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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.


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.

Is it dangerous in Beirut? More people than usual say that I should take care of myself. That I have to be careful. That I have to come home again. But I have a dream about Beirut. A dream that has been brewing for many years is probably decadent. A dream rooted in a notion of the Lebanese as a rich, alluring culture, where the European exists side by side with the Arabic. Where colonial remnants of a particularly French character continue to characterize a culture which is otherwise enriched by both Syrians, Armenians and Palestinians, to name just a few of the many peoples who inhabit 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

As a first-time visitor, I might be said to have a virgin's gaze, but the virgin's gaze is also often a tourist's gaze. You fall into doing what everyone else before you has done. Searching English language websites to find out what's up and down in this foreign place. End up in the same cafes and at the same attractions as everyone else. It's not because there are quite a few others. In fact, the first few days I walk around Hammer- the neighborhood without meeting other Westerners. In the breakfast restaurant I am the only guest. Yes, even at the Armenian restaurant Maygir, where I eat my dinner, I am the only guest for a long time and have as many as five waiters around me. There is of course a long way to go before the tourists return to Beirut, which in its heyday had 2 million visitors annually.

Besides touristI also have the gaze of the essayist, the gaze of the journalist and the writer. I know I have to write something from this city. Do I experience it that differently? Do I go monstro to it with an awareness of the writing it will end up in? Is it journalistsomeone in me that makes me go out to the harbor area already on the second day to inspect the remains of the explosion in August 2020 – or is it disaster tourism? The tracks in the harbor area and in the neighborhoods around the harbor are violent. Many buildings stand empty, with broken windows and torn interiors. Only an empty shell remains. Self Sursock- the art museum, which is otherwise located some distance from the harbour, is still closed. They have just changed the windows in the buildings, and if all goes well they can open again for the winter. I buy a piece of jewelry in the gift shop, which is open after all.

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.

It is possible that the country has gradually come to grips with the pandemic, but poverty remains an escalating problem. The beggars have exploded in numbers, I hear. And you don't walk past a rubbish bin without someone also rummaging through the rubbish. The economy is a long deroute. Just in the seven days I'm in town, the rate of dollars fluctuates from 2,7 million Lebanesee lira for 100 dollars to 3,0 million. While many shop premises and shopping centers stand abandoned and torn, the exchange shops, which are found in large numbers, are thriving. It is a daily chore for the residents, especially those who are lucky enough to have their wages paid in dollars. Large piles of banknotes are needed when a book costs 500.000 lira, and it is not unusual to see street changers with huge amounts of banknotes. Bread prices in particular are skyrocketing while I am staying in Beirut, where fuel is also becoming such a scarce commodity that the black market thrives, while people's own diesel-powered generators, which were supposed to be a backup for the many power failures from the official electricity supply, run dry.

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.

Lebanon has always been characterized by a certain degree of insecurity and uncertainty. It strikes me as I read in Mishka Mojabber Mouranis book 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.

On the plane home, I meet 19-year-old Zeinab. She was born in Sweden, but when she was 3, her parents divorced, and she came with her father to Lebanon with her siblings. After the explosion, she went back to Sweden and now lives with her mother in Stockholm. She has visited her grandmother in Lebanon, who has given her a batch of home-made waraa eenab with her for the trip. She kindly shares them with me while we have an interesting and honest conversation on the three-hour trip. When I change planes in Frankfurt, I end up next to two Danish women who spend the whole trip playing Candy Crush on their phones. We don't exchange a single word. I already miss Beirut.

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

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