Peddling photos of Beirut, man adopts city’s name as his own

Basha says locals have grown accustomed to his cry of “Beirut!” (Hasan Shaaban/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Many visitors to Downtown Beirut know Saadallah Basha, but they don’t know his real name. They simply call him “Beirut.”Over the past 36 years, Basha has sold pictures of Downtown Beirut dating from before the 1975-90 Civil War. “It’s my profession, that’s how I earn my living,” he says proudly.

Basha, who hails from the south Lebanese town of Khiyam, has become a familiar figure for people frequenting the renovated city center and its mushrooming number of cafes, which began to pop up 10 years ago.

Carrying a bunch of photos with one hand and dragging a cart with a bag full of more pictures with the other, Basha wanders around Downtown from 8 p.m., mainly in streets around Nejmeh Square, and leaves after midnight.

Startling pedestrians and cafe clients by yelling “Beirut!” is Basha’s special way of touting his items. Although he sometimes frightens passersby with his loud voice, most of them burst into laughter once they get used to Basha’s shout.

“All people identify me [by this word], they will be upset if I did not say Beirut and startle them,” Basha tells The Daily Star while standing in Maarad Street holding his photos.

He explains that he is very happy to be called “Beirut.”

“I love Beirut, is there anyone who doesn’t? ... God loves Beirut,” he says.

Basha’s clients are not just Lebanese. “Gulf tourists buy [my pictures] more than the people of Beirut ... they almost own Beirut now, Beirut is no more ours,” he notes.

The 72-year-old sells photos priced between LL5,000 and LL12,000, but sometimes for more. “It depends,” he says simply. The pictures mainly show pre-war Martyrs Square, Nejmeh Square and Amir Bashir Street. Except for Nejmeh Square, the other locations have changed significantly as the buildings, severely damaged by fighting, have been torn down and rebuilt since the early 1990s.

Basha laments the loss of the old Downtown and yearns for a return to the relatively low cost of living in what he sees as the good old days. “I was born and raised in it ... old Beirut was much nicer.”

“Things were much much better, we used to buy a cinema ticket and some nuts for only half a Lebanese pound,” he says. “See all these people wandering in Downtown right now, you used to see the same number scrambling to enter one cinema long ago.”

Along with experiencing historic Beirut’s heyday, Basha was also a witness to the dark days of the city. He says the Civil War did not stop him from going to Downtown even though Martyrs Square became the front line separating west from east Beirut. “I was here selling photos to foreign journalists who used to come here ... armed men used to rob the markets in front of me,” he explains.

Basha did not pass his profession to any of his children, saying they showed no interest in it.

As the conversation draws to an end, Basha is interrupted by a passerby who waves his hand at him and greets him by name: “Beirut!”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 23, 2012, on page 2.




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