War Stories

A Hopkins professor teaching in Beirut sees the city keeping its cosmopolitan, diverse character even as it divides itself between hostile political forces

Letter from Lebanon -- Waleed Hazbun

February 18, 2007|By Waleed Hazbun

Beirut, Lebanon — Waleed Hazbun, an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, recently moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to teach at the American University there. Hazbun was supposed to go in September, but his trip was delayed by the Israeli incursion after Hezbollah fighters launched rockets into Israel. He sent this letter to friends shortly after his arrival in a city rocked by turmoil. One of the main protagonists is the so-called March 14 movement, taking its name from the day of a large demonstration against Syrian control of Lebanon a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That movement, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, put the current prime minister, Fuad Siniora, in office. Its opposition is termed the March 8 movement, honoring the date of a huge pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut after Hariri's assassination. The rising level of violence has led many to fear that Beirut might be on its way back to the days of civil war in the 1980s.

Beirut, Lebanon -- Dear Friends,

After much delay, I finally landed in Beirut where I will spend 2007 while teaching at the American University of Beirut.

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains an urban, cosmopolitan environment.

By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs.

Beirut is a coastal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from the its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a showcase "modern" city built next to a museumified medieval-era "madina," like Tunis, nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on the coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alternative reality.

I'm not an expert on the topic, but Beirut's urban form seems to be a heterotopic mosaic in which each neighborhood developed from an interactive fusion between particular local features and ties to other places near and far.

The Hamra district is located near the 140-plus-year-old American University of Beirut (AUB). It is packed with bookstores and cafes and a few stores and restaurants that cater to its staff and faculty. The campus itself is beautifully located on a hill near the edge of the water which sparkles deep blue and makes a stunning site from many locations on its treed prominence.

Through the AUB the Hamra district has maintained ties to universities and intellectual centers across the world, including a legacy of ties with Princeton. While less diverse than in the past, AUB's students still come from all parts of Lebanon as well as many parts of the Arab and developing world. Until the summer 2006 war, as the provost recently explained, it even had a few dozen students from the United States.

Its graduates are spread across the globe. Ironies of ironies, maybe, the new U.S. representative to the U.N. is an AUB graduate, where he will work with Lebanon's newly appointed representative, who happened to be the chairman of the AUB department (political studies and public administration) where I will begin teaching next week.

These days Hamra is also being shaped by the current political standoff between the March 14 forces that control the government and the March 8 opposition that is seeking to bring down the prime minister and/or force him to create a "unity government" that gives forces like Hezbollah (allied with some populist and pro-Syrian forces) a veto power over major political decisions.

The March 14 forces are a motley crew (that includes right-wing Christians, centrist Sunni Muslims and a few democratic leftists) cobbled together in the large shadow of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who used his own personal wealth and business ties to help rebuild this city destroyed by a the 1975-90 civil war.

While a diverse district, Hamra is also historically a Sunni Muslim neighborhood where the current prime minister, Fuad Siniora, and the home of the family of the late Hariri (who continue to lead the political movement he built) live. You can easily tell where by the concrete barricades and roadblocks that limit traffic near them and are manned by security forces from the interior ministry controlled by members of the March 14 coalition.

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