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The Battle Over Beirut’s History
Beirut, Lebanon, 1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle Over Beirut’s History

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, July 27

Some Lebanese resort to nostalgia today, as is typically the case when an old way of life is ending and a new one begins. The current nostalgia revolves around Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, during the early and mid-1960s. Beirut during the ‘60s was prosperous. This was the era in which the United States and Egypt reached a settlement that made Fuad Chehab the president of Lebanon between 1958 and 1964. It is the era preceding the border tensions with Israel and the establishment of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. It is the era in which Lebanese capitalism prospered and expanded into the remote outskirts of the country. It is the era in which the Lebanese people experienced a high degree of stability, the expansion of the middle class, and the growth of Beirut into a city that appeared charming and enchanted at the same time. However, it is interesting to note that people reminisce about this time period in very different ways, based on their current-day sectarian affiliation. This is because each group chooses some aspect of this era to hold onto, ignoring other facets of life in Beirut during the 1960s. One camp, subscribing to the folkloric tourist tale, remembers Beirut as a city teeming with foreign visitors who frequented its many hotels, cafés, movie theaters, and clubs. Beirut, according to this narrative, was never a home to Lebanon’s poor hailing from the countryside. Rather, it was the hub of wealthy nobles involved in tourism, hospitality, and arts. The second camp, in contrast, subscribes to the memory of Beirut as a site of major political and military activity. It is a city that welcomed guerilla fighters, allowed substrate actors to trade in arms and weapons, and provided a breeding ground for demonstrations and political protests. In this recollection, Beirut is the city that gave birth to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Amal movement, and the Arab Nationalist Movement. Notably, the tourist narrative is traditionally a Christian one, which was later inherited by the Sunnis during the Rafik Hariri era. The arms narrative is traditionally a Sunni one, inherited by the Shiites during the Hizbullah era. But the truth is that Beirut during the 1960s was bigger and grander than either one of these narratives. Indeed, both tales existed together. Noble businessmen alone did not build the city, but also the capital that flowed into the city thanks to an extensive network of arm dealers and fighters. At the same time that the city was frequented by tourists and visitors flocking its hotels and cafes, it was also the birthplace of many Arab political groups. It is a city that was built not only on the shoulders of the intelligentsia but also on the shoulders of Arab mercenaries who evaded their respective countries and found refuge in Lebanon. In other words, Beirut of the 1960s can best be described by the word “freedom”: It was a place where all these kinds of activities could happen simultaneously. It is for this reason that each camp interprets history so differently, holding onto nostalgic feelings that revolve around the city they love. – Hazem Saghieh (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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