At the end of December, I left New York for a month in Lebanon that would include New Year’s celebrations, Eid al-Adha, the Iraqi elections, fantastic food and wine, the finest Roman temple outside Italy, the Mediterranean climate, skiing, beautiful women, serious men, nightlife that included smoking in bars and restaurants, old friends, new friends, and talk. Mostly, I went for the talk. This last year or so, New York has reminded me of a Cairo shopping mall I used to frequent where the soundtrack was always playing a recitation of the Quran. It was disturbing not because I think there should be separation between the sacred and consumer items, but because a society that keeps re-circulating the same sound to confirm and consolidate what it already believes about itself is a troubled one. By convincing themselves that the rest of their country was tragically, dangerously stupid, my New York neighbors effectively isolated themselves from the rest of the country. At any rate, I wanted to be somewhere where you can hear the talk over the soundtrack, and Lebanon seems right.
When I hit the ground, most of the talk is about the growing opposition to Syria’s 15-year occupation of Lebanon, and in the month I’m here, that movement turns into a revolution. I’m sitting with my friends Tony, originally from Lebanon and now living in the States, and Elie at Casper & Gambini, a handsome downtown restaurant with a young, hip clientele, who even at 11 p.m. are on their cell phones plotting the rest of the night. Beirut Central District, as it’s sometimes called, is Lebanon’s South Street Seaport, its Fisherman’s Wharf, Faneuil Hall, or Inner Harbor—a well-designed, somewhat antiseptic space with upscale chain-style restaurants and expensive shopping that’s a little too touristy for the natives, even if it was once a site of local historical significance. The difference between Lebanon’s outdoor mall and those American ones is that downtown Beirut was devastated during the wars that started in 1975 and ended in 1990.
This new downtown is part of the legacy of Rafik Hariri, the recently assassinated former prime minister, who did more than anyone to restore Beirut’s reputation as a tourist destination. The explosion that killed him and 18 others blew out the windows of the city’s most famous luxury hotel, the five-star Intercontinental Phoenicia, which also boasts one of Beirut’s top French “gastronomique” restaurants. In 1994, Hariri founded Solidere, a company for the reconstruction and development of the Central District, in which he was the major stockholder until his death. He was born in Sidon (also known as Saida), a southern port city that is one of the country’s Sunni Muslim strongholds, but he made his name and his fortune in Saudi Arabia. (Isn’t it odd that a society as closed as the kingdom plays the equivalent of meritocratic, free-wheeling America in the rags-to-riches narratives of two of the Arab world’s best-known fortunes—Hariri’s and that of Osama Bin Laden’s father.) Beirut Central District is so favored by Saudi tourists, an especially lucrative market now that Gulf Arabs are less inclined to vacation in Europe and the United States, that Solidere’s immediate future is a little shaky: Sunnis like the Saudis are angry that the Syrians assassinated a Sunni leader, and they may be tempted to stay away until Syria leaves.
But during Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Saudi tourists have just about taken over downtown, especially the restaurants where the Saudi women seem less interested in the various food choices—French, Lebanese, Moroccan, Italian, TGIF, Dunkin’ Donuts—than in smoking water pipes underneath see-through plastic tents set up in the middle of the cobblestone streets. Some of the women are fully veiled in black, but most seem to be availing themselves of the opportunity to show off their latest purchases. After a little time checking out their dresses, jewelry, hair, and make-up, it dawns on me that underneath every Saudi veil, there’s a Jersey girl dying to break free.
The veil isn’t that big of an issue for Lebanese women. That’s partly because Christians make up around 40 percent of the population, but even in the Muslim communities, the veil is not the subject of fierce debate it is in some Arab cities, such as Cairo. Of course, Hussein Fadlallah, the Shiite community’s top religious leader, is pretty insistent that women must veil. But right now the country’s most famous Shiite is Haifa Wahby, a pop singer of limited ability and supernatural sex appeal, who wears as little clothing as possible. Women want so much to look like her, one joke goes, that Haifa is responsible for more operations than Hezbollah.
“Yes, Beirut is definitely different from the other major cities in the Arab world,” says Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who’s in Beirut for a few days before heading off to spend the rest of the year in Damascus. “One way to understand the Middle East and North Africa,” Josh continues, “is to remember that the desert was a giant ocean to the Arabs. The sand was water, and the camel caravans were transport ships—’ships of the desert’—and they moved their goods from port to port: Damascus, Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo. So, all of them are trading with each other along this great sea of sand. Settlements on the water weren’t as important. Look at Alexandria, important to the Greeks and Romans but not to the Arab empire. Same with Beirut—the population figures weren’t very high up until the early 19th century, when trade with the West really started to boom.”
It seems to me that there are two models of commerce and communications. Call one the Cairo mall model—or New York if you prefer—where the same information is fed back to the audience that produced it; this is trading in a desert. And then there’s the example of Beirut, or anywhere where cultures—not just the Arab world and the West—meet and new ideas circulate.
Josh and Tony are an interesting example of the latter. This is the first time they’ve met, even though they’ve been debating each other on their excellent Levantine blogs for close to a year now. After Hariri’s assassination, Josh’s Syria Comment and Tony’s Across the Bay became useful and often important clearinghouses of information on Syria and Lebanon. That the former is usually posted from Norman, Okla., and the latter from N.Y.C., is a further indication that authoritarian Arab regimes and their official media outlets are losing their monopoly over describing Arab reality.
For all the good U.S. forces in Iraq have done in rearranging the Middle East’s political landscape, Elie argues that the Beirut model is what’s making it happen so fast. “Look around,” he says. We’re walking through the downtown Place de l’Etoile when a group of four totally veiled women hurry by us. “That’s the past,” Elie says. “Maybe some of these women want to stay veiled, so they’ll stay veiled. But you’re not going to be able to keep them that way, not now. Television, the satellite stations, movies, Internet, e-mail, mobile phones—the forces going against the old ways are too powerful. It’s happening right in front of us, look around..”
We’re standing under the big clock downtown surrounded by thousands of young Saudi men and women chatting, laughing with each other, flirting, and trading phone numbers. They’re all talking freely here in the cool night air as a Mediterranean wind blows in off the sea, and everything seems so bright right now in the light of their happiness—especially the future.
“That’s why they’re here in Beirut,” Elie says. Me, too.