One of the best parts of studying in Jordan, a centrally located Middle Eastern country, is the ease of travel around the region. I was lucky enough to travel to Beirut, Lebanon, over a break in the semester at AMIDEAST to experience a new city and new culture. Beirut has significantly more street art than Amman at the moment, partly because of the consistent political turmoil and lack of stability in the government. Street art is a way to express political activism and culture, which Beirut is not lacking. Colorful word art and unique designs adorn the city, a way of distinguishing itself as an independent city. One of the most fascinating things to observe is the combination of different languages in the art. As mentioned in a previous post, Amman sees a frequent mix of Arabic and English in street art. Beirut has another dimension, including French in many of the people’s daily expressions. The country has a history of French colonization, and the intermingling of French and Arabic is apparent in everyday greetings, for example.
Beirut’s downtown area is a contrasting mix of developed and high-end storefronts standing next to shattered and bullet-ridden buildings from the Lebanese civil war. This conflict, which lasted from 1975 until ,was a power struggle between the Maronite Christians and Muslims of Palestinian and Lebanese origin and wreaked havoc on much of Beirut, the central location of the fight. These buildings are kept as a reminder for the Lebanese people in the hopes of preventing another such confrontation.
This abandoned Hilton Hotel is located very close to Beirut’s majestic Grand Mosque in the heart of the city. Over time, graffiti artists have decorated the sides of the building, perhaps as a way to lay claim on the historical significance of the building and promote further ownership of past mistakes.
In addition to the remains from the civil war, Beirut also pays tribute to those who were hung as Lebanese patriots under the Ottoman rule with this Martyr’s Monument in the downtown. Erected in 1916, the statue additionally shows the bullet damage from the more recent civil war as a reminder of the damages done. It serves as a renowned symbol of unity, as Martyr’s Square served as a major division line during the civil war.
Beirut has been battling development in the years since the civil war. The Lebanese company Solidere has been a major factor in this investment, buying out a large portion of the downtown to rebuild and put in pricy retail stores. Solidere is a mix of private ownership that enjoys many of the liberties of a public ownership. This has allowed Solidere to buy out enormous parts of the downtown at extremely low prices and to create a monopoly. It has resulted in a hard time for small business owners in the downtown. Because of this, protest posters like the one seen on the famous Corniche Walkway display the unhappiness Beirut residents feel with the foreign investment.
In addition to the political statements, Beirut had plenty of fun expressions of personality, showing that the city is full of life and passion. Beirut is known as one of the cultural centers of the Middle East, and its colorful staircases and graffiti scattered throughout the city certainly reflected this. A small alleyway downtown was decorated on both sides by these colorful designs. A sharp contrast to the strong political statements, these light designs provide hints of the lively culture of the city. Staircases throughout the downtown also reflect these sentiments, livening up a useful part of the city.
Beirut provided an interesting comparison to Amman and the streets I was used to. The city’s added color and character provided a view into the lively culture and its unique personality. Observing the decorated walls helped to show the city’s ties to the past and desire to avoid the mistakes that led to conflict through the continued physical reminders that the city refuses to tear down. The resilience of the Lebanese people is visible through their choices to decorate the city and create a visual personality for Beirut.