BEIRUT: “Each contributor,” Nasri Atallah writes, “has a bit of a historian, an anthropologist and a journalist in him.” This statement is part of Atallah’s preface to “Beyrouth, Chroniques et Detours.” Recently published by Tamyras, this collection of short pieces about the city, mostly written in English under the title “Beirut Re-Collected” amd then translated into French, is the fruit of a collaboration between Mashallah News, AMI and numerous writers.
Launched in 2010, Mashallah News is an online platform dedicated to publishing stories, features, photo essays and interviews from cities across the Arab world. AMI is a Geneva-based communication studio focused on graphic design, photography and publishing. What unites the two organizations is their desire to create a strong visual identity through unique and original stories and testimonies.
Released Thursday evening at Radio Beirut, “Beyrouth, Chroniques et Detours” provides 19 different opinions and viewpoints of a city that people often love as much as they hate: Beirut. The book’s 300 colorful pages tell stories of craftsmen, families, universities, Mar Mikhael’s obsolete train station, Hamra’s long-vanished cinemas and Jisr al-Wati’s bustling Sunday market, Souk al-Ahad, among other topics.
Throughout the course of the book, local and foreign authors weave a web exploring familiar and lesser-known subjects, paving the way for the reader to build up a social, cultural and anthropological understanding of life in the Lebanese capital.
“Loss,” “Flashback” and “Fate” form the three sections of the book, with an introduction dotted with quotes by authors including Mahmoud Darwish and Alain Resnais. Careful attention to the layout ensures that the copious number of fonts and plentiful color photographs make this exhaustive book a visually exciting piece.
The volume starts with the history of the American University of Beirut. Richard Pelgrim writes about Mohammad Ali Rawda, the owner of the parcel of land on which AUB was built. He recounts not only how the land was purchased, but also how Ras Beirut used to look before the founding of the university in 1866.
“The interaction between Rawda and [Daniel] Bliss [AUB’s founder], then between Ras Beirut and the AUB, created and reinforced the emerging urban culture of Beirut,” Pelgrim writes.
Other personal stories have been written by Sophie Chamas, Paola Salwan Daher and Clement Girardot. The first two open a door on their family history through stories about their fathers, while Girardot recounts the story of Souad Karam, whose husband disappeared 30 years ago. Karam tells Girardot how her husband was kidnapped at a checkpoint by a Druze militia in 1983. She has been awaiting his return ever since. This testimony draws attention to the taboo topic of the large number of people who disappeared without a trace during the war, “estimated at 17,000 between 1975 and 1990.”
Bechara Hanna Assi shares his story with Sarah Lily Yassine. In charge of the control room of Mar Mikhael’s train station, Assi tells the writer of the passion that has driven him since the age of 15. For him, railways will not be a profitable project in Lebanon until relations with the surrounding countries improve.
Assi retired in 2012 and now lives in Jezzine. This text is not only the story of an extraordinary man, but also the writer’s journey to discover what lies behind this abandoned station and where the old railway lines lead. It seems that they stop abruptly, giving way to a highway.
The second part of the book is more focused on places and architecture. The story of L’Edison – a cinema in Hamra that opened in 1961 and closed in 2003 – is narrated by Marie Kostrz. Known for screening action movies, L’Edison’s glory days came to an end when erotic cinematographic productions started to emerge and began to take the place of more family-friendly fare.
Sandra Rishani tells the original story of The Grudge in Manara, the wall “built to block the sea view.” The facade – built in 1954 – is the result of a conflict between two brothers. When viewed from the front, it appears to be a simple building but from the side, it becomes clear that it is nothing more than a facade. No orders of demolition have been signed, and the author speculates that it would be more financially viable to leave it as is, since the parcel of land on which it stands is too small to house another building.
The Sporting Club celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. Marine Casalis immerses her readers in the history of the mythical beach resort, known for its non-elitist crowd.
Saad El Kurdi dwells on Souk al-Ahad. Officially called Al-Souk al-Shaabi al-Kabir, the diversity of this weekly bazaar is depicted in the text through descriptions of books, shoes, musical instruments and glasses salesmen.
As for Chloe Benoist, she tells the touching story of Bilal, a Dom, or member of the region’s ancient nomadic culture, whose extraordinary singing talent was discovered by Michel Elefteriades – founder and owner of Beirut’s Music Hall – as a young boy. The singer has been animating the venue with regular performances for more than 16 years.
In the more abstract section dealing with “fate,” writers explore Beirut’s unsung treasures. Manara’s The Pink House, Cola’s roundabout with its buses and taxis drivers, Hamra’s book bazaar and an analysis of the importance of Arabic calligraphy form a colorful panorama that reveals a rich culture taken for granted. Together, these stories shed light on the places and faces that have lived through and witnessed Beirut’s transformations and metamorphosis.
“Beyrouth, Chroniques et Detours” is a written and visual documentary, in which history and personal memories mingle. It gathers “stories that are neither poignant, nor comforting,” as Atallah writes, “[but the] real stories waiting at the corner of the street.”
“Beyrouth, Chroniques et Detours” is published by Tamyras and is available in select bookstores. An English version has also been published under the title “Beirut Re-Collected.”