Order the summer edition here

Permanent state of emergency

ESSAY / The power goes out, exchange rates fluctuate, bread prices explode, fuel disappears. There are also still traces of the explosion. Yet Beirut's hard-pressed citizens time and again manage to find a foothold in chaos. And the chaos is contributing to Beirut never becoming a clean-up city.

(QUESTO ARTICOLO È MACCHINA TRADOTTO da Google dal norvegese)

It is 2 am in Aarhus, Denmark. Why am I doing this? Leaving a warm, sleeping boy's body by my side to set out on a journey into the night. A journey that in 13 hours will transport me 4400 kilometers to find myself in a city where an explosion two years ago gave a violent jolt to a city that was already troubled. A city which has reportedly been destroyed and brought to its knees so many times that the population has stopped counting. A city where cultures and religions from all over the world live side by side, which of course creates both a fascinating diversity and a violent fuel for conflict.

Er der farligt i Beirut? Flere end vanligt siger, at jeg skal passe på mig selv. At jeg skal være forsigtig. At jeg skal komme hjem igen. Men jeg har en drøm om Beirut. En drøm, som har rumsteret i mange år, dekader velsagtens. En drøm rodfæstet i en forestilling om det libanesiske som en rig, dragende kultur, hvor det europæiske eksisterer side om side med det arabiske. Hvor koloniale rester af især fransk karakter fortsat præger en kultur, som ellers er beriget af både syrere, armenere, palæstinensere for blot at nævne nogle få af de mange folkefærd, der bebor Beirut.

Man looking in the trash

Now I am a happily married man, but once it was also a dream rooted in the erotic – an attraction to the Lebanese woman in all her mystery. The mysterious eyes. I admit that this verges on a possessive, patriarchal gaze, but no good comes of running away from my notions – no matter how incorrect and problematic they may be.

Look I write. The gaze of the alluring woman. My patriarchal gaze. And more looks come into play when I now arrive in Beirut.

We have to fend for ourselves

Som førstegangsbesøgende kan jeg måske siges at have et jomfrueligt blik, men jomfruens blik er også ofte et turistet blik. Man forfalder til at gøre det, som alle andre før en har gjort. Søger på engelsksprogede websites for at finde ud af hvad der er op og ned på dette fremmede sted. Ender på de samme cafeer og ved de samme attraktioner, som alle mulige andre. Det er nu ikke fordi, der er ret mange andre. Faktisk går jeg de første par dage rundt i Hammer-kvarteret uden at møde andre vesterlændinge. På morgenmadsrestauranten er jeg eneste gæst. Ja, selv på den armenske restaurant Maygir, hvor jeg spiser min aftensmad, er jeg længe den eneste gæst og har hele fem tjenere omkring mig. Der er givetvist lang vej til, at turisterne vender tilbage til Beirut, som i sine velmagtsdage havde 2 millioner besøgende årligt.

Besides touristblikket har jeg også essayistens blik, journalistens og den skrivendes blik. Jeg ved, at jeg skal skrive noget fra denne by. Oplever jeg den så anderledes? Går jeg monstro til den med en bevidsthed om den skrift, det skal ende ud i? Er det journalisten i mig, der gør, at jeg allerede på andendagen farer ud til havneområdet for at besigtige resterne af eksplosionen i august 2020 – eller er der tale om katastrofeturisme? Sporene på havneområdet og i kvarterne omkring havnen er voldsomme. Mange bygninger står tomme, med sprængte ruder og iturevet interiør. Kun en tom skal er tilbage. Selv Sursock-kunstmuseet, som ellers er placeret et stykke fra havnen, er fortsat lukket. De har netop skiftet ruderne i bygningerne, og hvis alt går vel kan de åbne igen til vinteren. Jeg køber et smykke i giftshoppen, som trods alt har åbent.

In addition to the tourist gaze, I also have the gaze of the essayist, the journalist and the writer.

However, the journalistic gaze in me is no more rooted than that I actually had no idea that there were parliamentary elections for the first time since 2018 in the very days I am in Beirut. The election result created small shifts. The Lebanese Forces came forward because they have managed to profit from the other parties' inability to act corona- the pandemic. Hezbollah in particular went back. I saw small protests in the street, and one of my acquaintances also experienced minor riots and volleys of gunfire, but otherwise the election did not create the battles that some feared. However, those I speak to have no illusion that the new parliament, which is being negotiated in place, will change the world. The trust that the politicians take the population's all-too-difficult conditions seriously can lie in a very small place. The people I spoke to tell basically the same story.

Large Armenian, Palestinian and Syrian populations inhabit Beirut.

The elderly man on the street collecting pita bread, which he dries and gives to the birds. The young, Armenian guide at the museum, who ends up inviting me to his friend's birthday north of Beirut. The Syrian-American-Australian (sic) media professor who is the man who invited me here. Everyone's story sounds the same – we have to fend for ourselves. Politicians are a bunch of corrupt people in power who have no idea what is happening in the population.

The harbor area where the explosion occurred

American money

Finally, there is the docent's look. Because I am also here as a docent in media. Has come to teach at one of the city's American universities. These institutions of learning are made possible by American money, and they are not the only thing that Americans apparently pay for. On the second day, when I walk towards the harbor area to view the continued impact of the explosion, I pass a strip of lampposts with signs on them. Not unusual in itself, but the signs announce that the lamppost has been paid for with American money, as an impractical way to get the country back on its feet. On my way I see a car advertisement with the inscription «Together we get back on track». Everyone obviously manages to speculate on the country's tragic situation.

