Bomb damage

Achrafieh Beirut bomb assassination

bomb damage


Shutters still hang from the buildings near the explosion and glazing firms are busy replacing shop windows in surrounding streets.

The flurry of phone calls right after the incident really got me thinking. Since it was the leading story for many European media, I expected the odd call from family abroad, but not so many from locals who know the area well and know we are at least a ten-minute walk from the site. We know several families living closer than us, and we didn’t think to call them. I mean what are the chances that they be affected. Most of all I’d feel embarrassed, as if I was searching for someone with a gory story, wanting to be part of the drama.

But here it is clearly a habit that goes back decades now. Bad news followed by a systematic ring-round of all your acquaintances. Just a quick matter-of-fact call to check and compare stories. Not because the probability is high but just to rule it out…and show you care. I’m sure if I had lived through the conflicts of Lebanese recent history I would do it. It was touching to think that so many people thought of us at all.


Good brunch – but not quite to die for

Earlier today in Beirut as I made my way to Sassine for brunch with my 15-month old we passed yet another high-rise construction site called Embassy II. The floor plans show the usual cluster of vast living rooms, en suite bathrooms and tiny maid’s rooms. They’re accompanied by the tag-line “Your passport to luxury city living.”

An hour after leaving Sassine, I was back home, thinking about Lebanese business concepts which have filled a real gap in the market, like and Zawarib. You can’t think about business or any kind of investment in Beirut without pondering the instability of investments in a country which one pundit or another invariably puts on the brink of war. Ironic then that my thoughts are interrupted by a huge blast followed by the wail of ambulances. Soon the land line, the mobiles, and Skype were alive with friends and family checking for our vital signs. A couple of hours later, Naharnet, the source which seems to get news out the fastest, put the toll at 8 dead and 78 wounded in a car bomb just off Sassine.  Then their website got too overloaded to load. I’m glad I abandoned the idea of staying at Sassine to shop after kneife because my Beirut baby was so sleepy.

Yesterday I was sent this article in The Spectator on why one Lebanese has had enough of the frailty of life in Beirut. Unlike him, I haven’t lived through three wars. I was only on holiday here in May 2008 when gun fights sprang up like leaks in a plastic bag and Hizbollah took control of West Beirut. I don’t get war jitters like some who have lived through it. In fact that was my only trip here before deciding to move here and it didn’t put me off in the slightest. I didn’t even learn the Arabic for bomb until today – a good sign to be sure. But I’m no longer seized by the desire to head straight back up to Sassine to check the situation out. I have Beirut baby to think about. Frankly, worrying about her tripping as she toddles about on her little legs so soon after her first steps is as much as I want to handle.

The news now is that the head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Internal Security Forces was the target of the car bomb. The BBC says its the deadliest attack since May 2008. Still, on a purely selfish level it’s almost a relief to know that it was, as always in Lebanon, an attack with a specific target, a typical assassination. Doesn’t that make it less likely for innocent bystanders and their babies to get caught up in the violence than in countries where terrorism is more random? It’s not a relief for Lebanon though.

Some may be willing to put a million dollars into the Embassy II development, and maybe it will prove to be their passport to luxurious city living. But it might just as well give them a better view than they ever wanted over a brand new conflict on their doorstep. As Michael Karam points out in his very personal article, the third world affords certain luxuries which are hard to come by in the West, such as live-in home help at laughably low rates. But I think a lot of dual-citizen Lebanese out there are wondering whether they should be using their back-up nationality, their non-Lebanese passport, to get themselves a normal life elsewhere, instead of the sometimes luxurious but unstable life they lead in Lebanon. Others may be gritting their teeth as they knuckle down to a difficult period from which they have no escape.

Beirut in miniature

As I write, half of Beirut is in the supermarket stocking up for the weekend. The experience will be hurried and crowded and reminiscent of this time last year and every big holiday before that, when the same shoppers swore, “Never again.”

But there are a couple of variations on the theme, because there are two types of supermarket in the city. There’s the gleaming new complexes with floors so clean you could eat your purchases off them, the type that I wrote about previously. Then there are the local supermarkets, a bit smaller, somewhat cheaper, and a lot more higgledy piggledy.

