BEIRUT

Culture

Provoking a yearning for the Beirut that was

BEIRUT: Nostalgia, the bittersweet emotions provoked by recollecting cherished past events or places that can never be revisited, is a facet of adulthood. Derived from two Greek words – “homecoming” and “pain” – nostalgia in the early modern period was considered to be a medical condition.

Imad Kozem – a Lebanese businessman born in 1966, less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War that forever changed the face of Beirut – has demonstrated that, nowadays, nostalgia is also a commodity.

Kozem says his early childhood days were spent at such iconic Beirut beaches as the Summerland, on family trips to Toyland (Hamra’s enormous toy store), and evenings at the cinema.

A keen collector, he has amassed an enormous assortment of paraphernalia relating to Golden Age Beirut – a booming, cosmopolitan city with a bright future ahead of it, known as the Paris of the Middle East.

Three years ago, horrified by the rapid transformation of Beirut, he decided that he could no longer keep this collection to himself. “I started to feel it was a burden,” Kozem explains. “I wanted to transmit this information [to] people so maybe they can ... realize what’s happening in this country and how we are changing.

“I used to pass by and see that a movie theater was not there anymore and think, ‘What if I do another turn and come back? Maybe I will see the theater again.’ It was becoming a psychological problem. I started putting some pictures on Facebook and ... I had huge huge numbers of people commenting, liking and sharing.”

Kozem’s Facebook success led him to hunt for books documenting the Beirut of the 1960s and 1970s. When he came up empty-handed, he decided to write his own.

Over a period of three years, he collected as much material as he could find, requesting donations from old magazines, photographs, tickets and posters, and tracking down Lebanese expats – some of whom had fled the country decades before – to request photographs of the iconic establishments they used to own.

The result is “Pure Nostalgia.” Weighing in at close to 500 pages, this coffee table book offers a virtual tour of pre-Civil War Beirut. Beginning at the airport, the book moves through Verdun to Hamra to Raouche to Downtown, taking in the city’s iconic restaurants, nightclubs and hotels, its bustling shopping centers and sandy beaches en route.

For those without personal experience of the spots he documents, Kozem provides short captions in French and English for background. The evocative texts, conjuring up images of golden beaches soaked in “a sun that makes you want to drink life in small gulps,” underline that what has vanished is not just places, but a way of life.

A photo of a run-down looking restaurant called Tokyo, for example, is accompanied by a short text explaining that formerly Beirut – now a city of pizzerias and sushi restaurants – had just one Japanese eatery. Located in Manara, Tokyo was run by Mama San, who “squeezed lemon with her chopsticks while clients stared bewildered.”

“I am an only child so my parents used to take me to the best places, the places that were alive,” Kozem recalls. “Back then, the middle class was really a middle class. It wasn’t like today when you have either rich people or poor people ... Almost everyone back then used to go to the same places.

“Today you can go have a pizza anytime, anywhere. You don’t care,” he continues. “Back then going to a pizzeria was something. Going to a supermarket like Spinney’s was something extraordinary. You’d have to plan it three days ahead ... Life was simpler, more natural. Today it’s becoming too complicated.”

For those who didn’t experience ’60s and ’70s Beirut, “Pure Nostalgia” provides an enjoyable history lesson. For those who did, the book may be more poignant.

One veteran Beirut journalist with first-hand experience of the era Kozem documents agrees that, formerly, Beirut was marked by community spirit, unburdened by a surfeit of technology. Reading this book is an emotional experience, he remarks, at once happy and sad.

“Anybody who lived that era will revive the nicest of memories,” he explains, “because those years were the best that Lebanon has known.”

Flipping through the pages, the journalist recalls lunches at such iconic Ras Beirut restaurants as Horseshoe, Ajami and Fayysal. There, he says, you would find a cross-section of humanity that on any given afternoon might include a selection of ministers, journalists, actors and an array of exiled political figures from surrounding states.

He recalls with pleasure the days when Raouche was a buzzing hub of bars and mezze restaurants, when going to the cinema was the most desirable of pastimes – an occasion to dress up, catch up with friends and have a drink at the cinema’s bar.

“Pure Nostalgia” forms a tour of a city that at once surrounds us yet no longer exists. Downtown used to be the heart and soul of the city. That place – where you went whether you wanted to buy vegetables or jewelry, watch a film, have a drink with friends or sample the more risqué pleasures of the red light district – is unrecognizable today.

Photographs of ’60s-era Hamra, on the other hand, are full of familiar locations in an alien context. In one photo, a glimpse of the Domtex building’s familiar facade gazes over the sea of 1970s moustaches, polyester and polka dots assembled at the iconic Modca Café – now one of a pair of Vero Moda outlets.

It is the ads that are perhaps most revealing of a vanished culture and its attitudes. A black-and-white furniture ad finds a blonde woman seated in a wicker chair, staring beguilingly at the camera – buxom, kohl-eyed and naked. It’s an image that would be shocking were it to appear today.

Another ad, which appears to be promoting Beirut as the Honolulu of the Middle East, consists of an endearingly bizarre collage of two nighttime shots of the city, accompanied by four swimsuit-clad ladies wearing leis, apparently playing ukuleles.

“You can never, ever bring back what you see in the book,” Kozem observes. “That’s it. It’s gone. The only way to escape and live it again is to read this book.”

Imad Kozem’s “Pure Nostalgia” is published by GraphicShop Lebanon and is available from local bookstores.

 

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