Beirut is a score unfolding, and when I step into it, it’s in mid-symphonic burst as it arc through the micro-space between past and present.  Blink, and what has been passed on the street changes.  Whole staircases torn up to plant terraces.  Buildings knocked down to raise condominiums.  Gutted storefronts transformed into pop-ups—or Hawaiian poke joints.  Kandinsky said that meaning was created through the interaction of, and space between, text and image, sound and meaning, mark and blank space.  I feel ill-equipped to understand Beirut, but the meaning of life dramatically at peace seems evidenced everywhere, emerging from the interstice of modern ruins of war and a building boom.  Time feels frozen and rushed simultaneously.  People regularly tell me, There is no future here.  Except developers, contractors.  A man philosophizes: Lebanon is not a country.  It is a message.  If Iran wants to say something to the world, it uses Lebanon.  If the United States wants to send a message, it uses Lebanon.  The same for Israel, the PLO, Syria and Europe.   Herodotus, I am told over dinner my first night in Beirut, located the already ancient divide between East and West here, millenium ago, in Tyre, the Levant, in Lebanon, because of a love story gone vendetta, the Phoenician Princess Europa abducted because Aegean Princess Io  had the poor taste to fall in love with a Phoenician.  Tit for tat.  Don’t cross the divide, or else…a message in blood, in war, in the necessity to rebuild whole temples, whole cities, whole cultures.  This mythic re-emergence goes on in our own time, if obscured behind veils of political vendettas and media obfuscations—aka, myths of another kind, a-la Barthes—Beirut but one example.  I cast my eye and camera about, striving for frank representation unframed by what I’ve been told back home.  Meni, Phoenician god of luck, both good and bad, wags a finger against painting pictures overly black and white.  Between the time of my first seeing it and my leaving it, parts are reconfigured, parts remain in stasis; the city surface at once utterly normal and a descent through a simulacrum looking glass.

From a far angle, I saw its shutters of blue, the blue of Beirut, a color found across the city as if all blue paint sold is this one.  I rounded a corner, another corner, went up an incline.  I couldn’t get a good perspective.  Then, around another corner, there it was.  What I learned quickly in exploring Beirut: There is always another angle, another aspect, in this city of inclines and steps and streets that circle.  You can be closer or farther in an instant, as if moving not through distance but layers.  I poked my head over the fence.  Blue shutters were echoed in blue plastic, the blue of the ubiquitous five-liter water bottles sold in every corner shop, including the one across from my rental.  Is it wrong to find this beautiful, this sea of plastic?  I assume the accumulation of trash means the home is abandoned, perhaps a squatter’s dumping ground.  I am wrong.  Consumed with this blue, I stalk the house during my weeks in Beirut, and the tattle-tale signs of life build day by day.  Car.  Open and closed doors.  Open and closed shutters.  A neighborhood dumpster two hundred meters away.  Despite the rubbage, do not be fooled by appearances and assumptions.  Existence in Beirut is more complicated than one can imagine.

Don’t Come Here, Haunted.  I find the message painted on the stairs of an old house—again, in the blue of Beirut.  At first, the sentiment fits, the facade crumbling.  The door padlocked shut.  The ironwork broken and falling apart.  It’s a stately mansion, old-school Beirut, but now lacking signs of being lived in.  Instead, its carport evinces the living, filled with weather-worn furniture and explosive graffiti declaring « our place » and « Justine » and « love ».  Are these and Haunted written in the same hand?  I peer into the mansion’s foyer through a broken window.  The room and the solaire beyond are clean.  One set of walls are pale rose; another are lemony yellow.  Broom and pail stand at attention beside an open door.  No furniture.  No boxes.  Still no signs of being lived in.

Downtown Beirut, north of the Mosque, gives meaning again to the old descriptor Paris of the Middle East.  Chanel, Hermès, Dior gleam with goods.  There’s even Angelique of chocolat chaud fame and Paul’s with its croissants and galette des rois.  The sidewalks evince no litter.  That’s not the norm in Beirut.  In fact, its potentially surreal.  And that eerie sensation grows in me over the post-New Year’s weeks as I walk through pedestrian-only lanes with only rare appearances of pedestrians.  Beirut is a city of enormous wealth.  Outside the Paul’s of Gemmayzeh, a ten-minute walk away, gleaming Lamborghinis wait while owners lunch on French salads.  But do they shop here?  Do they need to shop here?  One gets the sense that maybe these boutiques are not for buying—their clients can fly to Paris for retail experience—but a stage set for a glittering, post-war, global « conglomeratie » Beirut in development. 