If you were to wake up from some deep sleep in one of the glam superstores, it would take you a while to work out you were in Lebanon, surrounded as you are by American cake mixes, Australian mangoes, Marmite and rice vinegar.

But the second kind, as my astute brother-in-law put it, is Beirut in miniature. The aisles weave between generously overladen shelves, and when the shelves run out the goods are stacked on the floor, piles of tins listing gently towards vats of olives, which are double parked alongside the crates of eggs. Shoppers squeeze through narrow gaps only to find themselves up against a wall of flat bread or of toilet rolls in a dead end having to reverse out.

Here and there, with the Bonne Maman conserve and Hershey’s chocolate bars, you happen upon an incongruous touch of the west just like in the city at large. Bystanders – who can only be staff – tap their cigarettes on ashtrays and chat and watch the comings and goings just as the military men on the streets watch and wait and smoke.

And as in town there’s always someone to help out with directions; in the Hikme branch of Charcutier Aoun its a kindly gentleman who greets you as you descend the stairs to the lower level, eager to make your shopping experience more successful by guiding you around the goods. He’ll even help you park your trolley if you need it.

Now you see it…

Over the past year I have often gazed at a lone house on the slopes of Achrafieh. It is only a lone house by a matter of a few meters, but the tufts of green undergrowth separate it out from the background of concrete colour blocks of flats which flank it. And while bright laundry decorates the balconies of the flats, this house stands quiet and pensive, the door ajar, the window panes gone. Still, it is a perfect foursquare house just waiting for someone to clear out any winged squatters and smarten it up.

Some weeks ago I noticed some roof tiles had come away, exposing the rafters. I checked it anxiously after a stormy night, but nothing had changed. Then, a few sunny days later, there was a gaping hole in the roof. The hole spread a little down the façade day by day. On Tuesday I noticed some men inside through the glass-less windows. As I watched, some bricks were pushed off the first floor and tumbled down the hill. They must be checking out the damage, I thought, or perhaps trying to make it safe so nothing big falls on the neighbours.

On Wednesday they were there again. I could see them clearly because the holes in the façade were bigger. Only this time I watched for a while. They moved from room to room, hitting at the battered window frames and outer wall. With a pole one worked to dislodge large stones in the wall on the ground floor. With the support weakened he was then able to knock down more of the first floor wall.

By now it looked like so many of the property ruins hit by mortar shells or rockets during the war. Except it wasn’t. Every day since they have been back to accelerate the erosion of the house.

When a beautiful property in my neighbourhood was bulldozed and replaced by a strip of black tarmac (aka a carpark), I asked the neighbours about it. The storekeeper next door assured me it would be replaced by a new building but that the planning permission would take around five years. What about knocking the place down? I wanted to know. Did anyone get permission for that? The storekeeper was shocked. Of course the developer had had to get permission. One couldn’t get away with such a thing in town. Still, I’ve heard of such things happening.

So now I am wondering why these two men turn up every day, haphazardly knocking the support out from under this roof, then disappear, leaving gravity and the elements to make a difference overnight. Bulldozer access might be difficult, not to mention expensive. But even if the plan was to demolish the building by manpower rather than machines, surely they would come with some tools – a sledgehammer for example. Is the owner really just trying to save money? If you can’t fit machinery up the passageway for the demolition, how will they bring in the machinery necessary to build on the land when the rubble is cleared?

Perhaps someone out there knows this place in Mar Mikhael and has an answer.

Streets of Beirut XXXI

When the builders first arrived at a beautiful though dilapidated house nearby, they cleaned the debris from the triple arches in the façade, and for a while I wondered if the new owner planned to restore the property. A few days later a heap of rubble replaced the building, quashing this unrealistic hope. The bulldozer sits on high and the irreverent builders swarm over the stones.

destruction of Beirut houses

a fragment of daily life

Against a wall shared with an adjacent building, the kitchen tiling still clings, along with a cupboard with the front ripped off, exposing bottles of cooking oil and vinegar from decades past.

destroying Beirut's architectural heritage

stubborn cupboard

I was tickled to see that this one lonely cupboard gave the builders quite some trouble. They all had a go at removing it and still hadn’t succeeded by the time I moved on.