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French Version

Beirut how you've changed ... or have you?

'Fin de Siecle Beirut,' the newest history of the city, suggests 'then' is 'now'

A British diplomat living in Beirut once observed that folks here spend an awful lot on clothes.

A French MD later remarked that Beirutis seem to live beyond their means, spending remarkable sums on fashion and public display generally. One noted Lebanese journalist confessed that, when he was young, he estimated peoples' intelligence by how they dressed.

Few with any knowledge of Beirut would be surprised by these observations. You might be if you learned they weren't made last year or last week, but over a period from the 1840s to 1908.

More amusing are the recollections of a Palestinian fellow named Barghouti who, unhappy with the discipline of his Beirut school, regularly slipped out of the dorms with his pals to enjoy the nightlife. A God-fearing American, meanwhile, complained about the proliferation of bars in Beirut - 120 of them! - while one Beiruti reckoned with some confidence that there were some 1250 prostitutes working in the red-light district just east of Martyrs' Square, with a ratio of roughly two Arab ladies to every foreign girl.

The numbers sound conservative but brothels near Martyrs' Square suggest these recollections date from around 1975. No, they're from the first two decades of the 20th century.

These rumors of Beirut past, so evocative of the city's present, are the substance and ornament of Jens Hanssen's "Fin de Sicle Beirut: the Making of an Ottoman Provincial City." An erudite and contentious book, it examines the city as it was a century ago and more, but it does so with post-1992 Beirut firmly in the front of its mind. Hanssen's rendering is as critically removed as it is intimately informed and the "then" reverberates strongly with the "now," but it may not be to the nostalgia buffs' liking.

For Lebanese readers, the phrase "Beirut history" will evoke "Histoire de Beyrouth" (2003), by recently assassinated academic and editorialist Samir Kassir. An impressive intellectual endeavor, it tells the city's story from its appearance in the historical recorded to the present. Its great service to Beirut-ophiles (francophone ones, anyway) is its synthesis of so much disparate research into one informed, eminently readable, narrative.

Kassir doesn't claim to be making a new contribution to the scholarship on Beirut history, though. As critics have pointed out, syntheses like "Histoire de Beyrouth" are only as good as the sources they draw upon. A period in which this literature is spotty is the one "Fin de Sicle Beirut" scrutinizes.

Hanssen's history recounts political, social and cultural developments from 1888 to 1920, when Beirut was an Ottoman provincial capital, though the narrative thread begins earlier. A major reason Beirut became an administrative center for these 32 years, he argues, was the previous 23 years of lobbying on the part of the city's merchants and administrators.

The civic elite's manipulation of politics - imperial, provincial and municipal - to consolidate its power is a leitmotif of Hanssen's several overlapping narratives. In these years the practice of Beirut's political class coalesced into that blend of populist and cosmopolitan maneuvering that still characterizes Lebanon's urban politics in the era of the Independence Uprising.

On one hand outsiders - Ottoman, European, American - were engaged to invest in the city, in the broadest sense of the term. On the other, prominent families engaged popular sentiments to bolster their status from below.

During this period the city administered a broad swath of coastal territory from the Alawi Mountain - ancestral home of Syria's Assad family - to Northern Palestine - where Beirut's Sursock family possessed huge landholdings, infamously sold to the Jewish National Fund in 1906.

It was a territory larger than today's Lebanese Republic but did not include Mount Lebanon. Hanssen wants to cleanse Beirut history of the contagion of "Lebanist" historiography - a hindsight that makes writers rush past aspects of the history that don't foreshadow national independence.

Nineteenth-century Beirutis did not foresee World War I. Neither did they anticipate the dismemberment of the 700-year-old Ottoman Empire. By word and deed, the city's leaders were Beiruti Ottomans. After Istanbul gave Damascus control over Beirut in 1864, it was as Beirutis (not nascent Lebanese) that they lobbied for autonomy.

Beirut and Lebanon did have intimate relations. Some Beirut notables had Lebanese roots and Lebanese workers were a common sight around Sahat al-Sur (today's Riad al-Solh Square) awaiting day labor - just as Syrian jobbers wait for work under the nearby Fouad Chehab Bridge today.

