Saturday, July 22, 2006

BEIRUT THEN, BEIRUT NOW

I know it is stupid to say that I mourn for a city, but I do. It is not that I dismiss the lives shattered and destroyed, not at all. Indeed, I grieve for each and every one of them, to hell with their particular religion, I grieve for them as fellow human beings caught in the passion of their lives and beliefs or in the path of those who do not value life as much as I do. But I do not know them except as faces on the TV or in the paper or magazines. Nor can I truly comprehend their losses. I do not dismiss them or the lives they have lived as I write this piece. Turn on the TV and see their battered and worn faces. Can you do it and feel nothing?
I knew the city, the architecture, the feeling that a people give to a city, if only for a very brief period of time in the early 1960’s. I had wanted, almost desperately, to go to the University in Beirut to study archeology. Many of my classmates went there. Remember I graduated from high school in Ankara, Turkey. However, my stepmother was the one who made all the decisions and controlled the check book so I came back to the states and studied art. Oh well, it kept me employed and paid the bills, if barely, for many years. But I digress again…
Beirut was a beautiful place. It was called the Paris of the Middle East. I feel that name did nothing for Beirut. I hated Paris. Beirut was NOTHING like Paris. Beirut was much cleaner, much more interesting, and the people were much friendlier. You knew in Paris you were simply a form of cash on 2 legs. Well, you probably were in Beirut, too, but the people at least made you feel welcome and they seemed grateful for what you spent there. Paris always felt like “Give me your money and get out of my face.” Of course, there was a reason we were treated so badly in some countries. Did you see the young American University woman being evacuated from Beirut telling the camera, "Thank God! I was so bored!" - while people were dying... while bombs exploded a mile away! I was shamed by her remarks. Many of us go wherever we go with arrogance and an attitude of superiority expecting the world to bow down to us because we are Americans as many places did after WWII. But WWII was more than a lifetime ago. It was before my lifetime, and look at how old I am! I am on Social Security, for god’s sake! I did it again, didn’t I? Digress, that is.
Anyway, maybe that is what I loved about Beirut, the people treated me like I was someone worthy of respect. And maybe that is why I thought the city was so beautiful. What they might have said or did behind my back makes no difference. Maybe it was because I was still so young and so amazed to be “there” – wherever “there” was at the moment. Unlike my brother who was born in Turkey, had his diapers changed in a gondola in Venice, etc, I was a small town girl from the states who never dreamed I would really be anyplace anywhere more than a few hundred miles from home. I was in awe of the rest of the world and of the people I found there. I was humbled to be able to share their lives if only for the moment, grateful to see them and be a part of their world.
Sadly I don’t remember as many specifics as I wish I did about Beirut, just the general feel of the place. My visit was eclipsed by “running into” Katharine Hepburn. Being a teenager, that blew my mind even further than being in Beirut. (Forgive me, Beirut) That she even spoke to me finished me off. You have got to understand I am not a “movie” person. I might go to a theatre once a year if someone drags me. Nor do I rent them or watch movies on TV. Shoot, I barely watch TV at all. It is generally unplugged after the 7 PM weather report. If Hollywood had to depend on me for their income, they would all have to go out and find “real” jobs in the “real” world. But I digress, again. I knew who Katharine Hepburn was and respected her. I do own a copy of African Queen.
Beirut has a history that goes back at least 5,000 years. It was a city of renown long before the first century B.C., when it became a Roman Colony and under Roman rule was the seat of a famous Law school which continued into the Byzantine era. It was called Berytus then. But the power and the glory of Berytus were destroyed by a triple catastrophe of earthquake, tidal wave and fire in 551 A.D. In the following century Arab Muslim forces took the city and in 1110 it fell to the Crusaders. (God help them!) Beirut remained in Crusader hands until 1291 when it was conquered by the Mamlukes. Ottoman rule began in 1516, continuing for 400 years until the defeat of the Turks in World War I. The French Mandate Period followed and in 1943 Lebanon gained its independence.

What I really wanted to do here was show what Beirut was like for you to compare to what you see on TV today. But I realize that is an impossible task. There is no way I can give you the vision from my young innocent eyes that I had 40 years ago of a city beautiful and wondrous. Remember, I had been to Paris, Rome, London, Cairo, best of all Istanbul, and lived in Ankara. I was no stranger to cities by this time, not even to exotic cities. Beirut was special. It brought tears to my eyes as I went thru old postcards and photos today to put this piece together. Such a loss. Such a loss.
I found a couple of sites with some good pictures, give them a click. You can see the bad pictures every night on TV.
http://worldviewcities.org/beirut/legacy.html
http://worldviewcities.org/beirut/elipsis.html
And pray for peace and sanity. This world sure needs it.

1 comment:

Takin'pictures said...

You've told me parts of this story already and during the past weeks as I have been reading and viewing on TV the atrocities in the mid-east I have been thinking about all the people there but the first thing in my thoughts is you and the loving way you described Beirut.