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We are often stopped on the side of the road by tourists asking us for directions. With our chins up we describe the route in detail making sure to portray in our speech the widely advertised Lebanese traits of hospitality and openness. We are proud of our city.
What happens, however, if they ask us about the significance of that street? What if the only historical fact we manage to muster up in our minds is that there is a Starbucks where we used to have coffee before work? Tourists of all nationalities are on their way to meet our city, and in all likelihood, by the end of their all-inclusive tour, they will know more about our city then we ever learned. What do we know about that building with all the bullet holes, or the statue in the middle of a roundabout? We walk past those things, we see through them. To people working in the Downtown area for example, Martyr’s square is nothing more than a parking lot. According to Ronnie Chatah, a Beirut tour guide, “Approaching the statue itself is meaningless, unless someone is there to explain the meaning of the statue, its location, and its symbolism for modern Lebanese history.”
In a city that houses five major universities and countless businesses, organizations, and schools, everybody has somewhere to be, someone to see, or something to do. While stuck in traffic on your way to a big meeting, you’re not exactly in the mood to appreciate the historical importance of the building next to you.
This begs the question: Why don’t we ever stop running, and rushing, and just walk Beirut?
Anyone who has stepped foot out of a car knows that Beirut is far from being a pedestrian friendly city. With few crosswalks at stop signs, lack of regard for traffic laws, and crumbling sidewalks, Beirut is more similar to an obstacle course. Diana Rishani, an AUB student who walks a daily route from Koraytem to AUB describes her experience, “very often the sidewalks are non-existent, and I end up walking on the street between parked cars and moving cars within an inch of my life.” From plants, to parked cars, parked motorcycles, and displays for shops extending towards the road, innumerable barriers make navigating Beirut’s sidewalks a daunting task. All this makes it less likely that we will walk by our own free will. Our hunger for culture and exploration are damped out by the fear of getting run over, which is understandable.
Fortunately for those of us who still yearn for an understanding of Beirut, there are people who know exactly where to go. Walk Beirut is an initiative by AUB history graduates that conducts “get to know Beirut” walking tours. Founder of Walk Beirut, Ronnie Chatah, explains, “the challenge was to find a route both pedestrian-friendly, and a story that connects the stops’ history together.”
Instead of focusing on only the major historical landmarks, the tour also takes us to less known, less emphasized areas and highlights their importance. This makes the tour of great significance to us as Lebanese citizens, specifically those residing in Beirut. According to Chatah, roughly 20 percent of the tour’s participants are Lebanese, and of those participants, “Beirutis enjoy the tour the most. They are often surprised at Beirut’s layered history, and for many of the participants, some of the stops that we include are unknown.” Thirty thousand Lebanese liras is not a large price to pay for an in depth view of our own city.
Tours like these are especially important for younger crowds, who did not experience civil war, only the unrest that ensued, who listen to their parents speak of running across a street avoiding snipers and an imaginary green line. Or was it a red line? Who doesn’t want to know how a Holiday Inn hotel becomes an army base? Perhaps it comes as a surprise to many of us that in downtown, there’s an area called “wadi abu jamil” also known as “wadi al yahoud” or Jewish Quarter containing Beirut’s largest synagogue. Beirut’s history is not just ink on paper or ambiguous black and white pictures. Beirut’s history jumps out of the page. It’s still alive in every corner of the city.
According to Chatah, “high school students often participate with their teachers, and the feedback I’ve received (from both teachers and students) has been positive.” In the absence of a comprehensive and impartial history book in Lebanese schools, our perception of Lebanon’s history after independence day is a blank slate or a distorted image at best. Ornamented with sectarian and political “salt and pepper”, as the saying goes, the knowledge we gain from friends and family are biased to say the least.
“Engaging Beirutis to reflect on their history by navigating the streets by foot – and taking the time to learn more about their city’s past – is hopefully a small step in raising interest,” says Ronnie Chatah. A large proportion of citizens in Beirut are expatriates or Lebanese from other parts of Lebanon. We can all be tourists in Beirut. Before you pack your bags and stamp your passport once again, go on a walk with your own beautiful city. All you need is a bottle of water, a camera, and two legs. No more wondering through the windows of your car. It’s time to walk Beirut, meet Beirut, be Beirut.