Administrative boundaries separating Beirut and the Mountain posed no obstacle to migration or investment, so Beirut's bankers and merchants devoted their energies to lucrative markets beyond Lebanon, as they do today.

Unlike Kassir, Hanssen isn't Franco-Lebanese. Locally this is bound to raise tiresome questions about foreigners presuming to make a living from pontificating about the Middle East.

Like the city about which he writes, Hanssen is a bit of an intellectual mongrel. A German educated in the U.K., he lived and worked in reconstruction-era Beirut for years while researching this book. Much inspired by the writings of French urban philosopher Henri LeFebvre, "Fin de Sicle Beirut" is informed by memories, newspapers, state and diplomatic records in a host of languages including Arabic and Ottoman Turkish.

The general reader will be relieved to learn that "Fin de Siecle Beirut" is also quite readable. It echoes with Beirut voices - local, Ottoman and Western - and makes good use of rumor and anecdote to tell its story.

Storytellers are performers and Hanssen tells his history from the stage of reconstruction Beirut. This makes it more accessible. He revels in remembering the city's now-erased quarters and souks, meticulously locating them in relation to landmarks that survived civil war and reconstruction. The stage also makes the book more contentious.

The study is laced with detail redolent of the late 20th century. Contrary to what popular memory would suggest, for instance, the city was first divided into "East Beirut" and "West Beirut" not because of civil conflict in 1975 but an administrative experiment sometime between 1908 and 1911. Institutional corruption, another 20th-century motif, was in newspapers back in 1888 - as were the rhetorical opposites "progress" and "urban heritage."

More challenging is his use of the language of reconstruction. Hanssen often refers to the city after Lebanon's 1860 Civil War as "reconstruction Beirut." His intent is obviously subversive: the self-conscious anachronism foreshadows Beirut's experience since the end of the 1975-90 Civil War.

The demolition of a large swathe of downtown Beirut and the scrubbed, concrete-reinforced reconstruction that grew out of it was the work of Solidere (Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut City Center) - created by then-Premier Rafik Hariri and granted unprecedented prerogatives of land expropriation.

Hanssen was engaged with the reconstruction process - co-authoring a paper critical of Solidere in 2001. Here he simply dismisses Solidere as a "facade-fixated compression of historical styles." For the informed reader, however, the continuities between Ottoman and contemporary Beirut are readily drawn.

Ottoman Beirut's municipal agenda, as he points out, expressed a reform-era "discourse of urban sanitation that conflated cleanliness, social behavior and public hygiene," one antithetical to the old city. In this discourse the 1975-90 war seems an interregnum of filthy, ill-mannered chaos. Rather than reforming the sectarian-clientalist system, the state's antidote was the order of Solidere and Sukleen's regular rubbish collection.

Hanssen's argument underlines the agency of Beirut's civic leadership in controlling their political and economic environment, in not being lumps of clay molded by Western or Ottoman interests. Studies of Beirut's leading families usually content themselves to leave the story on this, implicitly congratulatory, note.

"Fin de Siecle Beirut" takes the issue of agency a step further, holding Beirut's "middle class" leadership accountable for what many Beirutis regard as the city's shortcomings. Hanssen is most successful in this when he calls upon Beirut's intellectuals to argue the case.

At one point he quotes revered poet - and erstwhile Beirut resident - Jibran Khalil Jibran, who was dismayed with upper class hypocrisy and traditional social conventions like arranged marriage. At another, Hanssen takes his cue from Beirut-born journalist and historian Jirji Zaydan.

In September 1903, sectarian riots broke out in Beirut's "southern suburbs" - then Basta, Musaytbeh and Mazrat al-Arab. Reportedly four Greek Orthodox, four Sunnis and an Ottoman soldier were killed and a number of properties looted.

Zaydan, writing from Egypt, blamed the violence on the lack of education and irresponsible behavior of Beirut's civic leadership. "How ... is the lower class to be blamed," Zaydan wrote. "The rich who are ignorant are much more dangerous to humanity than the ignorant poor."

A century later, Zaydan's remarks reverberate like an alarm bell.

Jens Hanssen's "Fin de Siècle Beirut: the Making of an Ottoman Provincial City" is scheduled for release in Lebanese and regional bookshops in the fall.

Beirut 05-09-2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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