Sunday, 11 July 2010
In the older parts of town, ie most of it, you will see sights to quake the knees of even the most hardened New Zealand building inspector. Wires are draped everywhere. They run from lamposts in great thick braids, descending to head height or lower in places. They are attached, roughly, to the sides of buildings where they run off to flats and houses and workshops. Electricity, telephone and data cabling are randomly clumped into great rats nests which are nailed or taped to walls. Look closely and there is a logic to it all: the circuits are properly albeit untidily constructed; wiring seems appropriate to the load it needs to bear. Everything is properly insulated, although the methods are "ingenious. " They tell their own story.
From 1975 until 1990 this place tore itself apart. Groups of Christians and Muslims fought each other in alliances which shifted and changed with the month. Through it all was the rattle of kalashnikovs and the crump, crump, crump of rocket propelled grenades. There was the whine of fighters and the grumble of tank engines from whoever was trying to exact advantage at the moment: the USA and the USSR through their proxies the Syrians, the PLO and the Israelis. Between 130,000 and 250,000 civilians died. A quarter of the population was wounded. And ordinary, everyday Lebanese lived through this. Children grew up through this, and they picked up some remarkable skills. They learned to drive very quickly and deftly for example. You need to if your car is out in the open and/or you don't know if the guys in the car beside you might want to add you to their trophy list. And they learned to make running repairs to infrastructure. When a bazooka took out the water supply or knocked out the wiring, it was no use ringing the city council to complain. Instead, you found whatever wire or pipe or tape you could and made the darned thing work again. You did this on a daily basis. You became so good at it that some of the ugly solutions you came up with are still working perfectly, 20 years later. You became so good at it that when you needed to wire your apartment just last year you wouldn't think of calling an electrician.
The tangle of wires draped across the streets and tacked to the sides of buildings are badges of honour; they are tokens of the resilience and energy of the Lebanese, whose close proximity to death for so long has sharpened up people's ideas of what is really important; what the real dangers are. Us Kiwis pride ourselves on our number 8 wire self reliance and ingenuity. We ain't got nothin' on the Lebanese.
Today there was one last wistful stroll into downtown. Every time I have walked into the city I have seen a different Beirut. This morning it was hyper modern and trendy, cool, spacious, aesthetically sophisticated and interesting. We visited the Orthodox cathedral (St. George's) and the Marionite cathedral (St. George's) and a Capuchin chapel. There was a brief stop at the Kahlil Gibran gardens, set up in memory of those martyred in the civil war, and a walk through the souk. In other Arab cities the souk sells coriander and shisha. Here it sells Armani and Calvin Klein. Beirut has not quite finished its restoration. When it has, I think it will be the city to be in. Already I love it more than I love San Francisco and that's saying something. Give me another week here I might love it more than Dunedin, so perhaps it's just as well we're hopping on the plane to Amman this afternoon.