Sifting Through the Chaos / A (Brief) Manual for Navigating the Streets of Beirut

For many travellers visiting a new city, the first impression is everything… yet most interesting cities hide their true character behind a facade of images and sounds that overwhelm the visitor’s senses by their sheer newness. This generally makes for a very shallow form of tourism that, although often interesting enough by itself, gives a purely one-dimensional experience of the place.

Hardened urban tourists, on the other hand, know how to cut through the first layer of smoke, and delve deep into the fabric of the place. Granted, some places are easier to ‘crack’ than others, but in all cases, the effort can yield a magnificently rewarding experience.

How many times have you landed into a new destination to find it has nothing to do with your expectation of it? Whether that expectation came from a travel brochure, a picture on the internet, or from a friend’s account of their own visit there, more often than not, your own subjective experience will have little in common with that second-hand description.

I personally find that the best way to encounter a place is to do so with a conscious recognition that in fact, I know nothing of it until I’ve lived in it. Whenever I can, I make sure I do the tourist-book thing on first arrival, getting all the ruin watching and the museum visiting out of the way in the first day or two of any trip, leaving the rest of my sojourn open to any possibility.

Instead of seeing every single tourist-guide-recommended nook on your first trip to an unknown place, I suggest you leave out some of the more typical sites as an excuse for a potential, eventual second trip in the future. Instead, try to lose yourself in the day-to-day culture, as much as you can. Try to live at the same rhythm the local population lives. Whether you manage to do it or not, you will find yourself at the centre of a whole different world, an enriching experience, a truly unforgettable sojourn.

Take the case of Beirut for example. For some, its name is still associated with terrible violence and war. They have no idea that it is in fact one of the safest cities of the world to visit, and that the ‘war’ has ended more than twelve years ago… For others, you mention Beirut and they immediately reply ‘Aaah, I heard it was the Paris of the Middle East once’. That sentence always makes me laugh. I wonder if people from the Middle East ever thought of Paris as ‘the Beirut of Europe’… I mean how can you compare a Central European, riverside, ex-monarchic, ex-imperial, Cartesian, centuries-old city with an Arab, Mediterranean, ex-colonised, chaotic, young city?

Of course, it is easy to see how Beirut’s cafés-trottoir lifestyle, its cosmopolitanism, or its French-speaking stylish citizens make it a distant cousin of the French capital. Even some of the left-over architecture from the city-centre is in a French colonial style mixed with Ottoman mannerisms, and the Place de l’Étoile in Beirut is of pure Hausmannian descent. Yet it is precisely when you leave the newly-refurbished Beirut Central District and lose yourself in the chaos and sensory overload of the sprawling, shapeless city, that you realise how complex this place is. Go beyond your initial recoil, and give the chaos a chance, and Beirut will crawl under your skin like a fascinating new friend, like an unruly lover.

For the untrained eye, the untrained ear, and the untrained mind, the chaos is overwhelming. Yet even the most hard-bitten scientists have learnt in the last few decades to recognise the creative order deep within chaos. Trust me, I know what I’m saying: as an architect and an urban designer, it is in theory my job to put order in things. Yet one day at university, as I researched ways to deal with the urban problems of Beirut, I was struck with an unexpected realisation: Oxford’s sleepy, boring orderliness stressed me more than Beirut’s chaos ever did.

You can imagine the face of my esteemed grey haired Oxford tutors when I told them I wanted to show Beirut had more life-enhancing lessons to give than to take. I eventually proved my thesis by showing that even the science of physics had accepted the subjective nature of the world, and that it even had developed a beautiful language to describe chaotic behaviour as a form of order. In fact they were so convinced in the end, that they helped me publish a book about it, Quantum City (Architectural Press, Oxford, 2002), in which I developed the ideas further. Let me give you some simple examples of our general prejudice towards order and chaos.

One of the most commonly shocking things that make up the texture of Beirut is the driving. For most Europeans, the anarchic unwieldy mini-thriller episode that plays itself at every intersection is simply scary. Funnily though, Beirut traffic intersections are statistically less dangerous than say, London ones. While the London driver would count totally on the law and everybody else rigorously following the system, the Beiruti driver simply cannot. Instead, he or she has adapted to an environment that constantly leaves any option open. What that means is that even though things look dangerously chaotic, in fact they obey a very subtle set of unwritten laws that allow the whole system to self-regulate and to remain robust.

