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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Things I'll Miss About Hamra**

I've written before about how vibrant and diverse Hamra seems to a kid born and raised in the Midwestern U.S. Most areas of Beirut are either Christian neighborhoods or Muslim neighborhoods. Hamra sits in the middle of Ras Beirut, west of what was known as the "Green Line" during the civil war, and western Beirut was Muslim Beirut. But Hamra, perhaps due to its proximity to the University with its secular identity or to the fact that it was the "swanky area" pre-Civil War, somehow maintained its diversity. Even during the war. Our friend's father, a Maronite dentist, kept his Hamra practice open throughout the Civil War, giving free check-ups and teeth cleanings to Muslim, Christian, and Syrian soldiers who were fighting each other on the streets of Beirut.

Now, you walk around the neighborhood and see both mosques and churches. You see some women wearing the hijab and men wearing dishdashas (though far fewer than you see back in East Dearborn, which more closely resembles one of the southern Lebanon village from which many residents of East Dearborn immigrated), as well as loads of young people in "western" attire. You see men playing backgammon on upside-down cardboard boxes and selling thick coffee in tiny cups from long-handled tin pots and thermoses. Taxi drivers and bus drivers seem to be their best customers. I think each time I've ridden a city bus, the driver has stopped at least once or twice for a tiny cup of street coffee. You can buy good halal meat from butchers, extremely fresh jibnee and arisha from cheeseshops, and fruit from donkey carts. But you also find many English speakers, not to mention Snickers bars and hot dog stands. It's an oddly comforting juxtaposition, an easy place to feel welcome. You find new, lush construction; rich investors from the gulf nations (first weekend here, at Kibab-Je, one of them had a long conversation with Nicole and me about his daughter and I think I knew where the conversation was headed...), and also pockets of poor foriegn workers. Priveleged college kids from all over the country and beyond. Also, streetkids selling roses and chewing gum.

I always hated it when I lived in Arizona and would hear people suggest that border towns weren't the "real Mexico." Who are we to say what is and isn't real? Border towns have their own unique--yes, often problematic--histories and characters. Likewise, Hamra has experienced a unique trajectory from swanky playground for both wealthy Lebanese and wealthy westerners (Frank Sinatra!), to sector of Muslim Beirut during war, to center of political organizing and social movements, to college town.

One of the things I'll miss about Hamra is the fact that you can sometimes "end up" at an interesting place. Example. Last week one of my fellow Fulbrighters who works in the north was visiting Beirut and we all "ended up" at the home of some aid workers who were ordering pizzas and basically opening their doors to friends and friends-of-friends who wanted to watch events in Egypt unfold on Al Jazeera. It was the night when Mubarak was expected to step down. