Like many of my generation, I fell in love with Beirut before I saw her. Years before I saw her, walked on her streets, sat in her cafés or spent a quiet night gazing at the mountains from one side of the city to other.
And when I first visited the city in the late 1980s, I fell in love with her even more, although the city looked like an unhappy place then.
It was 1988 and the civil war was raging, especially in the south and the north of the country. Beirut was licking its wounds following the Israeli invasion and the constant shelling by the rival Muslim and Christian militias.
In the past two decades though, I never missed a chance to drop by my beloved Beirut. I would go and check on her almost every year. Her mesmerising beaches, welcoming nights, cosy restaurants, her bookshops with their distinct history-filled smells.
Beirut lives in us. It is more than a city, the building or even the shopping malls that have sprung everywhere recently. It remains an idea. A romantic idea. One’s first rendezvous, the Almond’s season, Antoine library, the Medina theatre, the Wimpy cafe, the Concord Cinema, and of course Fairuz, the angelic voice that sang for Beirut and lovers for decades
I adore its summers, when the city looks as gorgeous as a bride on her wedding night. Beirut in the summer is a different place as hundreds of thousands of ‘Beirutophiles’ like myself rush to the city from around the world, even in the toughest of times.
A city of paradoxes
For me, Beirut is a city of paradoxes. She endured so many wars, disasters and miseries. At the same time, it remained a place of love, arts and poetry. And no poet loved Beirut more than Nizar Qabbani, the Syrian literary genuis who lived most of his life in Beirut. He even lost his wife there in 1981 when the Iraqi embassy (where she worked) was destroyed by a powerful car bomb.
His love poetry is celebrated in the Arab world. But he saved his most beautiful love verses for Beirut. During the worst days of the civil war (1975-1990), he pleaded with his beloved city:
Rise like a poem of roses
Or you can rise like a poem of fire
Before you, there was nothing
After you, there is nothing
And there is nothing like you
You are the conclusion of our lives
Rise for love, for the poets
Rise for the bread, for the poor
Love calls on you, the prettiest of all queens
God calls on you, the mistress of all queens
I have always wondered what Nizar, who died in London in 1998, away from his beloved Beirut, would say today if he would see her succumbing to the rule of the militias and the corrupt former warlords.
Beirut is a beautiful idea
But even then, Beirut lives in us. It is more than a city, the building or even the shopping malls that have sprung everywhere recently. It remains an idea. A romantic idea. One’s first rendezvous, the Almond’s season, Antoine library, the Medina theatre, the Wimpy cafe, the Concord Cinema, and of course Fairuz, the angelic voice that sang for Beirut and lovers for decades.
It is hard to find an Arab whose day, everywhere on this planet, that doesn’t begin with Fairuz. Perhaps because we all like to imagine that we are having our morning coffee in Beirut’s Al Hamra Street.
Today, Beirut mourns her dead sons and daughters. More than 100 innocent lives were lost in the port blast on Tuesday. The toll may go up. Today, the city is sad and, again, under a state of emergency. As I watch the news and social media videos, I feel numb. Nothing but pain. My Beirut deserves better than this.
Years of corruption, conflicts and armed groups, such as Hezbollah, have sadly ripped off Beirut’s joy. Today, we miss the playful city. I am not sure how she will endure probably the worst bombing ever in Beirut’s history. And the city has seen quite a few since 1975. This time, it wasn’t from a foreign enemy or because of a war though. It was a criminal act from within.
However, I wouldn’t rush to lament the death of Beirut. This is not quite a requiem. As fragile as Beirut is, she still is resilient. The Lebanese trace their roots to the Phoenicians. And like the mythical Phoenix, Beirut will always rise from the ashes.