Letter From Beirut

by Waleed Hazbun

February 4, 2007
Beirut, Lebanon

Last week, after much delay, I finally landed in Beirut where I spend 2007 teaching at the American University of Beirut.

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

I’m not exactly an expert on the topic but Beirut’s urban form seems to be a heterotopic mosaic in which each neighborhood developed from an interactive fusion between particular local features and ties to other places near and far. The Hamra district is located near the 140+ year old American University of Beirut (AUB). It is packed with bookstores and cafes and a few stores and restaurants that cater to its staff and faculty. The campus itself its beautifully located on a hill near the edge of the water which sparkles deep blue and makes a stunning site from many locations on its treed campus. Through the AUB the Hamra district has maintained ties to universities and intellectual centers across the world including a legacy of ties with Princeton. While less diverse than in the past, AUB’s students still come from all parts of the Lebanon as well as many parts of the Arab and developing world. Until the summer 2006 war, as the Provost recently explained, it even had a few dozen students from the United States. Its graduates are spread across the globe. Ironies of ironies, maybe, the new US representative to the UN is and AUB graduate, where he will work with Lebanon’s newly appointed representative who happened to be the chairman of the AUB department (Political Studies and Public Administration) where I will begin teaching next week.

These days Hamra is also being shaped by the current political standoff between the ‘March 14’ forces that control the government and the ‘March 8’ opposition that is seeking to bring down the PM and/or force him to create a ‘unity government’ that gives forces like Hezbollah (allied with some populist and pro-Syrian forces) a veto power of major political decisions. The ‘March 14’ forces are a motley crew (that includes right wing Christians, centrist Sunni Muslims, and a few democratic leftists) cobbled together in the large shadow of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who used his own personal wealth and business ties to help rebuilt this city destroyed by a the 1975-90 civil war. While a diverse district, Hamra is also historically a Sunni Muslim neighborhood where the current Prime Minister Fuad Sinora and the home of the late Hariri (where his family continues to lead the political movement he built) live. You can easily tell where they live by the concrete barricades and roadblocks that limit traffic near them and are manned by security forces from the interior ministry controlled by members of the ‘March 14’ coalition.

Other security forces and units from the national army (viewed as closer to the pro-Syrian politicians and dominated by Shia who are generally aligned with oppositions parties such as Amal and Hezbollah) are watching guard over the opposition-constructed tent city surrounding the Prime Minster’s downtown headquarters. These guards are spread across the city, having taken to the streets after the disturbing riots that took place at the Beirut Arab University, quite a long ways south from the Hamra district but still on the Western side of town bordering the shia dominated neighborhoods at the southern end of Beirut. In the wake of those riots a one night curfew was announced in an effort to defuse the tensions between rival political movements who find active supporters and cadre on the various campuses. The government even declared that all educational institutions had to shut down for a few days, delaying the start of the spring term at AUB.

I haven’t been over the ‘Christian’ East Beirut (the home of much of the fancy restaurant and night club scene), where they have their own tensions and fears due to the long string of assassinations and small scale bombing that followed the mass moving in the spring of 2005 to send the Syrian troops and intelligence networks back home. At the same time the Christian community is currently divided between followers of the March 14 forces and the populist former general Aoun who says he represents an alterative to the currupt, sectarian elites and has aligned himself with Hizballah in a effort to become the next President of the country (who must be a Maronite Christian).

The other night I read a profile of President John Waterbury in a recent issue (Jan 24) of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s written by a Beirut/Damascus-based youngish Princeton grad who is a stringer for the NY Times. She often files culture/society/human interest stories. It’s not such a great piece in that it doesn’t really cover some angles, such as that some AUB students were not happy that JW suspended the counting of the student election results because there were protests outside the University gates. Some viewed this action as a suspension of democracy on campus, though the article gives him credit for defusing the situation where political protests by rival parties were taking place just outside the University gates. After the recent riots (which happened weeks after the essay was written) we are all the more sensitive to the issue, but who knows what policies would best prevent riots past and future. Internal security forces now cluster in front of the AUB Main Gate and help provide gate security. This might also be because Prime Minister Sinora lives across the street from campus. We also discovered, while getting Michelle a campus ID, that AUB has written a new policy for guests on campus. Not clear what it is, but I guess its a sign that the administration is working the situation.

The best part of the PAW article is that JW notes that every AUB class has its ‘war’ stories, some lived through wars, others riots, some student protests and sit-ins etc… (Remember we are making the 50th anniversary of the high-water era of Nasserist and Arab nationalist mobilization of the Arab street.) JW makes the point of saying that dealing with these events is part of his job and part of the AUB experience, in a sense they don’t react as if each represents a crisis, but an recurrent, almost expected sort of event that plans exist for. He notes that EVERY year ‘come hell or high water’ AUB has graduated a class. They deal with situations one day at a time. If they must close, they will for just the days they need, then they expect to get back open because its the duty of the place. In what I think is the best line of the interview, he notes ‘This show goes on.’

As I begin to sense the political tensions, that the political crisis will not likely be over soon, I have watched some of Hezbollah’s al Manar TV, complete with its slick American political campaign style negative ads mocking the achievements of Hariri (noting the corruption and massive debt that were endemic to his mode of operation)..and its pretty clear they have a critique of the govt that wont just go away, let alone their ability to gain outside support that in terms of effectiveness may match the $1 billion of so that the US is throwing behind the current govt. Who knows if regional tensions and the a New Arab/Middle Eastern cold war will tear it apart as it have other parts of the region. It will not stand isolated like the Gulf states under the security umbrella of the 7th fleet bolstered by the abundant petrodollars and financial returns.

Nevertheless, while I fear the implications of the coming Bush admin confrontation with Iran and the continuing fallout of its disastrous regional politices, the local political situation in Lebanon doesn’t seem to bother me, it only really saddens me. Maybe it’s the Baltimore still in me, the appreciation of the dwellers, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals who make their lives in that scrappy, rundown, post-industrial ruin of a formerly grand 19th century city that had its last peak, like Beirut, in the 1950s. This all leads me to fear the effects of over-gentrification, of global finance remodeling an urban space for tourism and hyper-consumerism. I have heard people mention, and seem to fear, Beirut becoming over-shadowed by the Gulf where they can buy whole libraries and museums and build “global cities” out of artificial islands, petrodollars, and imported labor and technology. Beirut might have lost some of its shine built in the last few years before its was dulled and scraped by the war and the resulting political turmoil. But it seems to me, that everything that is really interesting about this city, Hamra, and AUB are still here and will go on. It need not become again the ‘Paris, or Geneva etc.. of the Middle East.’ It likely won’t. Rather, what the Middle East needs now, and it needs it to survive out the current crisis, is a ‘Beirut’ with its difficult pluralism, intellectual debate, always inventive entrepreneurialism, and often splinted contradictory cosmopolitism.

Waleed Hazbun is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.