Every day when I leave home, I pass a message scrawled in English on the peeling wall of an old building. It says: “Politicians . . . raccoon???”
Beirut is a city awash with street art, but it is usually more straightforward: a jibe at the entrenched elite, a web of Arabic calligraphy. What could this enigmatic message mean? That just one of these fuzzy, nocturnal creatures is worth a pack of politicians? That, like raccoons, Lebanese politicians squabble over trash? (More on that later.)
Whatever it means, the message seems both outraged and amused — which is just my impression of the spirit in which the Lebanese navigate life through their city. I’ve lived here for eight years and, like most Beirutis, native or adopted, I can’t stand the place — and I can’t stand to leave it, either.
Beirut can charm you with its snowcapped mountains diving toward the Mediterranean, its crumbling mansions and the nightlife that local mythology tells us never stops, even for wars.
But this is also a city where, for years, rival politicians have not resolved a waste management crisis that one summer left trash spewing down the streets. I’ve covered a demonstration where people blocked a street with tyres — to protest against protests that blocked streets with tyres. And I don’t care how many tech-savvy friends tell me it’s not possible: the internet gets slower in Beirut when it rains.
Before living here, I loved listening to the comedic musicals about civil war-era Beirut by Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani. The electricity and water cuts seemed strangely charming when actors sang about them. Much less charming, I learnt, when I was the one waking up to find I had no water.
I first visited the city in 2008, while studying Arabic in neighbouring Syria. I always felt I had to watch what I said in Damascus, to avoid drawing the attention of the secret police. By contrast, Beirut felt liberating. Gulf Arab tourists filled the streets of trendy downtown Beirut, a sea of women in black abayas and men puffing water pipes.
But when I moved here in 2011, downtown was empty. The tourists were gone, wary that neighbouring Syria’s conflict would re-inflame the wounds of Lebanon’s own 1975-90 civil war, which divided the country along sectarian lines.
Back then, I lived in Beirut’s buzzing northwestern Hamra district, and spent most evenings at Mezyan, a favourite among friends fleeing Syria’s war. By midnight, everyone was dancing traditional dabke through clouds of cigarette smoke. As Beirut stabilised in recent years, I watched the tourists come back, while my Syrian friends fled yet again — some to Turkey, more tolerant of Syrian refugees, others to Europe, in search of new beginnings.
I moved to Beirut’s eastern half with my partner, Alex, to a beautiful old building with a balcony that looks to the sea. We have back-up water and a generator, and no longer feel the daily indignities many others face.
The scars of Lebanon’s war may still be visible on Beirut’s buildings, but a starker legacy is the division of its people. Broadly speaking, Muslims ended up on the west side and Christians on the east. You can still meet people reluctant to cross the “green line” — the infamous demarcation line that ran north to south through the city and became a no-go zone of cratered streets and buildings, where only militants would roam.
Today, Beirut’s downtown is filled with gleaming reconstructed buildings, cafés and luxury shops. That glamour is simply out of reach for many Lebanese, and Beirut’s glitzy heart can feel empty for a city so vibrant.
An important point for Middle East novices: Beirut may suffer from wartime legacies, but it is not a country at war. I feel safer walking its streets than I do back home in Los Angeles, or around the FT offices in London. Friends are often shocked to hear we journalists can meet representatives of the Shia Muslim force, Hizbollah, a group as press-savvy as any political party back home. They even send me Christmas cards.
Now that I’ve come to the end of my time as the FT’s Middle East correspondent and am heading to Berlin to work on a book about Syrian refugees, I’ll miss this city, where socialising isn’t for weekends, but for any day and every day — and where the grocer always notices when I’ve been away.
I’ll even miss the way rules seem made to be broken. Once, when the electricity at home inexplicably shut off, Alex marched over to the state offices to complain. A group of workers on strike furtively explained how he could (illegally) restart the electricity. Seeking proper recourse, he called the government hotline. “Don’t tell anyone I told you this,” said the voice. “But here’s how to restart it yourself . . .”
My most love/hate relationship is with Beirut’s “service” system (pronounced “servees”), an informal shared taxi system to make up for the lack of public transport. It works like this: you flag a taxi, say where you want to go, and they’ll decide whether they feel like taking you. The standard price is 2,000 Lebanese pounds (about $1.33/94p).
You never know what will happen in a service. Every driver is a political analyst, ready to expound upon the day’s news. Some regale me with old ballads. Another shocked me by breaking into Hebrew and telling of his former life as an Israeli collaborator.
Some Beirutis seem like the keepers of secret keys. It can be the friend who takes me to a party in an Ottoman-era mansion, where the hostess in a sparkling kaftan offers champagne bottles on ice. It might be the employee at the hippodrome, who ushers me into the “VIP section” at the Sunday horse races. It is as old and decayed as the normal section, but the old men in three-piece suits poring over racing cards offer a trace of 1960s prewar Beiruti glamour.
Even the beloved and despised service drivers offer valuable clues. When I once struggled to describe a destination, one driver advised me to say “Piccadilly theatre”. I hadn’t heard of it, because it had been shut down for decades. But that’s the thing about Beirut: many of its landmarks are memories. It’s as much about what isn’t there as what is.
Perhaps that is why expats and locals alike love the WalkBeirut tour, led by the charismatic Ronnie Chatah. Whenever friends visit, I take them on his exploration of forgotten places right in the middle of town. He weaves a history both shared and intimate.
On top of the battle-scarred 70s tower block of the former Holiday Inn are the crumbling remains of a revolving restaurant, where his parents went on one of their first dates. Legal disputes over tearing the building down have left it as an accidental monument to the war — and to life before it. “You could say, in a way, I started out at that restaurant,” jokes Chatah.
Living in Beirut for seven years, I have my own map of memories and absences. Places I once lived alone. The corniche where I would gossip with a beloved friend who passed away.
I also walk past the glowing windows of apartments where I made meals with friends, or the old Le Chef restaurant, where waiters who have known me for years shout “Erikaaaa!” with happy madness as I pass, to the bewilderment of their customers. There is the little side street I loved to walk down with Alex.
He proposed by sending me on a scavenger hunt. A set of riddles led me across town, from the little side street, all the way to the Corniche. I arrived in time for sunset. I’ll keep the riddles. Someday, I’ll come back searching for places that once were and, in Beirut, always will be.