Beirut: The Living City
After a long flight from Washington D.C. to Istanbul, and then a much shorter flight from Istanbul to Beirut, I found myself taking my first steps onto the soil of Lebanon.
Night had fallen, but there were new things to see in every direction. Winding streets lit by signs and headlights, stands selling fruit, people in many different kinds of dress, advertisements and street names in Arabic, French, and English. I went to bed thinking that things would seem more calm in the light of day.
My first full day in Lebanon proved that thinking completely wrong. My first impression of Beirut is best described as a city that is very much alive, ancient and yet growing, a city of complimentary contrasts.
After meeting our guide from the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation (LRF), our group took a tour of the city's downtown. The walk provided a wonderful overview of how Beirut is, to me, a place of living history. The ancient remains of Roman bath houses, their ruins newly excavated, lie beneath the imposing architecture of old Ottoman offices and government buildings. The oldest functioning Greek Orthodox church in Beirut, the Cathedral of St. George built in the 18th century, stands nearby the buildings constructed during the rule of the French mandate after WWI.
And everywhere are the small reminders of the Civil War, the holes in old buildings and now-fractured statues. Construction is booming, with buildings rising up all over the city and sign advertising where new locations will be. ll of this combines to create an atmosphere of energy that hangs over the memories of the past, a sense of a society moving forward.
The Living City
The multi-faith nature of Lebanon was also clearly felt during my walk through Beirut's downtown. The minarets and dome of the 21st century Hariri mosque reside next to the tall tower, still under construction, of a Maronite Catholic church. The Cathedral of St. George lies within earshot of a mosque call-to-prayer.
Seeing these religious buildings standing serenely within a short distance of one another was almost enough to make me forget that Lebanon is a nation divided by religious groups, to the point that the government itself requires strictly fixed positions and seats based on religious identity.
But the city did not give me the impression of a tense or divided place. Entirely the opposite.
People on the streets walk casually in both "Western" dress and in slightly more religious attire, with clear preference for clothing of color and style. The soldiers and guards in their camouflage and casually slung rifles were imposing at first, but their constant presence and helpful dispositions soon put them in mind of police more than warriors, with some stopping to chat with passing friends or occasionally helping to direct the hectic and all-but-lawless Beirut traffic. Arabic is the most common language, but I was able to get by well with English and the still-popular French to supplement my meager Arabic skill.
My first day ended with a meal of traditional-style falafel, which was perfect for my palate, and an unexpected pleasure. An open-street music concert, what was apparently an annual event, was playing in the evening, and I was surprised to find that I recognized the voice of the singer. It was Najwa Karam, the famous Lebanese singer and, it so happened, one of my personal favorite artists.
During my first year in the Arabic Club, we had danced to one of her songs at the International Festival! I couldn't believe my luck at finding myself at a free concert of my favorite Lebanese singer, and the crowd of energetic, dancing and clapping people contained all age groups and styles. It was an exciting and moving moment, and the perfect ending to my first night in Lebanon.
It is hard to believe that nine days still lie ahead on this trip, but the LRF have created a schedule just as full and exciting as this first day. I can't know what awaits me aside from the general itinerary, but today fills me with even more excitement for what is to come.
Until then readers, Ma Salaama.
— Robbie Nixon, a junior history major