Journal: A city transformed

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 01, 2009

BEIRUT — One of my stops in Lebanon was a nondescript intersection in Beirut, typical of the kind you might see at the center of any city. But this intersection was not any ordinary crossroads.

It was on the former Green Line in Beirut, and it marked the spot where Christian gunman ambushed a busload of Palestinians, setting the city's 15-year bloody and chaotic war into motion.

It was a time when booby-trapped cars exploded and important people disappeared without a trace.

This was the Beirut of the past. The city I saw during my five-week stay in Lebanon had evolved dramatically since the days of the 1975-90 war.

The language is a blend of Arabic, English and French – sometimes spoken over Turkish coffee and cigarettes – and the people are in integrated mix of Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Christians and others.

Parts of the Green Line are now populated by night spots where Christians and Muslims both congregate. While there is always talk of simmering tensions between religions, there seems to be a heavier, more prevalent sentiment, that no one really has the energy to fight.

Although people with a range of cultures and religions mingle freely now, there is still a tendency to place people in categories.

A last name usually gives away whether someone is Christian or Muslim, and some Lebanese won't hesitate to goad another into revealing their creed.

I began my stay in Christian East Beirut. The balcony of the apartment in the Greek Orthodox neighborhood where I lived still bore the signs of war. A worker had attempted to use plaster to cover the damage from the bullets, shells or whatever it was that once came flying at the building.

Half way through my stay, I moved to a district called Hamra in Muslim West Beirut, where my bedroom window looked out on to the Mediterranean Sea.

Here, the call to prayer was frequently broadcast from the local mosques, one consistent sign of Islam in a heavily Westernized city.

There are turbaned and bearded men who will not shake a woman's hand, and there are Muslim women who will not bear their heads.

At the other end of the spectrum, the young women at the American University of Beirut, around the corner from my place, are fond of wearing tight jeans and tank tops – with bra straps exposed.

It is a dichotomy one professor I met called "schizophrenic."

While women have the freedom of choice in Lebanon, says Mona Khalaf, head of a women's studies program at the Lebanese American University, the choices they make are sometimes surprising.

"If you walk on campus or on Hamra street, you see girls that to my mind are at least are shocking as the ones that are covered from top to bottom," she said.

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