Beirut’s Ghosts


Joyce famously boasted that his ambition in Ulysses was to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city were one day destroyed it could be reconstructed out of his novel. The same ambition seems to animate Jaber’s mapping of Beirut, where the possibility of destruction is not so remote as it might seem. It happened to the Hellenistic city in 140 BCE, then again in the earthquake of 551, and a third time during Lebanon’s fifteen year civil war (1975–1990). At the end of that conflict, the city’s downtown lay in ruins. Rafiq Hariri, who had earned billions in the Saudi construction business and was newly elected as Lebanon’s prime minister in 1992, set up a real estate company called Solidere to oversee the rebuilding of the city center (later the scene of his own assassination). Solidere began its work by razing most of the district to the ground, uncovering in the process a mille-feuille of archeological strata from Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Ottoman Beirut. Ten years later, a glittering new downtown stood in place of the old. So the double-vision that Jaber gives his characters and readers—the ability to see specters of the past behind the solid structures of the present—is a symptom of the vast and sudden transformation Beirut has undergone since the end of the civil war.

more from Robyn Creswell at the NYRB here.