Tuesday, June 5, 2012

(Re)Walking the Walk

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, though with different pictures]

The church of the Armenian Evangelical Christian sect, which doesn't actually exist in Armenia (Author's photo)

I appreciate that the WalkBeirut tour is old news for veteran NOW Lebanon readers, but after three years and a significant re-shuffling of the route, I hope I’ll be pardoned for a brief update.

Starting now in Clemenceau, as opposed to Hamra as previously, this four-hour trek led by AUB alumnus and WalkBeirut founder Ronnie Chatah took me and some thirty others through over a dozen of the capital’s historic jewels last Sunday. Fancying myself, quite irrationally, as an authority on Lebanese history, I was continuously and increasingly annoyed to find Chatah’s knowledge surpassing, even humiliating my own at every turn. Indeed, the brilliance of his narration is his ability to accommodate the utter novice (“Who was Yasser Arafat?” someone once asked) while also sating the appetites of a more demanding audience.

In Qantari, you’ll learn about the Armenian Christian sect that only exists in Lebanon, as well as how to identify the specific Turkish, French and Lebanese elements in the still-preserved architecture of the neighbourhood. At the Holiday Inn – where a passing service driver shouted “How many died there, how many?!” in a tone that seemed to hold us personally responsible – you’ll discover which room Arafat stayed in, and what Ariel Sharon did when he took the building off his nemesis. At the synagogue in Wadi Abu Jmeel, you’ll learn about the Lebanese Jewish woman who liked to tell visitors how she once “slapped” Sharon “to the ground”. The journey continues downtown through the Roman baths, the Grand Serail, Place de l’Étoile and Martyrs Square, where it would be no exaggeration to say that Chatah’s oratory turned epic. Somehow, he summarises more than a century of the square’s history in a way that manages to be fully political, without being at all politicized.

Classic architecture in Qantari, incorporating Ottoman, French and Lebanese influences (Author's photo)

The Ottoman part (Author's photo)

Also an Ottoman touch (Author's photo)

Chatah summing up 100 years of history at Martyrs Square (Author's photo)

Fittingly (as I would come to see it), the tour culminates at Samir Kassir Square, where Chatah delivers a powerful – and, again, apolitical – tribute to the historian who gave us the 600-page-long magnum opus, Beirut. Explaining that Kassir’s passion and bitterness about the city’s rapidly disappearing history was the very inspiration for WalkBeirut itself, he invited an audience member – in this case, me – to read out an Arabic sentence of Kassir’s that neatly captures the ethos of the whole enterprise: "عودوا إلى الشارع، آيها الرفاق، تعودوا إلى الوضوح" (“Return to the street, dear friends/comrades, and you will return to clarity”). Something we might all do more often.

No comments:

Post a Comment