For the New Year’s Eve ushering in 2018, Beirut opened the newly renovated Nijmeh Square and the streets radiating out from it, Champs Élysée style.  It had been on lock down for years, guarded at every entrance by the military.  The soldiers remain at their station.  For the most part, they let me inside.

Stripes are a Beirut passage written over and over across the cityscape, each a prayer to block out a blistering southern sun.

I keep stumbling upon blue.  Blue is Beirut to me.  It echoes the Lebanon’s coastal skies.  Its breaking seas.  I try for weeks to interpret the use-value of this fisherman’s tarp.  Does it hold back the banyan tree?  Does it keep out squatters?  Is it a privacy fence?  Lacking answers, I come back to color.  Its use-value is it’s being blue.  Blue is the color of libations and the do-over.  For weeks, when I remember this tarp, I remember it as pristine and new.  Even after I photograph it finally, I remember it as pristine and new.  Impressions both in the moment and in memory can be overwhelmed by associations and faulty.

Be Gentle...with the pussy, with Beirut, with transformation.  With (your) expression, the body, with explosive things.

The exuberant domesticity of this outdoor living-room compels multiple visits.  I never see anyone, but the vibrancy of the paint creates a narrative of starts.  Of starting out.  Of being startled.  Of starting over when everything has been thrown out.

Impossible to escape are the official portraits, not even at the gates of lucid enjoyment.

The contrast arrested me.  Above: the traditional materials and colors of the Beirut home.  Below: the construction-site metal descending beneath the road.  It is the sort of contrast that defines Beirut in my mind.  My presence brings people over.  I learn that this house is slated for demolition, and when I ask why, multiple answers are given.  The old multi-family building isn’t stable.  The land is too valuable not to develop.  Does anyone live inside?  Just one family now.  I ask about them, about where they will go.  I’m told they are happy; they bought a home on the other side of Beirut.

The Corniche, Beirut’s beloved promenade, is a place to be seen—or not.

In Beirut, like in many cities, I can find in every direction ideological or personality-pounding graffiti and street art.  This  « Blessing Wall » on Kuwait, however, seems something else.  The solitary shirt, toddler in scale, is far too open for interpretation.  If it were many shirts, hanging from many rods, I’d assume a gesture of, a space for, giving thanks for having children.  The pile up would create flesh.  This sheer sole vêtement, its whiteness too much of the background, blows back and forth between flesh and phantom.  Even with the rigid grid of black, I feel the chill of a gale of longing.  I feel asked, studied by concrete-framed eyes of Hamra houses: What do you hang here?  

Just south of the central grand mosque, a few blocks from Nijmeh Square, this young putti floats in the air, his innocence shielding us from bullet holes.

I prefer to walk cities, no matter how big, to the consternation of taxi drivers.  This is how I grasp intellectually, with my body, the articulation of a city.  Walking from my rental one morning to find breakfast, I discover the great Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque at the far end of the Gemmayzeh thoroughfare.  This startles.  Gemmayzeh and its brethren Mar Michael are the nightlife, hard-drinking, gay-welcoming neighborhoods of Beirut.  The minarets look on.  At this moment, Beirut seems nothing if not a découpage elegantly constructed so that impossible elements hold each other up in a sublime composition.

In front of this pizzeria in Gemmayzeh, a shrine lights up Mary and Saint Charbel. 

One day after taking this picture of stepping leading to Armenia, the expanse was in rubble, paint giving way to terraced gardens.  This is what comes with peace.

A set of planters to edge and finish up a plot.

On this section of Gouraud, the energy is taunt one morning.  The man at the far right, the construction site foreman, explains.  That drill being manhandled will go eighteen meters into the ground and rip.  Then the men can go down and work.  On what?  The parking lot for a condominium.  How is the future for Beirut?  He grins.  Very good.

This wall is hysterical.  On one side of the bed, love is scrawled.  On the other...this.  A narrative of domesticity.  A narrative of Beirut.

This window appears overnight across from the entrance to my rental.  It is the perfect simulacrum of the windows and painted shutters across all of Beirut.  I have to touch the wall—and not just once—to believe its flatness.  This is Beirut humor at its finest.  In the gentrification throughout Gemmayzeh and beyond, these windows are disappearing.  Representation, in painting, in photographs, might help us believe not all is lost in the process.

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