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Expect Ambivalence in Beirut

Postcard from Beirut

By Alex Slack

BEIRUT, Lebanon—It stands like a giant upturned gray battleship sunk into the ground. No, it isn’t Mather Tower, it’s the burnt-out husk of the former Holiday Inn Beirut.

I’ve been traveling throughout Beirut and Lebanon for about two weeks now, but I can think of no better symbol for this strange country than a defunct hotel. It stands right next to the most expensive hotel in the city: the Hotel Intercontinental Phoenicia. Throughout Beirut, you can find groupings like this. An old hotel swimming pool—its walls riddled with bullet holes—sits next to a new luxury hotel along the waterfront. A shelled French Mandate-era apartment complex crumbles next to a modern office building outside of Beirut’s rebuilt downtown.

Even in the center of the city this rule holds. An excavated and beautifully restored Roman baths complex opens up some public space next to a street lined with banks. Beirut is truly a city in transition. It’s impossible to escape the scars of a civil war that ended 13 years ago. But it’s also impossible to ignore the burgeoning development that will soon allow Beirut to achieve its former glory.

Right now, though, the entire city is encapsulated in the strange juxtaposition of lavish luxury hotel beside devastated concrete hulk. For every sign of hope and prosperity, there is always a sign of war and destruction looming large behind it.

It’s funny, but the Lebanese people seem to follow their real estate in this regard. I have spent many hours filming interviews with people from all over Beirut and its suburbs, asking them (through my Arabic-speaking friend) what they think of Americans. In front of the camera, most say things that give me hope for the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East—things like, “I don’t associate the American people with what the American government does.” Once I switch off the camera their rhetoric changes. Kids ask me if I love Israel, old women call me ibn al-kilab (son of a dog) and men from Hezbollah tell my friend that all Americans should have their necks broken. Hope in the eye of the camera surrenders to a looming shadow of hate once I stop recording. And I haven’t even gotten the worst of it. My friend Mohamad and I both agree that the people we have been interviewing are censoring themselves because I am behind the camera.

This façade of political correctness and even generosity has not gone unnoticed. I can’t even begin to count the times that Lebanese people have welcomed me into their stores or houses to talk and relax. Visiting the southern city of Sidon, a friend and I were given sweet pastries to try, free of charge, by the beaming store owner. Everyone from desk clerks at the bank where I cash my traveler’s checks to the guy who makes me awesome nutella crepes on the street has only one demand for Uncle Sam: give me a visa! Most people I’ve met react to my confession that I’m an American not with hostility but with curiosity—asking me if I like Lebanon. And I do.

It’s just that I think many people here have two faces. Behind the joking about visas and good spirited banter in broken Arabic, I detect envy and little hope for the future. The manager at a pizza shop I frequent bemoans his abundance of education (a masters degree) as worthless, considering he makes $500 per month and still can’t get a British, Canadian or American visa. The guy at the crepe place is saving up his money to try to bribe a poor American girl into marrying him for six months so he can get a green card. His friends ply the internet every night on the lookout for anyone who introduces herself in a chat room as “F/20/American.” Everyone I’ve met here is really great, but they’re working like hell to not be “here” anymore. This hopelessness leaves me feeling uncomfortable, because for Lebanese people my country’s streets are paved with gold, but its gates are reinforced with steel.

Admiration and envy, veneration and jealousy. Lebanon radiates conflicting emotions towards me as an American. The Intercontinental Phoenicia side of Lebanon welcomes Americans, American products and the American way of life. The Holiday Inn side threatens Americans, bombs McDonalds and angrily rejects a way of life that they will never be able to experience without a visa. Trouble is, I’m never quite sure which side I’m going to get.

Alex Slack ’06, a history concentrator in Leverett House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. This summer, he is enjoying $0.50 beers in Lebanon while conducting interviews for a non-profit. If you want to read more about his adventures, go to www.aslacker.com.

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