Downtown Beirut. It lies about a thirty minute walk from our abode in Hamra, but is a completely different world. The walk takes you past blocks of current construction, each with large pictures draped across the fenced-in area showing what lovely residential plazas will rise from the ground within the next year. Eventually, the construction abates and gleaming new facades, full of designer stores on the ground levels and apartments above, come into view. Because the whole of downtown was granted to one construction company after the civil war, the buildings all feel the same- a nod to some Ottoman architectural flourishes, but mostly just overly polished and too new. Near empty cafés dot the pedestrian area, but it’s the afternoon and coffee or lunch is much cheaper in any other part of the city. Many of the residential streets are quiet (I don’t think people are really living in any of the buildings), making it seem too pristine, a bit unreal, and as though it is all hiding something. Just as you’re feeling a bit “Wrinkle in Time” about the whole affair, you turn a corner and come face to face with the secret. Twisted wrought iron hangs from the balconies of a windowless and dilapidated concrete building. Devoid of residents with a shelled out gash running along the whole side of the building and pockmarked entirely with bullet holes, this ghostly figure of the past reminds me that all the gleam of downtown, all its polish and bravado, cannot completely closet away the past.
If you only look at the grandeur of the Mohammad al-Amin mosque on the main boulevard (complete with a gigantic chandelier that wouldn’t fit in my family room at home), forget the world while gazing at the gorgeous iconostasis in St. George’s Orthodox Church, or simply roam around the posh Saifi Village boutiques, it is easy to forget that the Green Line ran right through the middle of downtown. But a few last reminders linger. The statue in the center of the Place des Martyrs, in front of the mosque, resembles a piece of Swiss cheeses it has so many bullet holes in it. Here and there, shelled out, bullet torn facades of apartments and even a church stand as testaments to lives lost and destruction wrought. If that is not enough to testify to a city torn apart by the power struggle between its various factions, be sure to walk inside the monument erected to Rafiq Hariri. Blown up in 2005 by a bomb that shook half the city, this very popular prime minister has been laid to rest next to the mosque he built. He lies (I suppose its him or at least relics of him...a bit macabre really) under a bed of white mums in a strange, seemingly impermanent, tent-like structure, surrounded by giant photos and green indoor/outdoor carpeting. In reaction to his death, 1 million Lebanese, which was 25-33% of Lebanon’s population, turned out for a protest. Today this group, known as 14 March (date of the rally), continues to have great say in government matters as a political coalition that continues Hariri’s platform.
But Rafiq Hariri is not really gone from the scene: the hottest debate in Lebanon right now revolves around the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has been set-up to investigate his assassination. With all parties entering the debate, including Syria and Hezbollah who have the most to lose, Lebanon is again finding itself in the line-of-fire. Yet, Beirut continues to live its frenetic lifestyle, with a string of bars and clubs going wild downtown and a host of cafes filled with hookah smoke in Hamra. The newspapers are filled with drama and doom, but in a place where peace is so ephemeral, no one takes much notice. Everyone wants the gleam and the polish, willfully ignoring what might be lurking underneath.