Behind the White Wheel

Behind the White Wheel

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dreams, Street Shots, Pontons and more in Beirut

I was born in a city that was destroyed and rebuilt 7 times as history tells. I was raised to despise the causes and consequences of the 1975 destruction and of the 1993 - 1994 urban planning massacre or "wiping out exercise". 
As I grew up, listening to stories, looking at old pictures...etc. my interest in discovering how Beirut was grew tremendously. I wanted to feel a certain something that was lost; I was continuously looking and searching for a way of life, for habits, for people, for places, for buildings, for streets that have all vanished. Many months of surfing the net, of reading in "Le Centre Ville de Mon Pere" (by Tania Rayes Ingea), in "Pure Nostalgia" (by Imad Kozem) and in "Beirut, Souwar fi Zakirati" (by Pierre Maadanjian) books and in asking around provided me with a good feel of the daily life's vibes of the city. 

On the Martyr's Square facing the old police station towards Souk El Sagha.What is this guy selling? 
I imagine myself going from Hamra to Al Bourj Square on a sunny morning of April, hearing the noises of the shops' metallic sliding doors opening with the typical Mercedes-Benz ponton/ fintail's honk in the back of my mind, feeling the still enjoyable heat of the sun and waiting for a "Service" to pick me up.
Yesterday, after a long evening of reading, of looking at pictures, of comparing between then and now, coupled by an infinite number of questions I asked my father and my Montrealais friend Kheireddine El-Ahdab, I ended up dreaming that I was driving my 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 in the old Beirut. A weird dream I admit...

This picture of Dona and I popped up in my dream (Photo: Crystel Abboud)
In this post, I picked up random pics of some areas of Beirut that appeared in my dream...I tried to reconstitute it as accurately as it could get; we will therefore go in a virtual ride in my 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 and discover snapshots of the city together...The route followed in this post is the same as the one I followed in my dream; hence some lack of logic might pop up from one time to the other. 

Map of Downtown Beirut circa 1974. Source: Le Centreville de Mon Pere by Tania Rayes Ingea
Lets start from some balcony in Ain El Mreisseh. We are facing the St.Georges Hotel, and I can spot the arcades of "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud in the Zeitouneh area. I parked my Mercedes-Benz at the entrance of the hotel. Lets go!

Notice the beautiful flowers and the yellow steel chair and table on the balcony
On the road after St. Georges to the right, then to the left, we reach the beginnings of the Zaytouneh area (Blue bus line in the map above). On my right in the picture below (where two long pine trees appear), lies the Latin cemetery. My grand father Anis Mansour was buried there. This cemetery doesn't exist anymore, the "dead" moved to the region of Beit Mery. Rain has just stopped and a beautiful rainbow connects Beirut to the sky...

Zaytouneh area from the side of Ain El Mreisseh
I continue straight on the road, 1st, 2nd, then 3rd gear. I can hear the newly re-built engine of my 180b calming down while still "asking gently" to move "him" to the 4th gear...

The tall pine trees used to cover the cemetery and isolate it from the surrounding noises. Notice the Saviem-Chausson bus (blue line)
Straight on the road, I pass by Ahmad Shawki Street. Some old buildings, similar to the ones in Gemayzeh face each others, mostly all of the same height; this assures that the sun enters in all apartments; the ones facing the mountain get the sun in the morning and the ones facing the sea get it in the evening.
I continue driving...on my way I cross an Opel Kapitan Break and a beautiful blue Peugeot or Renault Fourgeonette. The streets still have the old Neon lights, a typical aspect of Beirut.

Towards Hotel Normandie
I cross Ahmad Shawki street and stop towards "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud", looking back towards the Phoenicia Hotel's direction, I can see on my right, by the sea, the Kit Kat building. This building has been demolished in 1993, it used to be the hub of a very famous cabaret. The general aspect of this building is somehow similar to that of the St.Georges Hotel.
Zeytoune with the Kit Kat building on the right facing the sea. This area is now the road leading to the west side of Starco
On my left and behind the palm trees and in the picture below, lies what used to be Hotel Bassoul and Hotel Normandie. Hotel Bassoul or Grand Hotel d'Orient was the first hotel ever built in Beirut. I can remember its remains back in 1990 when the civil war stopped. A beautiful white and orange Ford or Chevrolet is parked facing the sea.
Hotel Normandy and Hotel Bassoul on its right
Ahwet El Hajj Daoud and its famous arcades
A view of Normandie Hotel, with Bahri Cafe and Ahwet El Hajj Daoud
Turning around again facing the mountains, I can see "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud", directly facing the sea. "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud" constituted a sort of island between two roads: to its right, one would go towards the old souks, the Beirut Stock Exchange building and l'Orient le Jour building (still present nowadays, awaiting its renovation), to its left one would go towards Bahri Restaurant, and the building of "La Banque de la Syrie et du Liban" (still there).
I engage the 2nd gear and go towards the old souks, taking l'Avenue des Francais behind "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud" and turning left to catch the end of la Rue du Patriarche Howayek to reach the "Bahri" sea road.

