The legend that is Beirut

The legend that is Beirut
The once legendary and cosmopolitan city has morphed into the playground for crude warring sects.
4 min read
17 Dec, 2014
Beirut was a vibrant hub of culture before it became the backdrop of violence [Getty]
The city that disintegrated into sects and warlords, and into streets at war with one another, was not the Beirut.

The city which has yet to put a president in a long-vacant post, at the helm of a long-vacant state, and which has had no say in its own decisions for a long time, is not
the Beirut. No, this city is the wreckage of Beirut, or the anti-Beirut that has supplanted the former city's image and legend.

The Beirut I am talking about is the Beirut that pre-eminent critic Khalida Said described in her book
The Utopia of the Cultured City, and in many of her previous writings. It is the Beirut that featured in
our writings also, we who were able to catch a glimpse, near the end, of its golden days of poetry, music, and cosmopolitanism.

     A city, any given city, does not become a legend from thin air, or by a stroke of luck.
A city, any given city, does not become a legend from thin air, or by a stroke of luck. It has to have intrinsic qualities to allow latent brilliance and dreams to become a reality, and for reality, through slow accumulation, to become legend.

Yet in Beirut's case, it was possible to be aware of and live in that legend in real time. Said, as her book suggests, knew that she was living in a city undergoing a transformation into a legend. This was not exaggerated praise, but a description of reality in a state of becoming.

Some could argue the title of her book contradicts my conclusion, as it evokes
utopia, rather than reality. This is true, but utopia and legend are two different things. Utopia could subsume legend in the sense of creating a unique and distinguished entity, in this case a city, but utopia goes beyond legend to signify something that cannot be achieved except in the realm of ideals. In other words, legend is closer to reality than utopia is.

Khalida Said has a few examples from Beirut's cultural life to highlight the city's quest for its legendary status. In her examples, there are no banks, businesses, factories, hotels, and other such enterprises that some have tried to reduce the city to. But could a few magazines and cultural spaces really make a city legendary?

The answer seems to be yes. It was indeed viable in the Lebanese case, in the same sense that painters, writers, philosophers created Paris' legend. Indeed, even in Paris' case, the legend is not born out of its wealth, global influence, or nuclear armaments, but from the lights of Paris, which are quintessentially artistic and cultural.

Beirut, on the other hand, is the capital of a brittle nation and a complex entity, situated in a turbulent region that has much wealthier and larger capitals. Yet, Beirut overtook those capitals thanks to its ability to pursue prospects that were thought to be exclusive to major cities. Beirut, small as it is and precarious as its geopolitical position may be, was able with a little freedom, a lot less money, but with a lot of pre-existing passion and enthusiasm, to foment a cultural renaissance. This renaissance was not Lebanese but Arab, because Beirut's medium, thanks to its configuration, is the Arab world.
     Beirut is the capital of a brittle nation and a complex entity, situated in a turbulent region.

A magazine and a few cultural spaces such as Al-Nadwa Al-Lubnaniya (the Lebanese Forum), Al-Tajammu al-Fairouzi al-Rahbani (the Fairouz-Rahbani Ensemble), the two magazines Shir (Poetry), Mawaqif (Positions), Dar al-Fan wa al-Adab (the House of Art and Literature House), and I add, Dar al-Adab, (The House of Literature), were all at the heart of this legend.

They attracted dreamers and exiles fleeing or expelled from the oppressive Arab hinterlands into a city by the sea. Beirut did not query their words to look for hidden connotations, as many an Arab capital had done at the time, and continues to do after the youthful Arab Spring morphed unfortunately into a Geriatric Winter.

It is no coincidence that those who helped make the legend of Beirut were Lebanese and Arabs. The most tolerant city in its surroundings allowed them to break many Arab taboos that previously seemed unbreakable.

Who could have thought that the Arabs who, even after being in contact with the philosophical and logical legacy of Ancient Greece, believed they had no rivals among the nations in poetry, that these same Arabs could then abandon their poetry's classical form and accept expression in the form of modernist poetry, vers libre, and even prose?

All this began in
the Beirut, but not the Beirut that became the playground for crude warring sects.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.