The City and Me (3) Beirut – Alluring Eyesore

Hamra, the neighbourhood where I live and work
Hamra, the neighbourhood where I live and work | Photo: Hans-Ulrich Brandt

At first Beirut frightened me; I didn’t trust the city. I had heard too much and knew too little about it. From greedily absorbed information I had constructed myself a reality that I supposed suited my host city, but it didn’t. A Close-Up by Hans-Ulrich Brandt

“A visit to another world should be done without an identity or as close as it gets. It would be ridiculous to toil and travel only affirm one’s foreignness, one’s European-ness.” This was written by the Lebanese journalist and writer Abbas Beydoun, one of the most important poets in the Arabic language. Now he visits me everyday in the arts office of As-Safir, which is hosting me, the guest from Germany, and offers me a cup of coffee or tea and I offer him pastries. He is like my father was – he loves sweets. Maybe that is why it gives me such satisfaction when he smiles at me and reaches back into the package. We can’t talk much; my French is too poor and his English non-existent. But we stick to our little ritual.

Beydoun is familiar with my situation. He, too, took part in an exchange project, visited his writer colleague Michael Kleeberg in Berlin, who visited him in turn in Beirut. During that time he wrote the wonderful short story “Ein Herbst in Berlin” (An Autumn in Berlin) , countless poems and a portrait of Kleeberg called “Ein anderes Land” (A Different Country), from which the opening quote originates.

I admit that my first days here it wasn’t easy for me to live up to Abbas Beydoun’s justified demand and forget my own identity. I was not able to throw myself, with open eyes, into the adventure that is Beirut. At the beginning, the city seemed closed, monstrous; I recognized only chaos, no structure. And it frightened me; I didn’t trust it. I had heard too much about Lebanon’s perilous political situation. I knew of the danger of the Syrian civil war, which is coming ever closer, of the tensions between the many religious groups. And I had heard, of course, about the repeated attacks within the country. From all of this greedily absorbed information I had constructed myself a reality that I supposed suited Beirut, my host city, but it didn’t.

I arrived at night, shortly after three. Airports may never be suitable for making one like a city at first sight, but at that hour I felt like I had been marooned somewhere – “lost” in Beirut. I took a taxi on empty city highways through dismal neighbourhoods, a menacing-looking, strange world. Where was I?

A Feeling of Belonging

The next morning I saw what surrounded me and from then on things got better. I quickly learned to navigate this city in which street names rarely matter and many buildings have no numbers. I ignored the noise of the traffic, which is indescribable, and got used to the rude manner of the drivers of cars, and mopeds in particular. In the midst of all the damaged and empty houses, I discovered the beauty, the fascinating: an old villa with trimmings and cast-iron ornamental grilles on the balconies; a large tree in the desert of concrete; a café in a side lane with sunshades in front of the door and singing and dancing waitresses. In brief, I discovered the charm of the Hamra quarter in which I was fortunate to live and work, the quarter of Beirut in which so many people of different origins coexist so well. Every day, I took pleasure in the linguistic jumble on the streets.

I felt the great hospitality of the people that suffers no doubts. And I felt their willingness to reward my openness for everything new with ever-greater closeness. I had already met Ibrahim in Bremen. First I showed him my city (which he needed me far less for) and then he guided me carefully through Beirut. Much would have been far more difficult for me without his help. In these almost two months we became friends.

As I write this I am looking at an oil painting. My Beirut colleague Iskandar painted it and gave it to me. He is not only a journalist and a writer, but also a painter. The picture shows two women in colourful dresses. Their faces are vague, leaving much to the imagination. I like it very much. “A memento of Beirut – Thank you, my friend,” Iskandar wrote on the back. What can I say? Chukran, thank you, Iskandar, I am touched!

Thus, my initial foreignness has become a feeling of belonging. I wrote about this in my stories from Beirut. One evening, on the way home, a man spoke to me. He asked me whether I was the journalist from Germany who writes the nice stories in As-Safir about everyday life. I asked him how he recognized me. He said he saw me coming from the little street where the newspaper has its headquarters and that I did not really look very Lebanese. And then he thanked me for my articles and said he was already looking forward to the next ones. They show that there are also pleasant things about everyday life in Beirut, only no one notices them anymore.

Abbas Beydoun once said something similar. “This country needs the observer from afar to gain back a little of the pride it has lost.”