The Becker Mexico with the Wonderbar (Photo: Dona Bardawil)
There, my dream changes, and I should have skipped an area that I am still unable to re-construct in my mind. How was the road next to the Lebanese Marines Base? Which buildings were there? I still can not draw a clear picture of it.
I suddenly see myself on Foch street; it hasn't changed much...The Mosque is still there next to the beautiful red and off-white Idriss building. This building has marked my teenage years: After the demolitions of 1993, it appeared alone, standing among the endless waves of dust. Its colors combination reflects the unique Art-Deco style of the late 1920s. A two-tones paint ponton passing by a funny guy wearing what looks like marines uniform appears in front of me. The two tones paint 180/190b appears to have the additional chrome strips from the 220S model; these strips were a dealership addition at an extra cost along with the front fender turn signals. Again, the neon street lights are illuminating Beirut's nights. 

On Allenby Street, note the two tones Mercedes-Benz 180b/190b
Following Foch Street, I reach Weygand Street next to Beirut's Municipality. I see vaguely its buildings thinking of the big Daaboul building that used to stand between Foch and Urugway streets. This building was heavily destroyed during the early years of the 1975 civil war.

Daaboul Building; destroyed in 1975. Note the Hotel Regent building that has been replaced by Annahar building
Jumping deeper in my dream, "madame chignon" (typical 1960s hair style) appears crossing Weygand Street towards the old souks. Was she entering souk el Tawileh? She looks so. Souk el Tawileh was distinguished by its high end small (by today's shopping mall standards) boutiques such as Beranger and Au Gant Rouge that has now moved to the intersection of Allenby and Fakhry Bey streets. At least three pontons, most probably taxis, appear on scene. The first one, with red interior has the typical metallic bar above the front seat's back; this bar helped people getting in and out of the car without pulling the back of the front seat with their hand. This typical Lebanese invention was present in my ponton when I first bought it. I took it out during its restoration to respect originality.

A woman crossing Weygand Street towards the old souks. Notice the row of pontons on the street
Continuing up in Weygand Street, I reach its crossing with Riad El Solh Street, also known as La Rue des Banques (Banks street). Weygand was one of the most crowded streets of Beirut linking Hamra to Saifi, and the old souks to the rest of the city. In the picture below, three pontons (180b/ 190b) seem looking for passengers; at some point, the police used to forbid taxis to stop and take passengers on this street in an attempt to decrease the traffic; they used to immediately give a fine when a car's stop lights turn on! This decision apparently did not survive for a long period of time.

3 pontons on Weygand Street
I jumped in my dream to the Martyrs Square, specifically to the entrance of "Souk El Sagha" in the picture below...This souk was characterized by a big door that used to be closed at night...The Souk was located between two or more old buildings that connect in a way or another to Souk Abou El Nasr and Souk El Nouriyyeh; two of the very old souks once located between Place des Martyrs and Maarad Street.

Arcade at the Entrance of Souk El Sagha. Notice the simple yet classy Mercedes-Benz 190 Fintail
What took me suddenly to this spot is unexplainable... Maybe the beautiful Mercedes-Benz 190 Fintail parked at its entrance that I long contemplated while looking at the picture? Maybe the so many questions I asked of who for example would close the souk's door every evening and who would open it every morning?
I looked at the door of the souk, read what was written: "Souk Al Sagha" in Arabic and French and continued my way up towards Azariyyeh building at the crossing of Emire Bechir street and Place des Martyrs.
Going towards Souk El Sagha and the crossing of Emir Bechir Street and the Martyrs' Square

At the crossing of Emir Bechir Street and Martyrs' Square.
My iPhone's alarm started ringing pushing me to "squeeze myself" on the road driving towards the Holiday Inn Hotel next to Starco Center that has not changed much since then...

Starco Building towars the St.Charles City Center. Notice the Mercedes-Benz 180b/190b
I woke up, turned on my Blaupunkt Santos tube radio as I do every morning... The BBC on the AM Band was evoking the explosion that demolished completely the historic Carlton Hotel in Aleppo...I remembered the Daaboul Building, associating dreams and realities... My dream wasn't real, it was a series of old pictures that I scrutinized to the extent that they became engraved in my mind...In my sleep, I though I knew this old city very well; in reality, it was somehow unknown to me; it was evolving in its own way when a certain earthquake called war hit it deviating the path it was following before "reconstruction" changed completely its identity.
Looking at Aleppo and comparing it to Beirut made me realize for the hundredth time maybe, that destroying people's past is most of the time made on purpose and rarely happens by coincidence. Conflicts arise, wars too, then certain regions get the heaviest destruction; "by chance" these regions are always the places that used to hold the richest and most remarkable memories and heritage of the society. I asked myself, what was the military importance of, lets say, Souk El Nouriyeh? Of Zaytouneh? Of Souk El Tawileh?

Beginning of Souk El Nouriyyeh behind cinema Opera that became the Virgin Megastore Building
Why were they looted, bombed and burned first then systematically erased as of 1983 almost ten years before the end of the civil war...?
The historically, culturally and economically important cities of our dear Levant are being systematically deprived of their original roles and heritage. Beirut first, then Aleppo and Homs...A pure coincidence? I really doubt...
Now that the conflict in Syria has reached an important turning point, I will be observing how the reconstruction of the old cities of Aleppo and Homs will take place. The hope to preserve the original social and economical roles of these agglomerations is all I wish for. Reconciliation in Syria cannot be reached without letting these old cities flourish as they did; playing their original stabilizing role.
Thank God old Damascus remained intact...