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A pleasant watercolor stroll through upscale, post-civil war Beirut

Architecture

The following article was originally published in the Daily Star on April 1, 2011 and updated on April 11, 2011, written by Tamara Qiblawi

BEIRUT: In “Memory for Forgetfulness,” Mahmoud Darwish’s memoir of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Beirut, the late-Palestinian poet wondered why it was that no song had yet been written about Beirut.

With just a thin pane of glass separating his apartment from the havoc that then beset the capital, making the sea seem to him as a pile of concrete, Darwish wanted to seek solace in melodies that could give meaning to a city that now appeared to lack both rhyme and reason. Nearly six years later, as if in answer to Darwish’s question, the widely celebrated Lebanese diva Fairouz released “Li Beirut,” a rueful lyric about the smoke of guns mingling with aromas of bread and jasmine that poured out of Beirut’s stone houses, set to the tune of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez.”

Composed after the peace had been signed between Lebanon’s militias in 1990, “Li Beirut” was a tribute to the many layers of memory that continued to thrive beneath the city’s intricate landscape, despite the Civil War.

In 2010, the dialectic of transmission has passed back to print, as Fairouz’s song became a source of inspiration for the illustrated book “Salamun Li Beirut,” written (in Arabic) by education specialist Najla Nusayr Bashour and illustrated by Omar al-Khouri.

“Salamun Li Beirut” (the title can be read to as either a greeting to the city or, literally, “Peace upon Beirut”) tells the story of an historic city comprised of a wonderfully spun web of contradictions. It takes the reader on a journey through Beirut’s winding streets, its hilly terrain and bulging coastline, all the while referring to the histories that have left visible footprints on those parts of the city a traveler might encounter.

The narrative moves seamlessly among the various quarters in this urban kaleidoscope, carefully charting the city as it passes between locations, as if the authors were actually guiding their readers along the city’s sidewalks.

Khouri’s illustrations furnish quite a different visual complement for Bashour’s text than photographs would do, capturing Beirut from a range of angles that are at once wide and intimate.

These tableaux vary in their proximity to the author’s subject matter. The opening image offers a birds’-eye view of a sprawling topographical complexity of Beirut, while later vistas are set closer to the ground, providing portraits of crowded streets that leave the reader feeling as though she were mixing with Beiruti pedestrians.

The images seesaw from monochrome sketches to brightly hued watercolors. The variations suggest the passage of time, the waxing and waning of the different seasons that provide the setting for the yearly events the author describes – the springtime garden show, for instance, or the Arab book fair, which appears to be timed specifically to force Beirutis to travel through torrential rains in order to be able to attend.

As “Salamun Li Beirut” pans across the city’s temporal and geographical terrain, a local reader may be left with an uneasy feeling that the image is, like a photograph, deliberately being cropped. The book seems to skirt the poorer parts of the city, lingering noticeably in posh areas – the Bir Hassan golf course, for instance, is a famous anomaly in an area known for its languishing refugee camps and bustling working class neighborhoods.

Even as the narrative dips into the “seven layers” of Beirut’s geological make-up and revels in the several historical epochs that have molded its nature and architecture, the city’s darker eras – the Civil War, for instance, whose residues are evident in the numerous bullet-ridden buildings that, 21 years after that war was ended, still dot the landscape – are conspicuous by their absence.

This narrative offers a sanitized version of Beirut that detracts from what is an otherwise viscerally and intellectually pleasant reading experience.

As it unfolds, the work starts to seem contrived, and the reader may begin to view it less as an informed and creative engagement with a complex urban stratigraphy than a Tourism Ministry advert.

Indeed, the ministry co-published “Salamun Li Beirut,” which goes far to explain why the book’s content – though more detailed and artful, and less utilitarian – is redolent of the same commercial aesthetic as a foreign-language travel guide.

“Salamun Li Beirut” may thus frustrate those Beirut residents who will read in this representation an echo of the post-Civil War custom of touting the country’s charming facades to the world – in this case the Arabic-reading world – while ignoring its manifold problems, or sweeping these ugly realities under the rug.

Najla Nusayr Bashour and Omar al-Khouri’s “Salamun Li Beirut” is published by Lebanon’s Tourism Ministry and Tala, a publishing house specializing in educational books. It will soon be available in Beirut area bookshops.                     

 

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