Notes from Beirut Part III: Zarif

June 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

I live in a neighborhood in west-central Beirut called Zarif (or, as it’s spelled in Arabic, ظريف).  Zarif is just south of Sana’yeh (home to Sana’yeh Gardens, one of Beirut’s biggest public parks, as far as I can tell basically Beirut’s Central Park, although it is much smaller than Central Park), and just a little further south and east of Hamra, the district which holds the American University of Beirut (where I do archival research) as well as a lot of Beirut’s shopping malls and Western foreigners.  To the East is the city center, where there are a lot of public buildings plus some really glitzy housing developments which the Hariri family (most famous for providing Rafik, a Lebanese Prime Minister whose assassination led the Lebanese to kick out a Syrian occupation about ten years ago) built after the 1980s-era civil war basically laid waste to it.  A bit further east is Universite de Saint-Joseph, which historically was basically AUB’s Jesuit, Catholic, French counterpart.


As an area, Zarif seems to be fairly middle-income.  A lot of the buildings in the area are dirty or crumbling.  Sometimes, their peeling paint carries bullet scars from Lebanon’s civil war.  Some are still abandoned.  But at the same time, most of the area’s buildings are full of people, plenty of construction is going on, and the streetfronts are full of shops, which seem to do a decent business.  (Said stores seem intriguingly different from stores in the West.  There are lots of small restaurants with no seating, a bunch of stores which sell produce but not other food, minimarkets which sell snacks but also a random assortment of dry goods like eggs, flour, and rice, a store which sells nothing but different kinds of cooking oil, a store which is just filled with giant piles of tires, a store which seems to mostly sell World of Warcraft subscriptions, the cell phone store downstairs which also sells hair oil and naan.  I wonder what kind of social/economic conditions make this sort of mercantile ecosystem happen?)

From what I understand, Zarif is mostly a Shi’a Muslim neighborhood, although that’s much less visible than it would have been in the past because Hezbollah and the Future Movement agreed to take down political symbols in their neighborhoods.  Accordingly, most of the small restaurants in the area are closed between dusk and dawn during Ramadan, which is going on right now.  There are also a lot of foreigners in the area, though– mostly Syrians and people from India and East Africa.


This text blob has gone on long enough, so I’ll tell you some more stuff with pictures:




So, this building is across the street from mine, and I can see it from my apartment balcony.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that a good chunk of the top floor is pretty open to the outside, to get a nice crossbreeze going through (my apartment has this feature too, and it works really well for keeping temperatures down during the day.)  Also, notice the many, many satellite dishes on the roof.  I’ve watched some of the local satellite TV while hanging out with some of my downstairs neighbors.  I was most surprised to find out that Arabic satellite channels broadcast subtitled episodes of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.




Here’s a streetcorner with one of the nice luxury apartment buildings which seem to be creeping towards Zarif from the Sanayeh area.  In the foreground, you’ll see a dude riding a motorcycle with a plastic canopy.  You’ll probably spot a lot of motorcycles in the street scenes that I post.  They seem really popular here– probably because they’re cheap, versatile, easy to park on the sidewalk (people try to do this with cars too, but it doesn’t seem to work so well), and you can weave through traffic on them (or like one very brave soul I saw while driving out to the beach, just driving right into oncoming traffic like some two-wheeled vehicular Honey Badger).




Cool, shiny old cars like this are pretty common in Beirut (although the VW bug’s prevalence here has nothing on its total dominance in Merida, Mexico, IIRC).


DSCN0597So, this place is a mini-mart.  The ten-liter bottles of mineral water sitting out front cost about a dollar, and the locals all buy them because Beirut’s tap water, drawn from the shallow wells which give the town its name and the Dog River a little north of the city, is about as brackish as water can be and still be called fresh, and full of bacteria and just generally toxic.  I really took this shot to capture these kids, though.  Kids in Beirut seem to be pretty autonomous.  You see them all over the place playing, watching adults, picking on smaller kids (like these bike-riding ones seem to be– note the little one in the hat behind the motorcycle), and often selling flowers, delivering messages, running errands, and sometimes even running stores while their parents are out.




This is one of the all-produce shops that I mentioned.  For the most part, the fruits on display taste exactly as good as they look, and they cost like, a fifth of what they would in the US at most.  Basically, they’re awesome.




I made sure to shoot this backhoe when it would be well-lit, so that I could make it clear that no, this is not a gloomy, sorrowful shot of a vacant lot, but a bright, airy one showing that building and construction are going on here. (In fact I can usually hear them from my bedroom window).  The 1980s-era Civil War and massive emigration are still super-salient in Americans’ images of Beirut, but people are actually flooding into the city, and its problems are boomtown problems, not “desolate abandoned place” problems: insane traffic, strained water and power infrastructure (mandatory blackouts three hours a day), ridiculously high rents (comparable to Nashville’s, despite much lower incomes and food prices), a struggle for jobs in spite of lots and lots of economic activity.



DSCN0600Women from India rocking the bright-color loose-to-and-slacks look are really common in my neighborhood.  This woman’s look is pretty representative.




Thick-rimmed hipster glasses are totally a thing in Lebanon, too.


DSCN0607Sadly, this art-deco building doesn’t seem to have been rehabilitated yet.  I would kind of love to sneak in and explore…




I did not exaggerate when I said that this shop was literally full of tires.




The local grocery store!  Which is actually quite a bit like a New York grocery store, albeit with much less bourgeois merchandise.  Amusingly, I think that its name is a Maghrebi (ie: Morroccan) word meaning “the settled lands,” a term which shows up pretty frequently in the writings of the great medieval Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun.




This fresh-squeezed orange juice cart is on that corner every day.  The food stand across the street is called “Fahita,” and yes, the man in yellow next to the name is wearing a sombrero.  The fajita on their menu is quite good, although it only bears a very loose resemblance to either the Tex-Mex or authentic Mexican fajita.




Finally– good to see that nerdery is alive and well here on the other side of the globe.


For next time, I’m thinking about laying down a more substantive post.  Would you guys rather hear about some of the more interesting stuff that I’ve found while doing archival research or about some of my thoughts about the politics of language and second-language use (which will engage with both my experiences and my research)?






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