The Flame Trees of Beirut

“It was like being bitten by a beautiful dragon fly whose wings were of such splendour that the victim did not even feel the nip in the flesh.” Robert Fisk – Pity the Nation Lebanon At War.

 

My first impression of Beirut was how much like Haifa in Israel it looked. The city tumbling down from the surrounding hills, buildings almost falling into the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

Beirut was so much like Haifa that in the days preceding Israel’s aerial bombing of the city in 1982 the pilots used Haifa to practice its raids using that city as its dummy for the real thing.

The bombing of Lebanon by Israel and the subsequent slaughter of innocent Palestinian refugees in the camps by the Lebanese Phalanges shocked the outside world. Reporters and photographers sent harrowing scenes back verbally and visually that the west could not fully comprehend. And perhaps we could never understand.

The country continued over the years to be a hot spot for conflict and its capital  bombed to oblivion meant the hedonist city of Beirut was a place no longer on the tourist trail. My constant trips to Israel meant that even when peace was restored I could not visit.

And those that did visit said the city was destroyed, buildings left abandoned, bombed, burnt and razed to the ground. And of course the kidnappings and hostages all added to the reputation of Lebanon not being a place for your average traveller.

In the 21st Century, a country that had in Biblical times provided the cedar trees for Solomon’s Temple to be built in Jerusalem now had the monumental task of rebuilding its capital from the rubble.

And of course that is the first thing I noticed on my walk around the city, just how many abandoned buildings there were. And it was difficult to establish with any confidence which conflict had caused their destruction.

The hotel where I stayed near the famous Corniche abutted onto a cluster of such buildings. One hidden behind the veil of a huge overgrown flame tree was possibly from the Ottoman times, the wrought iron bars on the windows had rusted beyond repair.

The flame tree hiding the building was blooming later then many in Beirut. Probably because it was in virtual shade from the surrounding buildings. Over the week the leaves turned from pastel yellow, to orange and vibrant red.

Behind this ghostly beauty was an old apartment block. Three storeys high, it too had all the signs of being abandoned in a rush. Wooden slats on all the glassless windows had been virtually bleached white by years of sun and wind. One home at the top had geraniums growing from the window box. Spots of red like blood splayed across the peeling paint of the wall.

At dusk bats would flitter through the open doors and windows, flapping up into the balmy evening air. Sometimes they would fly close to where I stood on my balcony. Harmless little creatures, surviving in a place that once saw an aerial attack of a far worse and deadly kind.

I wondered did all of the occupants of the building make it out alive, running away before the attacks, or did they stay and endure hoping to survive? And what happened to them? Where did they go? Where are they now? What kind of life do they and their families have now?

Another building which appeared empty was an office block. The age of the building suggested that perhaps this was abandoned in a more recent conflict. It still had all the glass in the windows intact. Curtains hung yellow and dusty in some rooms. But at night there was always one room illuminated. Had someone set up home there? Electricity was obviously still connected, and perhaps running water. Was he security, or was he just someone who lived where he knew he would be left in peace?

Buildings like these are dotted all around Beirut. Some like the Holiday Inn have gaping holes in them from where the firing burst open the walls. The concrete edifice that the local calls The Blob, peppered with shell fire and bullet holes. Buildings left to ruin alongside the new rebuilds.

For many the re- building of Beirut is a great thing but I couldn’t but help think as they rebuilt the city, they were trying to re write their history, just like Haifa in Israel, slowly creating a sanitised city devoid of all the trapping of humanity. By my hotel there were old Arabic shops alongside a new air conditioned super market that sold new trendy products.

Many places I walked I felt I could have been in Brighton in England. The Arabic past not obliterated but absorbed by a Western conception of how the city should be. The souks of Beirut are now pristine tents set up in St Georges Bay selling designer items, pretty shiny things with no trace of the country’s heritage in their makeup.

There were on days when I have to confess I took a bus just to go to the outskirts of the refugee camp at Sabra. Just to look across that invisible line to see where a nation of persecuted and oppressed people lived. Just to remind myself I was in a country situated in the Middle East, between Syria and Israel.  That God forbid I wasn’t in Brighton.

This was the city where Israel in an attempt to obliterate a nation of people helped the Lebanese Phalanges in the slaughter of innocent children, women and old men. Have they chosen to forget?

By the end of my week in Beirut workers were putting the finishing touches on a new shiny tower block that overlooked the Corniche. Potted Palm Trees were being placed strategically along the entrance to the building. Yes I know what you are all thinking Potted Palm Trees in the Middle East!

I was vaguely reassured by the site of an old bombed out wreck of building next to it, plants that had gone wild and were slowly escaping down the balcony to freedom.

 

Next week Miss Walton gets accidently kidnapped by two bus drivers and taken up into the hills of Lebanon!

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