “Honestly, four years into the war and the electricity, water and garbage situation is better than here,” he says and we laugh. We laugh because what is there to say about a place you love that is no longer yours?

I tell Omar that I wanted to visit Syrian refugee centres here, that I tried to contact some organisations but I didn’t hear back. There are almost 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. On my first day in Beirut, Iman told me the roads were full of cars with Syrian number plates and though I have been looking, even though every time I sit in a car my eyes are on street level watching bumper after bumper pass by, I don’t see any. I hear people speak about the Syrians, I hear people speak about the difficulty of housing so many destitute people, but where else can the destitute go?

There are businesses here, too, Omar tells me. Lots of Syrians have come and opened up shops and restaurants. A friend of his owns a restaurant serving a Damascene menu that night. I’ll take you, he says and for a moment I don’t know if my heart can bear to be so close and at the same time so far.

I arrive at the protest site at Martyrs’ Square to music. The iconic bullet-marked statue is draped with a banner bearing one of the protest hashtags “#stayfree” and young men are perched at the base waving the red and white cedar-tree flag of Lebanon. “Wear something short,” Ayla, the photographer, tells me. (Words that would never be heard at a Pakistani protest; words that would, in fact, incite a Pakistani protest.) It gets hot, she explains, in the swell of so many people; it gets very hot.

The dust from the sandstorm has deterred no one. The long avenue is filled with men, women and children. There are hipsters carrying signs, “Winter is coming, so is cholera”, Shiite mullahs wearing their long cloaks and black turbans, and girls wearing shorts and tank tops. On a loudspeaker, protest music plays. Under the banner of the Lebanese flag, a young boy plays the darbuka. Someone has plastered photos of Lebanon’s 128 members of parliament on the ground, which people walk over. Overhead, a drone buzzes constantly, flying back and forth over the growing number of protestors. People chant slogans, they give speeches in small corners, they dance, they sing.

I have never been to a protest where I did not feel unsafe. I have never been to a protest and not felt afraid but proud. Standing on the road in Martyrs’ Square, I want to cry because I wish I belonged to a country like this, where people live. Where people want to be together, where they embrace issues instead of wasting time dictating how long shirt sleeves and beards should be. Beirut is beautiful for so many reasons, but for this especially. Because it’s the home of fighters, of survivors. 

Beirut _1_4

Above left, Beirut’s Jewish cemetery. Right, Beirut has been rocked by the “you stink” movement, which has coalesced criticism of the government around its inability to collect the city’s rubbish.

Omar picks me up and we drive to Mar Mikheil, a street named for another saint, to visit Motto. The brainchild of Syrian-Lebanese Karim Ghazzi, Motto invites chefs for three-day residencies where they cook a cuisine of their choosing. It has to be from a country they belong to or have a link to: that is the only condition. Ghazzi used to be a banker in Damascus, but he left in 2011 when the troubles started and came to Beirut. The restaurant, which first opened 18 months ago, serves a set menu. “It’s a dictatorship on our side,” Ghazzi admits, “but we allow a dictatorship on the side of our customers, who pay what they think is fair.” That is the idea behind Motto: trust.

There is no bill, no itemised prices. That evening Suraia, a Lebanese-Uruguayan food anthropologist, has prepared a seasonal Mediterranean menu. The Damascene menu is at Motto’s sister restaurant, Makan. And for a moment I am relieved. I don’t want to leave Beirut with sadness on my tongue.

It is late and I have an early-morning flight. Omar and I walk back towards the car and as we wait for it to be brought out by one of the impromptu valet parkers of Mar Mikheil, I see a young boy carrying a water bottle full of rose stems. He is trying to sell the flowers to two men smoking on the patio of a bar. One of the men is a little too intimate with the boy. He pulls him close, holding his neck in the palm of his hand. Watching the men tease the young boy, I feel uncomfortable. The other man pushes the boy away from the bar, his finger to his chest.

“Is he Syrian?” I ask Omar.

“I think so,” he says, also watching. “Do you want me to ask?”

No. “Yes,” I say.

The boy, who must be no older than 11, is Syrian. His name is Bilal, he says, watching Omar nervously. I’m Syrian, too, Omar says. Bilal smiles. He is holding his litre water bottle with the roses against his stomach.

Omar asks the boy where he lives and if he goes to school. Bilal lives in Monot, nearby in Achrafieh, and he goes to school. He has to wake up early tomorrow morning, he says.

It is almost midnight.

“Do you want a rose?” Bilal asks. Omar buys a soft pink stem for his wife.

“Are you OK?” Omar asks Bilal. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m OK,” the boy says, and rubs his eyes. He looks tired.

As we drive away, we are both quiet. I tell Omar about the number plates. About how every time I try to search for them, all I see are the little black cedar trees of Lebanese cars. Omar laughs. “Habibte, I have Damascus plates,” he says. Finally, I think, I will get to see Syrian plates.

I think of memory and how strangely it invades everything.

I cross off the yeses and noes of my trip. Yes I saw this; no I missed that. I am pleased with the balance, but I wish I didn’t have to leave Beirut so soon.

I remember the lyrics of a Fairuz song my mother sent me some years back: “My city switched off her lantern. And shut her door, and became all alone in the evening, alone with the night.” “To Beirut”, the song is called. “To Beirut,” Fairuz sings, “From my heart a salaam to Beirut. And kisses to the sea and the houses.”

Omar drops me off at the Phoenicia. I promise to come back. I promise to stay in touch. We say goodbye and he drives off. I never see the license plates. 
Beirut _2_2Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to 5000 BC. Home to many Catholic Maronites, it overlooks the Mediterranean, its history layered between its elegant corniche and scenic mountains. 

Beirut _1_5

Left, Motto, in Mar Mikheil. Right, the spirit of Fairuz, Lebanon’s legendary singer, pervades Beirut, from the radio to the architecture. Here she is portrayed in a mural by the street artist Yazan Halwani.

As I leave for the airport early in the morning, the sky is lifting. It is not yellow with sand any more. Beirut’s sea blue is breaking through again.

As my taxi drives through the long tunnel near the Phoenicia, for the first time in four days, the lights are brightly lit. §