The Concrete Jungle

Not knowing what to expect when I arrived in Beirut, I was surprised to find a forest of skyscrapers. Not as tall as places like New York, Tokyo, Dubai. Maybe something reminiscent of Miami, especially the way the city runs right along the sea.

Speaking of New York, I think most people might guess it’s the U.S.’s most densely populated city – I would have. Turns out that there are actually a few New Jersey suburbs that are even more densely populated (who knew?!). But New York has a density that is easy to visualize. Manhattan in particular, where roughly 1.6 million people live in 34 square miles (88 square kilometers).

Beirut’s a bit smaller than Manhattan, about 26 square miles (67 square kilometers). The city’s last census was taken in 1932, so current population estimates are hardly exact, and range from one to two million, but 1.5 million seems like a conservative estimate. That´s roughly the same number of people as Manhattan, in twenty-five percent less space.

I guess that explains the infinite number of building cranes. Huge and gangly, looming over tall and taller buildings, accompanied by the relentless whirs and hammering of construction. Beirut’s no island, but nestled as it is between sea and mountains, the best place to go is still up.

Lebanon’s civil war ended just over twenty years ago. In terms of rebuilding a devastated city, twenty years really isn’t a long time. Edifices pockmarked by bullets and RPGs are still scattered throughout the city, and certainly there are older structures still standing, from 1960s apartment buildings, to the millennia-old Roman Baths in the city center. But many of Beirut’s “concrete trees” seem to be post-war new.

Where did the Lebanese find the money to rebuild when so many of their businesses were destroyed along with their homes? One local woman reminded me of the twelve million Lebanese living outside of Lebanon: a diaspora three times this tiny country’s population of four million. According to her, family members sent help from France, Nigeria, Venezuela, Brazil, Sierra Leone, the U.S., or wherever else they had sought refuge and opportunity.

Rebuilding has taken place with a vengeance. And parks or other green spaces were never a big part of Beirut’s landscape, making the city a veritable sea of gray concrete jutting into the blue Mediterranean sea.

According to Lebanon’s English-language daily newspaper, The Daily Star, there are only 0.8 square meters of green space per person. In urban areas, the World Health Organization (WHO), recommends 12 square meters of green space per person. (Some Beirut-based websites are stating that WHO recommends 40 square meters of green space per person, but I suspect that would be on a national level, not in urban areas.)

A notable exception to Beirut’s sea of concrete is Horsh Beirut, a park of pine trees on the edge of the city, accounting for 77% of all open space in the city. The park was closed from 1992 to 2002, but when it reopened, it was only opened to those over age 35 and with a permit. Studies are said to be underway regarding how to best fully reopen and utilize the park, but the mayor was recently quoted as saying that he’s in no hurry. On the other hand, the mayor seems to be putting energy behind a proposal to green Beirut, with his new project “Beirut is Amazing,” which aims to renovate some of the city’s few other existing public green spaces, while others are proposing a public-private partnership for rooftop (and balcony) greening.

So where do the city residents go when they want to escape their concrete apartments? You’ve probably seen a movie or two with scenes set in New York’s Brooklyn or Harlem, with people hanging out on their front stoop. Beirutis have that kind of street living down to an art. Shopkeepers hang out in plastic chairs outside of their stores. Near where I’m staying, five or six taxi drivers gather on the corner every day, two or three finding a seat on some kind of cement block, others on a couple of overstuffed chairs with cracked leather, another on a breaking-down swivel office chair, playing backgammon from time to time in the evenings. On the weekends on the Corniche, Beirut’s waterfront walkway, families emerge from cars like clowns out of a VW bug, bearing grandmothers and children and soccer balls, along with chairs in which the grown-ups can relax as the kids play. On Sunday afternoons, an older woman sets up her plastic chair and nargileh pipe on the sidewalk opposite her son’s bike-rental shop, enjoying her chance to relax and be around her son as he busily rents bikes to those who have come to stroll and bike the Corniche. (Nargileh is the name for the waterpipe used to smoke fruit-flavored tobacco, also known as hookah or shisha.)

As for me, I haven’t yet staked out a corner with a plastic chair, but I’ve rented a bike a few times, and strolled the Corniche several more. And when I find an apartment, and move out of my temporary accommodation, you can be sure I’ll do my part to green this concrete jungle, with plenty of plants and flowers on my balcony.

First Impressions

It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a first date.

The uncertainty, the hope pinned on first impressions, the current of tension running beneath the surface.

Despite having been married eleven years (and counting), it feels like a first date again. But this time, it’s with a city.

You see, my family and I just moved to Beirut, Lebanon.

Once famed as the Paris (or the Switzerland) of the Middle East. Later notorious for the civil war which raged from 1975 until finally fizzling out around 1989, or 90, or 91, depending on which local is telling you their story. A place where there was a thirty-three day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and where unrest is simmering around the edges right now, a spill-over from its neighbor Syria into northern Lebanon. (Talk about a current of tension under the surface.)

You can imagine why I was a little nervous to meet her two and a half weeks ago.

As with any city, there is much more to Beirut than the broad strokes. But perhaps you are like I was—unfamiliar with this exotic-sounding metropolis. She is a city by the sea, home to a booming port that lies shoulder to shoulder with pedestrian waterfront walkways. She is a concrete jungle, her skyline a mess of skyscrapers and building cranes.

A concrete jungle where flowers sprout in the cracks.

When we arrived to our hotel, worn out from a twenty-hour journey to reach Lebanon, we were greeted with a heady scent of flowers: there were several gardenia blossoms floating in a bowl at the hotel reception. Our taxi the next day had gardenias tucked into the air-conditioning vents, sending their perfume along with cool air. Street peddlers hawked gardenia necklaces at stoplights. They were everywhere.

Gardenias appeared even in my bedtime reading: Beirut Blues, a novel by Hanan al-Shaykh, one of Lebanon’s most prominent female writers, about Lebanon during the civil war. Protagonist Asmahan returns to Beirut after time in the mountains.

“Jawad draws my attention to the white gardenias everywhere; even the chewing gum vendors have them, and the beggars hovering around a little table in the middle of the sidewalk where men sit playing backgammon… Drivers have them stuck behind their mirrors and they quiver with each blast of the horn. Street traders’ barrows are decked out with them…”

Even amidst the ravages of war, the city’s inhabitants carried gardenias, reminders of the beauty in the world.

We all know that each flower represents something: red roses – love; yellow roses – friendship; daisies – innocence. I looked up the meaning of gardenias. According to the website “Flowers by Marilyn”, gardenias represent hospitality, grace, and secret love.

I’ve just met Beirut, and she has offered up flowers. Gardenias no less — a tangible emblem of the hospitality the city and its people. A hospitality that I am already experiencing. The first two weeks are indeed like a first date, in that it’s too early to tell what the city holds in store for us. But perhaps one day, as the gardenia alludes, we will love each other. It looks promising so far.