Ronnie Chatah, founder of Walk Beirut, used to run a hostel in Hamra located behind Makhfar Hbeish. He also used to give his guests a walking tour of the city as part of their stay. Back then, the tour would last up to 8 hours. Gradually over time, he was told he had a knack for being a guide to the city and decided to branch out creating an official walking tour open to all willing to spend part of their weekend exploring the city on foot. Walk Beirut has been going for 5 years now; the stops have changed with time depending on the level of relevance of neighborhoods and safety issues. It was initially launched in 2006 but went on hiatus after the July 2006 war with Israel. Now going continuously since 2009, Walk Beirut is a great way to reignite the love of your own city or to discover it as a foreigner – even if you’ve lived here all your life. Tours now last around 4 hours and you need to reserve a spot ahead of time (tickets are $20/person). You can find them online here and check out their Facebook group here and I will be posting a mini interview with Ronnie within the next few days.
The tour is more like listening to a story about our beloved city with a buried past. Ronnie touches on a lot that is wrong with the country but in an entirely factual manner; a very “it is what it is” bittersweet ode to how the city has been crippled by exterior forces but mostly by itself yet still remains to get under your skin. From the architectural influence of the Turkish and the French to the reason we still use American dollars as currency, there are many factoids that even locals will find surprising. For example, the original rotating rooftop bar was at the Holiday Inn, the almost-40-year-old relic towering behind the Phoenicia Hotel. Home to “the original SKYBAR” as Ronnie put it, the hotel was only operational for one year before the civil war broke out.
The tour caters mostly to tourists – I met a Dutch freelance photographer, a few Americans, and two British ladies vacationing here after one had won tickets to stay at Le Gray at an auction in the UK. I found it disconcerting that foreigners seem more heartbroken by our history than our own people. In Samir Kassir’s “Beirut”, Robert Fisk wrote, “I am suspicious of foreigners who tell me they love Beirut. I love the life I live in Beirut, but I think you have to be homegrown – or at least Arab-grown- to claim a city like Beirut as an amour.” It can be argued that those who visit do not have to endure the everyday troubles that residents deal with; they can live in the romantic fairytale and leave before reality strikes. Plus, they probably don’t deal with electricity cuts. Beirut is a self-loathing lover you don’t want to leave because you know she can be beautiful if she just opens her eyes and tries – magical in all her attempts to shine no matter how many times she falls. However, it is still upsetting that foreigners are moved by the story of Martyrs’ Square, a piece of our history that seems to have been neglected. One phrase stuck with me personally during the walk through the ruins of Roman baths located below the Ottoman-built Grand Serail Parliament Palace and literally underneath the French-built bank buildings: “We chose reconstruction over preservation.” We have chosen reconstruction over preservation in the past one too many times, maybe it’s time to preserve our country’s legacy instead of restoring its self-destructive patterns.
We should appreciate the contradiction that makes us so dysfunctionally wonderful but we should work to better it because our beautiful country is sinking again, and we can’t continue to blame others for its fate. As unfair as it may be, it is up to us – the youth- to change things. We need to resuscitate and revive the Beirut that is asleep beneath the ruins and damaged exteriors. Complaining may make you feel better about a current situation but that only gives temporary alleviation; making the decision to change is the only solution for improvement. Lebanon, you are so frustrating only because of your wasted potential. I want more for you. You are richer than any nation because you have culture, history, and pride – things that cannot unnaturally emerge from the sands: they flow in the veins of your people and in the waters that wash away layers of destruction every few years.
Enough drowning, it’s time to swim.