Ruth Hartmann on Beirut “Even if there’s been a bombing, the people always look ahead”

Not always warm and dry: In the winter, the Corniche can become quite wet
Not always warm and dry: In the winter, the Corniche can become quite wet | Photo: Goethe-Institut Libanon / Ruth Hartmann

People in Beirut enjoy every day as it comes, says Ruth Hartmann. In our interview, the Goethe associate talks about why the word “Zukunftsangst” is practically unknown here.

Is it true that you can head to the ski slopes in the morning and then jump in the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon?

Hartmann: Not at the moment because the temperatures on the coast are between 10 and 15 degrees and there are seven metre waves – no one wants to swim in that. But when there’s been plenty of snow and the temperatures are pleasant in April or May it is truly possible to go skiing in the mountains in the morning and later head down to the sunny seaside.

What is your favourite place in Beirut?

Definitely the Corniche, the beach promenade in Beirut. I fully intend to someday do a series of photographs there because on the promenade you really meet all the people – rich and poor, wearing headscarves or hot pants, lovers, large families, business partners, BMX riders, inline skaters, dog owners – and somehow, all of them are happy.

The remains of the former Beirut city centre: the “Beirut Egg” by the Lebanese architect Joseph Phillipe Karam The remains of the former Beirut city centre: the “Beirut Egg” by the Lebanese architect Joseph Phillipe Karam | Foto: Goethe-Institut Libanon / Ruth Hartmann Can you tell me one of city’s lesser known claims to fame?

Its creativity. I’ve never experienced as many new business ideas as I have here; new shops are constantly being opened. The young Lebanese in particular have really great ideas. In the arts, there are an awful lot of graffiti artists in Beirut. Many of their graffiti make political statements.

How has Beirut changed your life?

Riddled with bullets during the civil war, the statue on Martyrs’ Square was transformed into a symbol of destruction Riddled with bullets during the civil war, the statue on Martyrs’ Square was transformed into a symbol of destruction | Photo: Goethe-Institut Libanon / Ruth Hartmann I think I’ve become more relaxed. When you come from Germany, think a lot about the future and are accustomed to a well-ordered life, in Beirut you suddenly realize it’s better to live one day at a time because you never know what tomorrow will bring. There’s no other way to enjoy life here. If you are always afraid about what will happen tomorrow, you could not enjoy life at all.

In what way do the Lebanese differ most from Germans?

We are currently working on a project about Germans who live in Lebanon or spent longer periods living here. We are interested in the stereotypes and whether they prove true or not. The statement made by one German woman who has lived in Lebanon for forty years is typical. In the interview she said that she still hasn’t gotten used to this living-for-the-moment. Inside, she’s still German, full of plans and Zukunftsangst (anxiety about the future). I’m not sure whether the word Zukunftsangst even exists in other languages. Certainly not here.

How are your Arabic skills?

The streets of Beirut are decorated with lots of graffiti – this is a work by the Lebanese Ashekman twins The streets of Beirut are decorated with lots of graffiti – this is a work by the Lebanese Ashekman twins | Photo: Goethe-Institut Libanon / Ruth Hartmann Well, I’ve been in the region for ten years and already learned Arabic at university. Even though my colleagues are always amused by the accent I picked up during five years in Cairo, I speak Arabic almost fluently. Very few people manage to really master the language. I still don’t hear certain differences in sounds.

Why do the Lebanese want to learn German?

There are two groups of students. There are those who need to prove basic German skills in order to acquire a visa to join their families. But most of the students are those who wish to continue their studies in Germany and therefore have to pass higher-level language exams. They are extremely motivated to achieve their goal and are also very interested in our additional programmes like film nights or discussions of German history.

What surprised you the most in Beirut?

Can’t let go of the Arabic world: Goethe associate Ruth Hartmann Can’t let go of the Arabic world: Goethe associate Ruth Hartmann | Photo: Private What surprised me? The love of life! Even if there’s been another bombing, or in the current political crisis without a president – the people always look ahead and say, “It’ll be okay.” That’s an attitude that Germans could really learn from.

What would you like most to still experience in Beirut?

Oh, there are so many things, not all in Beirut alone but all of Lebanon. I have been planning for a while to travel to Tripoli to see the trade fair designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. After the civil war broke out in 1975 it has never been dedicated, but it is gorgeous if you believe the pictures. Right now the political situation sadly makes that kind of journey impossible.

The questions were asked by Viola Heth.
 

Ruth Hartmann, born in 1974, studied political science in Bonn, before the Arabic world cast its spell over her. After living and working in Beirut between 2003 and 2007, she then dived into life in Cairo for five years and worked at the Goethe-Institut there. Then, in early 2014, the sea and the good air drew her back to the Lebanese capital city. Since then she has been responsible for the Goethe-Institut’s Information and Library division there. When she is not spending her free time wandering through Beirut’s streets with a camera or a book, she is enjoying being close to the sea where she can engage in her favourite sport.