Waleed Hazbun, an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, recently moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to teach at the American University there. Hazbun was supposed to go in September, but his trip was delayed by the Israeli incursion after Hezbollah fighters launched rockets into Israel. He sent this letter to friends shortly after his arrival in a city rocked by turmoil. One of the main protagonists is the so-called March 14 movement, taking its name from the day of a large demonstration against Syrian control of Lebanon a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That movement, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, put the current prime minister, Fuad Siniora, in office. Its opposition is termed the March 8 movement, honoring the date of a huge pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut after Hariri's assassination. The rising level of violence has led many to fear that Beirut might be on its way back to the days of civil war in the 1980s.
Beirut, Lebanon -- Dear Friends,
After much delay, I finally landed in Beirut where I will spend 2007 while 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 an 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 coastal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from the its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a showcase "modern" city built next to a museumified 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 the coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alternative reality.
I'm not 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-plus-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 is 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 prominence.
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 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 U.S. representative to the U.N. is an 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 prime minister 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 over 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 rebuild 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 Siniora, and the home of the family of the late Hariri (who continue to lead the political movement he built) live. You can easily tell where 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 opposition 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 to "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 bombings that followed the mass movement in the spring of 2005 to send the Syrian troops and intelligence networks back home.
The other night I read a profile of AUB President John Waterbury in a recent issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It doesn't really cover some angles, such as that some AUB students were not happy that Waterbury 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.
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 Siniora lives across the street from the campus.
The best part of the Princeton Alumni Weekly article is that Waterbury notes that every AUB class has its "war" stories - some lived through wars, others riots, some student protests and sit-ins etc. Waterbury 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 that they are a recurrent, almost expected events 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 it's 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).
It is pretty clear they have a critique of the government that won't just go away. They also have the ability to gain outside support that in terms of effectiveness may match the $1 billion or so that the U.S. is throwing behind the current government. Who knows if regional tensions and a new Arab/Middle Eastern cold war will tear Lebanon apart as they have other parts of the region? It will not stand isolated like the gulf island states under the security umbrella of the 7th Fleet bolstered by the abundant petrodollars and financial returns.
Nevertheless, the political situation doesn't seem to bother me, it only 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 it 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, about Hamra and about 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 the current crisis, is a "Beirut" with its difficult pluralism, intellectual debate, always inventive entrepreneurialism and often splintered and contradictory cosmopolitanism.
It feels good to be here.