My Lover City

My family and I lived in Beirut from 1969 to 1984 when we left because of the civil war. In this passage from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I am making my first trip back to my lover-city/

1992 was the first year post-war I could safely return to Beirut. In route I had passed through Rome; one of my favorite places there is the Coliseum. I was struck by the odd similarity of ruins in both places. The buildings in Beirut had nowhere near the grandeur or size of the Coliseum, but there was a resemblance in the way they had been stripped bare of everything on the outside so that only the concrete skeletons remained.

In the midst of such desolation, I was surprised at how well Nature had resisted the war. Yellow sunflowers grew where Martyr’s Square and the ancient souks had once stood, where Cleopatra had strolled; where women had haggled over gold and bronze objects and merchants had traded their pottery and precious purple dyes to Persians, Babylonians and Greeks.  Fuchsia bougainvillea and purple wisteria crept up the walls of shelled-out buildings. Despite broken water mains, smoldering mounds of garbage and the charred remains of cars, trees were blooming, their green leaves lush; their canopies shading tired, bullet-riddled facades from the summer sun.

War-damaged buildings were being demolished to make way for a multibillion dollar redevelopment project, and archaeologists had been given six months to study Beirut’s ancient history. Buried beneath Martyr’s Square in the city center, they discovered an eight-thousand-year-old Phoenician city, proving conclusively that Beirut was Phoenician. It was called Berytus at the time and was home to the Roman Empire’s most important law school until it was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 551 CE.  In 1969 and newly arrived, I was fascinated by a place that had so many names. I used to sit on the balcony, look out over the city and recite them: ‘Beryte,’ ‘Beyrouth,’ ‘Beirut.’  It was as though I had all the names of a new lover rolling around in my mouth. Ultimately my affair with this city affected my judgment in totally irrational ways and as in any unhealthy relationship, I let myself be fooled. However mad, the lover-city was clever, too. It enticed me back each time I thought to escape. A credible rumor or a visit from some foreign diplomat lulled me back in the false hope that the horrors would stop. It was only after I became acclimated into the habit of war, when the daily skirmishes stretched into week-long battles, that I was hooked. All logic deserted me and I abandoned any notion of leaving my lover-city.

When the archaeologists had finished excavating the site, I watched bulldozers tear down buildings and dump trucks haul off mountains of masonry and rock. Somewhere in that desolation, buried deep beneath the rubble, lay the spirit of Beirut, my former lover. And it was fitting that I should be there to see it laid to rest alongside its distinguished forefathers.

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