As promised last week, here is the mini interview with Ronnie Chatah of Walk Beirut:
1- How did WalkBeirut get started and what inspires you to keep it going?
RC: Several Lebanese historians (Samir Kassir and Kamal Salibi in particular) inspired me to try and bring the city’s past to life. While alive, they challenged Lebanese to appreciate their city’s history, too often neglected. I thought a story-based narrative of Beirut’s history would be an engaging way to carry on their passion for history.
2- Where’s your favorite spot in Beirut? Favorite stop on the tour?
RC: I personally enjoy telling the story of Wadi Abu Jmeel and Beirut’s Jewish community. It’s a neighborhood that goes unnoticed to foreigners and Lebanese alike. In many ways, it’s an important segment of Beirut’s mixed past – and a centrally located neighborhood – yet it’s a largely forgotten chapter of the city’s history. All that stands today as a symbol of that community is the Maged David Avraham synagogue, set to reopen this summer. And to stand in front of it and bring it to life is quite a thrill.
3- What’s your favorite memory from the many walks you’ve guided in the past 5 years?
RC: One of my favorite memories was an older Lebanese expat showing the group several photos of himself and his wife (who had passed away several months earlier) on a date at the St. Charles Cinema below the former Holiday Inn Hotel. He hadn’t returned to Beirut after 35 years, and his personal story touched the group, myself included.
4- What’s the best part about working as a walking tour guide of Beirut?
RC: Being told over and over by Lebanese and foreigners that prior to the tour, they had little appreciation for Beirut’s history, and were largely unable to access the city’s past simply by walking on their own. And that following the tour, they genuinely fall in love with the city’s story. I suppose the tour serves a valuable purpose – bringing otherwise neglected neighborhoods, buildings, sites etc. to life. I’ve done my best to keep it a fun, pedestrian-friendly experience. I believe I’ll keep offering the tour so long as Beirut is safe enough, and interest remains.
5- What do you wish for the youth of Beirut & Lebanon as a whole?
RC: To break the cycle between wealth and decay, that too often pushes Lebanese to neglect their history. I take a lot from Samir Kassir’s writings, and the quote in French I include at the end of the tour, “Beyrouth, extravertie dans sa prosperite, la ville l’est encore dans sa ruine,”* is something we can all learn from.
*Beirut, extroverted in its prosperity, the city is still in ruins