The American-financed lampposts are otherwise in short supply in a city which often lies in darkness. It is unusual for the pedestrian. Several times I splash over a hole in the pavement and almost blow my nose. Perhaps Beirut has always been sporadically lit, but the economic situation has exacerbated this condition and makes the chaotic traffic even more unpredictable. I don't immediately get used to the traffic inferno. I'm too excited to be walking for that. But I see after a few days that it is a fascinating, fluid way in which the traffic takes place. When there is no traffic light to regulate who can move and who must hold back, you have to figure it out in another way. It provides a dialogue and interaction that is not present in the traffic I know.

The traffic chaos is, however, pestilence for pedestrians. Noisy, dirty, stressful. Steady these shouts if you don't need a taxi. As if it is almost completely unthinkable that you would rather go. But the chaos also contributes to the fact that it will never be a clean-cut city. Never as romantic as Paris. Never embracing calm like Amsterdam. Always noisy chaos. Even when you've entered a quiet side street – like now where I'm drinking lemongrass iced tea at Jai's opposite the Armenian Haigazian University – the idyll is constantly interrupted by angry scooters and fast-moving cars.

Everything is paused and restarted

The lack of electricity also affects the bars and restaurants I frequent. It is every single evening that the electricity fails and the places are left in darkness. For Arab stand-up, it happened a total of five times, when the show had to be put on hold. A DJ remains silent. The bartender mixes the rest of a moscow mule in the glow of the mobile phone. And wupti; then the music and the light are there again. Life goes on as if nothing happened.

The inhabitants take this sort of thing in stride. They are used to it – and to worse things. Perhaps these kinds of circumstances provide a different kind of community and perhaps it was the same community that flourished several times under corona- the epidemic. The disease struck shortly after the explosions in Beirut and thus hit a country that was already forced to its knees. Nevertheless, the country managed to keep the number of infections down. This did not happen because of the efforts of the authorities, but on the contrary because of a population that has obviously learned to act on its own, when now there is no state that takes care of them.

Det er muligt at landet efterhånden har fået has på pandemien, men fattigdommen er fortsat et eskalerende problem. Tiggerne er eksploderet i antal, hører jeg. Og man går heller ikke forbi en skraldespand uden at der også er et menneske i gang med at rode skraldet igennem. Økonomien er en lang deroute. Blot på de syv dage jeg er i byen fluktuerer kursen på dollars fra 2,7 millioner Lebanesee lira for 100 dollars til 3,0 millioner. Mens mange butikslokaler og shoppingcentre står forladte og iturevne, trives vekselbutikkerne, som findes i hobetal. Det er daglige gøremål for indbyggerne, især dem som er så heldige at få lønnen udbetalt i dollars. Der skal store bunker pengesedler til, når en bog koster 500.000 lira, og det er ikke usædvanligt at se gadevekselerer med enorme mængde sedler. Især brødpriserne ryger i vejret, mens jeg opholder mig i Beirut, hvor også brændstof bliver så stor en mangelvare, at det sorte marked stortrives, mens folks egne dieseldrevne generatorer, som skulle være en backup for de mange strømsvigt fra den officielle el-levering, render tør.

Nothing is certain anymore

Regardless of the areas I travel in, it rarely takes long before I encounter a roll of barbed wire on the street. Often it just lies there, and you have doubts about what function it has. What it is it will keep you away from. The same applies to the many soldiers and checkpoints that appear in the middle of nowhere. What do they protect; what do they look after? It all helps to create a feeling of being perhaps not in a definite war zone, but somewhere in a state of emergency – even if this has almost taken on a permanent character.

Libanon har altid været præget af en vis grad usikkerhed og uvished. Det slår mig, da jeg læser i Mishka Mojabber Mouranis bog balconies. She writes about the balcony as an important architectural phenomenon in certain parts of the Arab world. How life can be observed from there. How the balcony is sanctuary and a place where you can go to confession. How it is both part of the home and at the same time separate. And then she writes about all the times she has watched war from the balcony. It happens, for example, in the July days, 2006, when her words read: «It's all up in the air again. Nothing is sure anymore. Again. Just when things where beginning to feel secure. Just when banality was starting to be taken for granted.»

Large piles of banknotes are needed when a book costs 500.000 lira.

These phrases could just as well be repeated here in 2022. Changeability is a key word when we talk about Lebanon. After the explosion in 2020, many citizens of Beirut chose to move to other parts of the country or to other countries. It has always been like that. People have fled this place. Other times, groups of people have come here. Large Armenian, Palestinian and Syrian populations inhabit Beirut. Some are refugees, others emigrated here, others forcibly displaced. Then they go away. Then they come back.

I flyveren hjem møder jeg 19-årige Zeinab. Hun er født i Sverige, men som 3-årig blev forældrene skilt, og hun kom med sin far til Libanon sammen med sine søskende. Efter eksplosionen drog hun igen til Sverige og bor nu hos sin mor i Stockholm. Hun har besøgt sin bedstemor i Lebanon, som har givet hende en omgang hjemmelavede waraa eenab med til turen. Dem deler hun venligt med mig, mens vi har en interessant og ærlig samtale på den tre timer lange tur. Da jeg skifter fly i Frankfurt, ender jeg ved siden af to danske kvinder, der bruger hele turen på at spille Candy Crush på deres telefoner. Vi udveksler ikke et eneste ord. Jeg savner allerede Beirut.

avatar photos
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

Related articles