Notes from Beirut Part II: Reading the City
June 19, 2015 § 5 Comments
Now that I’ve spent a little while in Beirut, I want to offer some comprehensive impressions of the city, and offer my thanks to the people who have helped me out during my first week there. I’ll zero in to talk about more specific aspects later.
(I would have posted this earlier, but I came down with some gastrointestinal nastiness a few days ago which has left me with little energy for writing after spending days doing research in the archive)
Being incorrigibly myself, I’m going to process the whole experience for you through one of my favorite ideas from the humanities/social science academy. (People who know me well in academic contexts probably already can guess what it is, and they will probably also make fun of me for it. If you know as much about my personal obsessions as they do, they’ll know that I totally deserve it.)
In his totally awesome and remarkably readable book Seeing Like a State, the political theorist James Scott argues that modernizing states tend to try to change the spaces that they control to make them easier to watch and manage. Sometimes, this change is just conceptual. It could involve a surveying commission tasked with simplifying the property rights attached to village farmland, or a government imposing standardized weights and measures of time, or imposing regulations on where and how trade happens.
Other times, it involves transforming physical spaces. These efforts can reshape the natural environment, by draining marshes and creating monocropped forests. They can also remake the built environments which humans live in, imposing strict zoning laws and creating easy-to-navigate streets. The latter process is often called “Hausmannization” after a French official who tore down huge chunks of Paris and gave the city the wide boulevards it’s now famous for. (The French Second Empire, which paid for this huge project, intended to make urban rebellions like those which had brought down several French monarchies, easier to crush.)
In all cases, states are seeking to make their territories easier to get information from. Scott calls this easy-to-read quality legibility, and argues that creating is has been one of the defining projects of modern states from the 18th century onward. (Important note for later: “legibility” only refers to how readable a space is for government officials or outsiders. Most spaces make sense to the people who usually live in them.)
Beirut is the most gloriously illegible city I have ever lived in or visited. The illegibility of its cityscape alone is pretty remarkable. I don’t think that there actually is any American city like it, so I’ll take a stab and combine a few to give an impression: imagine Boston’s squiggly streets with New York’s density and Houston’s total lack of zoning laws.
But even this doesn’t really quite capture it. With the exception of a piece of its downtown, Beirut has never been Hausmannized, so it’s full of narrow streets and lacks any sort of grid structure. It’s also a really densely-populated, built-up city, full of high-rise buildings. Right now, a lot of people are coming to Beirut from Syria and the Lebanese countryside (or like me, coming from further away to visit or do research). As a result, housing prices have been going up and people are undertaking new construction projects and making tall buildings even taller all the time. (The owner of the apartment building where I live now basically just dropped another floor on top of the building. I live in it now– it’s mostly fine, although there is some weirdness like the washing machine getting installed on a balcony and the elevator stopping a few floors below where I live.)
On top of all this, most buildings in Beirut don’t actually have addresses, at least not ones that are labeled or that people know. (For my own address, I have to tell people the area where I live and a street name and then sheepishly add “Hamada building.) Street names aren’t usually all that clearly marked either, and people tend not to use them (with the exception of a few like Rue Hamra, a major shopping street). So, if you want to find your way from place to place, or tell people where things are, you need to rely on landmarks (bakeries, banks, mosques, military checkpoints, embassies, hospitals, luxury condos, produce shops, etc.)
Actually traversing Beirut also requires a certain degree of local knowledge because traffic in Beirut is batshit insane. People drive at fairly remarkable speed down the city’s tight streets, there are surprisingly few traffic lights and nobody really obeys stop signs, people sometimes just stop their cars right in the middle of the street (when I was coming in from the airport, my cab driver did this to try to get directions to the place where I lived. Multiple times) and nobody ever really yields right of way to pedestrians. This makes walking to the archive where I work (or anywhere else, really) feel like participating in a live-action Frogger re-enactment. Public transportation consists of a few not-super-prominent bus routes, taxis, and “service” cars (in which a few people share a single cab to go somewhere at low prices). You need to be vigilant to catch them and you need to know something about your destination to tell them where to go.
Beirut’s illegibility (at least for a foreigner like me) extends to its economy. The city has its malls and department stores, but they tend to be expensive– charging a premium for the lack of knowledge you show in using them. You can get a lot more stuff a lot more cheaply in the many small, multipurpose shops peppering the city. Instead of stocking a predictable set of goods, most stores seem to have an assortment of stuff, some of which loosely relates to the store’s ostensible purpose, some of which seems just totally random, or has a logic independent of the store’s labeling. For example: there’s a store on the ground floor of my building which is nominally a cell phone shop. And it sells a bunch of stuff that seems related to that general purpose, like SIM cards, mobile minutes, long-distance call time on the store’s landline, and secondhand phones (usually kept under the desk, brought out if you ask about them). But it also sells about ten different kinds of hair oil, some mysterious carrot glop that you put on your face, random jewelry, pirated DVDs of terrible American movies, and plastic bags full of naan. (I think that all of this is because the store actually caters to migrants from East Africa and India, who want to call their families back at home.) A lot of the stuff you buy is secondhand, some of it might be defective, and if you’re visibly a foreigner or your Arabic is a little off (as mine, to be honest, pretty often is), or if you’re impolite, the owners might jack up the prices on you.
Basically all of this stuff requires people to be more attentive to their surroundings, more thoughtful, and tougher then they would be otherwise. With my American habits, I’m a bit soft, and I might have been in some real trouble if not for the help of a couple of friends who I met early on. These are Abboud, my property manager, and his old friend and flatmade Hibba. The two of them are old friends, and they’re both from Damascus in Syria. It’s amusing to watch them together because in many ways, they’re temperamental opposites. Abboud, who’s 27, is a pretty big, affable guy who seems pretty emotionally demonstrative and friendly. He’s kind of a bro– he goes to the gym (and thus taught me about how to pump iron)– but also a really accomplished guy. He was a lawyer and ran a business which booked international DJs before the Syrian Civil War put a kibosh on Damascus’s party scene. Hibba (who I think is about 22?) just finished her BA in political science at the American University of Beirut. She’s slender, stylish, a bit reserved, and kind of cynical by temperament, though she obviously gets a kick out of teasing her friend. She smokes more than anybody I’ve ever met, sometimes going through a cigarette just about every twenty minutes or so. Both of them have expressed quite a bit of concern for me, and told me a lot about Beirut and how I should deal with it. (The best take-away, on toughness: the saying “Laazim t’akl al-hajjaar,” which translates literally as “you’ve got to eat rocks,” figuratively as “you’ve got to be strong.) They also took me to the beach, and Hibba helped me buy a secondhand laptop at a pretty great price from one of the little electronics stores around town. They’re great people, and I really appreciate their help.
One of the things which Scott says about efforts to impose legibility is that they actually can be harmful. I think that Beirut actually offers good evidence of that too. Because a lot of the things that make Beirut kind of illegible also make it really livable. The city’s unzoned neighborhoods are mixed-use and really lively, which seems to foster a lot of genuine community, because people live and buy stuff and hang out in the same spaces. Everywhere is full of great cheap street restaurants and produce shops. And savvy people can take advantage of a lot of stuff which would be wasted in the US. Beirut’s probably more vibrant, more energetic, and more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis than just about anywhere in America, and that’s pretty special.