If one driver burns a red light at a busy London intersection, you can imagine the resulting chaos: at least five taxi cabs and a double-decker will pile up, and the grid will be stuck for hours. In Beirut (and I feel it is similar in Rome or Milan), the other drivers would be able to avoid collision at the very last moment, thanks to their higher alertness, linked to their understanding of each other’s temperament.

Mind you, I am not trying to condone irresponsible driving or anarchy! I am merely pointing out the interesting and unexpected patterns that make the most chaotic of environments function.

In fact, a lot of the driving in Lebanon is regulated by continuous eye contact between the different drivers. With a wink or a nudge of the head, or a firm stare, little messages are exchanged that hint at the driver’s mood or their next manoeuvre much more reliably than their honking or their turning signals. You just need to learn this language through experience. Meanwhile, just relax when you’re in the passenger seat of a Lebanese driver, it is really much safer than you would think.

Alternatively of course, you can just walk. Incredibly, walking is a pastime loathed by Beirutis in spite of the wonderful weather and the diversity of their city. But wandering around Beirut, or Cairo, or Alexandria, or any dense city for that matter, brings wonderful experiences to the real flaneur.

There is the obvious joy of wandering in the traditional souks or on the Mediterranean corniche, but nothing beats walking deep in the living neighbourhoods to get a feel for the tempo of a place. In Arabic, the word for ‘neighbourhood’ is ‘Hayy’; the same word also means ‘alive’. Its plural, ‘Ahyaa’ means ‘the living beings’. All people who live in the hayy are ‘abnaa al-hayy’, literally ‘the offspring of the hayy’. I find this very interesting, when compared to more western concepts of the neighbourhood, which in English would mean ‘the vicinity’, or the French ‘Quartier’ which literally means a geometric area. It’s almost as if the relation between the people and the place they inhabit is more organic in the Middle East. It is closer to the ancient Greek concept of the polis, which meant both the city and the citizen.

Traversing the hayy has its own rules of course. One crucial thing to understand is the concept of territoriality that regulates this seemingly chaotic setting. Do not expect fences or ‘Keep Out’ signs to tell you where you can tread and where you cannot. Here as well, the rules and the boundaries exist in another, non physical dimension.

Private and public areas overlap organically and dynamically, shifting admissibility according to the different times of the day. You will have to rely on your own sensitivity and perception. Look out for tell-tale signs by the amount of activity on the street. A change in atmosphere as you walk will tell you when you have crossed some form of threshold.

In the rare absence of people outside, the sound of TV or of someone doing the dishes behind an open front door, the smell of cooking or the sight of drying clothes, flower pots or a caged bird, or a small neighbourhood shrine, are the hints you are looking for to know where to step. Avoid going too close to people’s windows in the afternoon, when there is a general sense of calm in the street, as the children are playing football while the parents have their siesta.

If you see two elderly men playing checkers outside a shop, it is okay to stand and watch them play, they will be flattered. But avoid breaking their concentration by asking for directions… If people stare at you as they realise you are a stranger to their street, just smile at them, or even say ‘marhaba!’ for hello.

Remember, your own body language is what they are trying to interpret. It is the clue to your identity: hesitancy, as someone who has lost their way, or inquisitiveness, as someone looking for the house of a friend, will shift their curiosity between indifference, welcome or alarm… Do not worry about your own safety, there is no danger in trespassing by mistake, you will find that most people are highly tolerant of strangers, and would happily invite you in for a coffee (by shouting ‘Tafaddal!’) or guide you in any way they can.

These quick examples are of course limited by the format of this article. Wandering the streets of a city will also bring you to discover magical shops, secret gardens and a diverse, hidden architecture. Yet what makes a place live is its people, and their interaction with their environment. Unfortunately, most architects and urbanists are trained to analyse and affect the physical environment only.

There are many reasons for this I won’t go into here, but what I fail to comprehend is why this has also become the attitude of mass tourists, who seem more interested in dead ruins than in live people. I hope more of us will discover the joys of wandering the streets we do not know. Maybe one day it would help us understand how different social patterns are simply variations on the theme of order, or how chaos can be an organic expression of life’s own yearning for itself.

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