text by NEGAR AZIMI
photography by AYLA HIBRI and JOE KESROUANI
A Lebanese friend once told me she had sex dreams about two people only: Hassan Nasrallah and Catherine Deneuve. The pairing of the hirsute Hezbollah leader and the actress from Belle de Jour, scandalously incongruous as it seems, in my mind perfectly captures Beirut. How to begin to talk about a city that invites so many pre-fab clichés? Lingering over the delirious contradictions and contrasts — both real and psychic — is a favorite pastime of journalists in particular, for what is Beirut if not a mille-feuille of dozens of classes, confessions, and alliances — branché cosmopolitan elites and shabby overcrowded southern suburbs, haute couture and Hezbollah?
I first met the musician Charbel Haber a decade ago in a smoke-filled cave called Torino. It was the kingdom in which we all gathered, and Charbel, the rail-thin boy with the band, was its king. It was there, one night, in that narrow overcrowded rectangle of a bar, that he said something like this: Beirut is like a lover that shits all over you, yet, you can’t help but keep coming back for more. In spite of her politics, her pockmarks, her ghosts — you forgive her. You shower her with love.
If Beirut is a woman, it is a wisp of one — a tiny peninsula wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Lebanon Mountains. But in spite of its small size, it sometimes feels like dozens of cities in one, the legacy of a 15-year-long civil war that carved this expanse into islands. During those war years, neighborhoods like Mazraa, Hamra, and Bourj Hammoud became worlds of their own, with their own bars, their own militias. Though that war ended more than two decades ago, its traces are everywhere, like wounds that never healed.
Charbel takes me on the tour of his Beirut for Purple Travel. Straddling the line that once divided Christian-controlled East Beirut from the Muslim West, there sits a crumbling brutalist masterpiece that could only have descended from outer space: an egg-shaped carcass once destined — as the story goes — to be a movie theater. Down the road is the long-abandoned Holiday Inn, a mottled monument where snipers once nested. About that hotel, he tells me: “Have you seen that picture from 1975, a militiaman with his AK-47, playing the piano at the Holiday Inn? That’s as civil as a civil war can be.”
These days, Charbel and the rest of the crowd at Torino have migrated down the street to Internazionale, a kindred sister bar in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. The boy with the band is still rail-thin, and the nights still last for days. Just a few years ago, this was a sleepy residential area known for its elderly Armenian community and a smattering of car mechanics. Today, it might be better known for its organic restaurants, bookstores, and chic boutiques. And yet here and elsewhere in the city and its surroundings, one can’t avoid the sight of Syrian refugees. It’s said that there are more than one million of them across this country of four million. And so there is a building craze in a land always on the brink of war. Surely, there is no more entrepreneurial culture than the Levantines. Never in the history of man has there been a better case study for cognitive dissonance.
Whatever happens, the sea is a constant. In West Beirut, the Sporting Club’s faded concrete expanse is where boys and girls gather to sun and eat fish. Down the coast, leathery fisherman cast their skinny poles, and teenagers do death-wish acrobatics as they dive into the deep blue sea at Ras Beirut. “They sell death in Beirut as they sell wine in France,” the octogenarian writer and artist Etel Adnan once said. She wrote these words about her home city: “I must say that Beirut clings to me like hot wax, even in slumber.” Beirut is like a lover.
[Table of contents]
Two girls in Shikoku and the Seto Inland Sea _ Japan
by Erika Kurihara
Carsten Höller in Kinshasa _ Democratic Republic of the Congo
by Carsten Höller
Robert MacFarlane _ Walking and the Wilderness
by Xerxes Cook
A day in Beirut with Charbel Haber from Scrambled Eggs _ Lebanon
by Negar Azimi
Two-Way Mirror / Hedge Arabesque by Dan Graham _ Fondazione Zegna _ Trivero _ Italy
by Xerxes Cook
Eileen Gray’s e.1027 house, 1929 _ (before renovation) _ Roquebrune- Cap-Martin _ France
by Peter Lyle
Shiraz to Esfahan (and back again) _ Iran
by Xerxes Cook
Bordallo Pinheiro Garden _ Lisbon _ Portugal
by João Basto
Terry Richardson x Jack Pierson _ Ready-made poems _ United States
by Terry Richardson and Jack Pierson
Christmas in Patagonia _ Argentina
by Max Farago
Cameron Smith and Kat Hessen _ On the road again
by Cameron Smith
Just back from Havana by Gary Indiana _ Cuba
by Gary Indiana
Victoire de Castellane _ Seychelles 2003 and Île de Ré 2013
Victoire de Castellane