Transit Beirut, by Malu Halasa and Roseanne Khalaf (editors)

Insight into an enchanting, infuriating city
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At any given moment two Beiruts seem to exist: ancient port and modern metropolis; a shrine to hedonism or memorial to brutal urban warfare; a city that simultaneously aspires to its Arabic heritage and its European provenance. With Iraq on the brink of disaster, many regard Beirut as an object lesson in how lunacy spreads.

At any given moment two Beiruts seem to exist: ancient port and modern metropolis; a shrine to hedonism or memorial to brutal urban warfare; a city that simultaneously aspires to its Arabic heritage and its European provenance. With Iraq on the brink of disaster, many regard Beirut as an object lesson in how lunacy spreads.

Certainly, the damage wrought by Lebanon's civil war was devastating: two-thirds of the population was displaced and 170,000 killed in a conflict exacerbated by American, Israeli and Syrian outsiders. Now some hail Beirut, with its much-touted urban renewal, as emblematic of the human spirit vanquishing past bitterness. Is this just another Beiruti myth?

Seeking to answer such questions, and illustrate the myriad Beiruts, Malu Halasa and Roseanne Khalaf have in Transit Beirut commissioned 21 essays, poems, stories and compilations of photographs and cartoons. Some contributors are seasoned writers, like Hazem Saghie, Hasan Daoud and Rachid El Daif; others relative newcomers, like Nadine Touma and the British-based Omar Sabbagh.

The resultant volume presents characters such as the cigar-puffing King of Kaak (a pastry wrapper ubiquitous in Lebanon), a self-confessed addict of tarab (Arabic chanteuses), and a Palestinian grandmother, custodian of reminiscences. A Russian émigrée muses over past affairs while on an adjoining bench an imam rehearses Koranic passages.

Sardonic humour abounds, as in Daoud's Conqueror of the Dollar. Initially anonymous, he puts up posters calling for recruits, like the militias of recent memory, only to reveal himself as a home-furnishings entrepreneur on a marketing spree.

Yet the war's legacy disrupts the sleek fun-loving surface. Saghie recalls how in 1982, "Stupidity consumed the city... everything was obscured by the overwhelming darkness". Exiles return with rose-tinted visions, only to stub their toes on bullet-pockmarked slabs of concrete. A photo-essay addresses the taboo topic of male prostitution on the Beirut Corniche.

Transit Beirut reveals a place beyond cliches and headlines, a city in flux where identities are inexorably mixed. One especially affecting essay is Fadi Tufayli's "The Garden of the Two Martyrs". Two migrant brothers were killed just after civil war officially began, in April 1975, and buried in a plot along Beirut's pine-forested outskirts. As casualties mounted, the garden blossomed into a necropolis.

Today it is a "gaudy, flashy spectacle of tangled confusion", housing the dead of once-warring factions. It nestles by a suburban sprawl built of the same materials as the tombs. Former barriers between rich and poor have dissolved in the blur of an ever-expanding city.

Bewildering, enchanting, at times exasperating, Transit Beirut conveys a din of contending vignettes and sensations. Yet the effect on the reader is far from transitory, and the lessons all too salutary.

Comments