Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Downtown

After two days in Beirut, I'm fascinated by the city's walls. Federico wants to include still, stark images of walls in this film - a collection of old, new, destroyed and rebuilt. It seems you can tell the history of the city through its walls, some still destroyed since the Civil War with bullet holes and mortar scars clearly visible. Often, you walk passed a newly built bank, housed in a beautifully designed, glass-fronted building, all the signs of money and regeneration. But in the original stone wall, perhaps where the developers failed to look, or preferred not to look, or overlooked on purpose, you find on the original stone walls that the dull, slightly rounded pock-marks of bullets are still visible.

This morning, we return to the Ministry of Information to pick up our press papers. These are official, Lebanese government press papers, but they're not valid in the downtown protest area. That section of the city is controlled by Hezbollah, and needs a seperate press pass (which we now also hold). Visit an official government function, and you need yet another, different press pass. All the while, you need to make sure not to get the various passes mixed up, accidentally showing your Hezbollah press pass to government soldiers, for example. It might cause some confusion...

Federico and I head for downtown, the centre of the anti-government demonstrations and also the centre of the city's gentrification process. Downtown was supposed to be the beacon of Beirut's post-war reconstruction, but instead ended up in lockdown, surrounded by military patrols and razorwire, housing anti-government protesters since December of 2006. Downtown is deserted. Surrounded by tanks and soldiers, it's hardly an atmosphere that welcomes shoppers, though the Lebanese government has done its best to attract tourists and high-value shoppers back into the city centre. We walk from shop to shop trying to briefly interview shop assistants about the current situation.

We visit the Gucci shop, Armani, Tod's, Zegna - all high-end boutiques - asking how business is, how the military presence and the demonstrations are affecting sales. The response is almost always, as before, one of denial. Things are fine, we're assured, business is going well, there are still people coming into the centre of town. "But we don't see anyone," Federico points out. "Come back at night," we're told, "You'll see lots of people." But we've been there at night and still saw no one. Of course they're all on duty, busy promoting their brand and making sure the client is always satisfied. They're not about to admit that business is terrible and few people are in the mood to go shopping.

The story from these boutique shop assitants is very different from that of the souvenir shop we approached the other day. They were very straightforward: "There haven't been any clients since Hariri's assassination," one explained. "Since the demonstrations, no one's coming" said another. I can't decide if the Gucci salespeople are really just keeping up the illusion of good business or if the shopping elite are really touring downtown Beirut as usual. After all, Ahmed explained to us yesterday that even during the height of the summer war with Israel, people still flocked to the downtown shops.

We interview one Lebanese man outside a designer shop to ask his views. "You're very brave, coming to Lebanon now," he says. But are Beirutis still interested in shopping? "Well, you know people in Lebanon like to dress well. For example, I'm wearing Gucci," and he pulls open his jacket to reveal the label, in case we didn't believe him.

The place is all wide, grand boulevards, all eerily emtpy now. Chairs are stacked inside cafes, covered in months of dust. Some signs betray the wishful thinking that followed last summer's war: "Opening soon", it says over a Nike shop, with no sign of anything opening any time soon. We find a Costa Coffe, one of the few stores that does, actually, look like it's opening soon, with workers painting the walls and installing the furniture. It's hard to know if it's worth it at this point.

Half-way down one of Etoile's side streets, we find Solidere, the offices of the company Hariri set up to rebuild Beirut following the Civil War. It's a marketing suite, complete with a massive, 4m square scale model of the future city centre. But the suite is closed, and we need to find the caretaker and ask for special permission to enter. There, in the Solidere offices, is Hariri's dream made plastic, a miniature utopia. The Holiday Inn, for example, looks perfect and untouched. Once the largest hotel in the Middle east when it was first opened, the hotel quickly became a haven for snipers because, at the time, it was one of the tallest buildings in the city. It was quickly reduced to a skeleton, peppered with bullet holes and mortar fire. Now, the empty hotel still towers over the city like a ghost from the past, waiting for something to happen. Around it, buildings are developed and rebuilt, but the Holiday Inn seems cursed to remain an emtpy shell forever. But in the Solidere model the Holiday Inn looks perfect, shiny and new.

While the Holiday Inn has been recreated, other areas of the model are strangely vacant. The residential neighbourhood of the city where, we were told, government ministers live, is a void with no details or buildings. Downtown, there are no signs of the protesters, just beautiful, grand streets and arcades. Another model shows the new corniche, complete with a miniature wave machine (which doesn't work) to demonstrate how well it would withstand a storm. The entire showroom is an excercise in optimism and it suddenly seems quaint when compared to the situation outside, like a dream already outdated. The model, though intended to be the future of Beirut, already feels like something from the past, the "before".

That night, we meet a group of old Beiruti friends working in documentary and television news. The discussion soon turns to Federico's film, and we're releaved to hear they seem interested in the idea. We rekindle the old, and public, debate between Eliane and I regarding the "Arab Identity Crisis". We discuss the future of Al-Jazeera International, eat mushroom and cheese crepes, and sip whisky on the rocks.

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