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I jumped into a taxi — late for an appointment, my phone struggling with 2% battery — and there spied a godsend USB charger gleaming on the driver’s dashboard. I smiled, feigning a more pleasant mood, and asked if I could use his charger: “my phone is off because I have no electricity at home these days.”
“Neither do I,” he said, laughing. “Neither does the rest of the Lebanese population.”
As I’m having my coffee peacefully on the supposedly public sidewalk currently appropriated by one of the cafés I frequent, a concrete mixing truck passes by slowly, blocking two lanes temporarily as it reaches a construction site, where a nice old building once stood and an unnecessary new one is being erected. A couple of minutes later, a water truck does the same on its way to replenish the probably dried out water supply of some building. In the opposite direction, a woman with an impeccably beautiful voice drags herself on the sidewalk singing a cyclic God-centric anthem, begging for money. Boys that sold umbrellas during last week’s storm, and generally shine shoes as their main source of income, are selling people today torch lighters with a marketing tagline, “Chalamon!”
“If you love the God of Islam, I go!” shouted a man in the back of the theater hall in angry, broken English, “If you defend the prophet of Islam, I go!” He repeated this over and over again until he left. Between every sentence, he put on a piece of clothing: a sweater, another sweater, a jacket, a scarf, a wool hat and gloves, to help him cope with the cold world outside. As he performed his spectacle, almost everyone else in the hall was asking him to leave, “Go!” and as he repeated his threatening statement, no one had time for it, “Go out already!”
As of last week, my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, changed forever.
Although it’s normal that things change all the time, there are benchmarks by which one can define somewhere or something. One day last week was one of those times worthy of cementing an inflection point, a benchmark in defining “home.” Before that, the house I grew up in was safe from everything. It was safe from politics, when politics went very wrong. It was safe from religion, when the latter became unquestionable. It was safe from the conceptual and physical turmoil resulting from the ups and downs of the world outside, and contained within an unburstable bubble of sanity we actively upkeep as a family.
Living at home has become scarier than ever. Until now, I have considered Lebanon and the neighboring nations of the Arab world my home. This understanding consisted of a mash-up of different realities — all these Arab countries moving in parallel. I cared about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, freedom in Jordan and activism in Egypt, as if they were all part of my country. I cared about Syria’s right to peace, Palestine’s right to exist, and Tunisia’s steps towards victory. I thought I had a role in affecting them positively. “I am an Arab,” I would say, quite proudly, expressing a vivid part of my geopolitical and cultural identity. I still say this, but it is aspirational, not a description of my present situation.
“Cyprus is close,” Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad al-Machnouk said in a recent televised interview, referring to the island that Lebanese citizens still have to seek out as a refuge in case they wish to marry under civil rather than religious law. Though legal in Lebanon now, the implementation of civil marriage is still being delayed by the Ministry of Interior for no publicly-stated reason. Instead, Mr. al-Machnouk asked the Lebanese people to obtain one of their simplest, most basic civil rights, the right to marriage, outside their own country.
A couple of nights ago, while having a drink in Hamra, a friend of mine said, “What’s nice about this place is that it’s always there when you need it.” There’s something soothingly constant about the seemingly ever-changing Hamra Street that we’re losing elsewhere in Beirut. While the public conversation about Hamra has lately been about its alleged transformation into Beirut’s ‘Little Syria,’ the truth is that it still remains what it always has been, a place that allows you to belong.
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up ‘Inside the Dream Palace,’ a book by Sherill Tippins on the life and death of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. I had never heard of the hotel, but the delicious back cover description promised a detailed narrative touching on sociology’s influence on architecture, architecture’s effect on people and people’s impact on their city.
With a slight jolt, the metro stopped and the speakers exclaimed, “Clemenceau” in a very firm French pronunciation unlike the “Klimansoh” we scream to our local taxi/service drivers in Beirut. The metro doors slid open, and the people on the outside waited politely for the people inside to come out before entering the metro car – a long beep, and the doors close. The metro moves, and then stops, “Concorde!” exclaim the speakers in the same tone.
Discussing public spaces is an important duty, for it is a direct indication of our identity. These spaces, which allow us to commune and demand from us that we collaborate to sustain them, are more important than the towers that make us look glittery in photos taken of this city from the sea. For some, this reality is hard to accept. A monument in Beirut is much easier to valuate and boast in social and political agendas than a bench, but a bench is what we really need. What we need is to be able to share a bench comfortably. This should be our baptism into becoming Beirutis. And while the lack of public spaces is at the forefront of urban debates, how we act in public is what actually matters.