BEIRUT - Somehow, the shots missed Jesus. He survived the rampage by armed men in St. George’s Cathedral during the Lebanese civil war. But since the mosaic of which he is a part is otherwise shell-pocked, his figure has become something of an attraction.
The cathedral is not far from downtown Beirut’s posh hotels, and just steps from the famous Ottoman Clock Tower and Grand Serail (now the office of the prime minister). It and its mosaic are a good example of the way Beirut deals with its history: its bloody heritage is claimed, not whitewashed. You see it everywhere. Forgetting is not an option.
In the recent past, war was a daily reality in Lebanon. From 1975 until 1990 the Lebanese fought each other. Sunnis fought Christians. Communists fought nationalists. The fronts not only ran straight across the capital but through all levels of society.
The "green line" divided Beirut in two – the Muslim western part of the city, and the Christian east. St. George’s is located on the line. The cathedral is named after Saint George, who is supposed to have been born not far from Beirut. So is the St. George Hotel. Prime Ministers and princes used to stay at this cosmopolitan venue; everyone from Brigitte Bardot to David Rockefeller sunned on its terrace, as the tabloids avidly reported. That was in the city’s golden age, before the civil war.
Except for its beach club and pool, the hotel today stands empty waiting for an investor – a savvy one, who can revive its former glory out of the dust and rubble of war. But that day may never come.
"The St. George stands for the old Beirut, the one before the war," says Mohamed Malik, who with his girlfriend is out enjoying an ice cream on the newly rebuilt promenade and admiring the yachts. “But things will never again be the way they were.” The wounds are too deep, he says. Sure, rich Arabs – even the jet set – have retuned. But even so, it’s not the way it used to be. Malik’s girlfriend has a gold chain nestled in her cleavage with a rhinestone-enhanced bullet cartridge hanging from it. War meets Bling.
Beirut's Saint George Maronite Cathedral - Photo: Lebnen18
A few meters away, on the street in front of the hotel, bronze flames rise skywards. They are the work of an artist, a memorial to Rafik al-Hariri – the former Lebanese Prime Minister loved by some, hated by others. On February 14, 2005 his convoy was driving past here when a bomb went off sending him and 22 other people to their deaths. It may have been an attack on Hariri’s policies – but it was also attack on tourism. The power of the explosion blew out the windows of the Phoenicia Hotel across the street, glass splinters flew across the lobby, and many of the rooms suffered serious damage.
The mess has long been cleaned up, and at least some of the Phoenicia’s regulars are back. In the hotel’s Eau de Vie restaurant on the 11th floor diners sitting in comfortable chairs enjoy foie gras and lobster and – past the heavy draperies framing the windows – the view out over the Mediterranean, the night lights of the city, and the empty building across the way; its walls scarred by mortars, its jagged ruins profiled against the sky. Another reminder of war. "But isn’t that part of Beirut’s charm?" asks Janet Abraham, the Phoenicia’s marketing director.
She prefers to talk about the city’s boutiques and galleries, the cathedral-like Jeita Grotto, one of the country’s biggest attractions, the ancient city of Byblos and the mountains nearby. "Here you can ski in the morning, and go to the beach in the afternoon.” All this is straight out of a tourism brochure. These were the must-see places in all the guidebooks before the war. The country’s beautiful facade. And the tourism industry would rather those places were the only ones discussed – after all, the war is over, they point out.
Art is booming
Near Martyrs’ Square, not far from Rafik Hariri’s tomb, new boutiques are springing up. The sounds of hammering and welding fill the area. Elie Saab, the famous Lebanese fashion designer, opened here years ago and boutiques and galleries have followed in his wake. As have rich local buyers. "This is a place where you should be able to shop without thinking of the past," says the salesgirl in a gallery.
Art and luxury shops in downtown Beirut - Photo: n.karim
But if she’s offering art as a way of forgetting, something else is going on a few kilometers south in the Baabda district. Here there’s a ten-story artwork aimed not at forgetting but at remembering. In 1995 – after the civil war ended, although some Lebanese will tell you it still hasn’t – Franco-American artist Armand Fernandez, a proponent of New Realism better known as Arman, inaugurated a tower of stacked up Russian tanks and other military vehicles set in concrete. The artist called the structure of over 30 meters (100 feet) Hope for Peace.
For many Lebanese, art is like a steam valve. It reduces the pressure, helps digest what’s happened, and also offers a way to criticize those responsible. It’s a kind of therapy.
The country is traumatized, and art is booming. In fact, Beirut has become something of an art capital. In galleries like Tanit in the Mar Mikhael area you can buy modern art that would do any western museum proud. The Agial and Sfeir-Semmler galleries get similarly high marks. But the beating heart of Beirut’s art scene is off the beaten track – such as the Quarantina industrial zone, where the Beirut Art Center is located in an old furniture factory.
"We’ve created a space here for experimental art," says the gallery’s director – for art whose value cannot necessarily be measured in money. Recently, photographer and installation artist Eric Baudelaire staged an exhibit here called Now Here Then Elsewhere, a mixture of video installations and printed material devoted to the Japanese Red Army, a Communist militant group founded in Lebanon by Fusako Shigenobu that killed dozens of people in the 1970s.
Beirut's Hamra Street - Photo: craigfinlay
This is art that processes a relatively unknown but no less bloody part of Lebanon’s past. But even more exemplary is another gallery, and it’s not in cool Gemmayze, on Hamra Street (often called “Beirut's Champs Elysées"), or in a “designy” industrial zone – it’s in a Hezbollah-run Shiite section of the city, Haret Hreik. Many locals have never set foot here; it’s considered disreputable, and many taxi drivers refuse to come here. On the way, you pass bomb craters, pocked walls. Behind the al-Mahdi mosque is The Hangar, originally a large factory hall, now one of the city’s most cutting-edge galleries.
The Umam Documentation and Research art center, an NGO, is co-directed by German journalist and filmmaker Monika Borgmann. Its best-known exhibit is a rusty old 1960 bus, full of bullet holes. On April 13, 1975 it drove through the streets of Beirut carrying members of the PLO. Christian Falangists started shooting. Nearly 30 people died. It marked the beginning of the Lebanese civil war.