BEIRUT: Have you ever had a shower where you turn on the faucet, and, almost instantaneously, water gushes out steaming hot? Then you stand under it for as long as you like, facing the showerhead above with your eyes closed, in a semi-meditative and exhilarated state, reveling in the endless flow of clean, toasty water.
The only thing limiting your time in that earthly slice of heaven is the practical need to get to your job in the next hour. You pry yourself away, naked and barefoot, but you’re not cold, because the heating is turned way above your physiological needs and the whole house is warm and cozy. Do you ever appreciate that simple pleasure in life?
I still do, decades later, because when I was a kid growing up in my small town of Damour, we had to heat water in a pot and then pour it into a small tub. Then I stood naked and shivering outside the tub in the freezing cold — forget about heating in the house. I would pour the hot water all over me, lather up quickly, and then pour more water to remove the soap. The whole thing had to be done fast because of the freezing cold. A ritual forced upon me by adults, which I resolutely fought being subjected to more than once a week. You might be tempted to think that this happened because I grew up poor, but I was actually firmly entrenched in the middle class. That situation was a function of the war in Lebanon and the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, which, on the positive side, lent an air of equality to what was otherwise a very inegalitarian society.
When you think of wars, to most people they seem so theoretical, so academic, so “high school history.” Like when you’re walking through the ruins in Rome and being told about Roman history and its vast empire. Or when you’re in France near the Arc de Triomphe. Does anyone in Paris today imagine that German troops would breach the Ardennes Forest at any second and then goose-step through the Champs-Élysées? I mean for some of us it wasn't that long ago. My dad was already born when that happened and he would remember it like you might remember 9/11 or the election of the first African-American president. So why is it so hard for you to imagine things like that happening today?
But it’s different for us here in the Middle East, such as us in the Lebanon zip code, which always reminds me of that comedian who said “I live in a neighborhood so tough that my area code was 911.”
I don’t have to imagine it — after all, I lived through it. But there’s actually more to it than that. Bullet-holes still riddle the walls of buildings in pretty much any neighborhood, which is all the more strange, when you see some of the multi-million dollar duplexes in the new high-rises.
When you think of gentrification, in a typical city in America, it probably means a really bad neighborhood, whose buildings are knocked down or renovated, that slowly metamorphoses into nice and expensive dwellings, while the old inhabitants, who have sold their houses for more than they ever imagined, move far away.
I actually remember New York in the old days, with all the graffiti on the walls and the dirty subways, and the high crime and mugging, and I also know it today, where it’s one of the most beautiful and safe big cities in the world. For example, the neighborhood around my alma mater, Columbia University, used to be called Harlem, then became Spanish Harlem, then became Morning Side Heights, with the associated increase in the price per square foot.
There’s that type of gentrification here in Lebanon, too, if the neighborhood were totally wiped out in the war. Downtown, also called Solidere, is like that. It's beautiful, but somehow has a Hollywood studio set feel to it, validated by the scarcity of traffic, much of it Lebanese actors, trying to close the latest deal.
Similarly, we play the name game here too, maybe by adding “New” in front of the name. Mar Takla is a nice area, but it’s too expensive now, so let’s buy next to it, and call it New Mar Takla — we might actually get away with charging more — after all, it’s New. Sometimes, they’re able to totally rebrand an area. Usually, the worst neighborhoods in Lebanon are the ones near the Palestinian Camps. Those actually make the worst neighborhoods in the inner cities in the US look like Beverly Hills. But here in Lebanon, they took one of those, Dbayeh Camp, subtracted “Camp”, added “Marina” with some sea reclamation, and presto-bingo, they got away with charging $6,000 per square meter, twelve kilometers away, in the suburbs.
That’s like charging $1.2 million for a tiny apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey. I mean could I sell you an apartment in “Ain el Helweh Marina” today for $6,000 a square meter? Maybe one day, with some serious rebranding, along with some suspension of reality.
But in most places in Beirut, gentrification would skip a building or two, so in most neighborhoods of the city, you get this weird mosaic of a huge glass tower, with a decrepit, but beautiful, short old building or even a house.
It’s almost like attending a beauty pageant where the contestants are a mixture of the Swedish Bikini Team and your grandmother. Except that some of us, like me, are rooting for your grandmother.
Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon
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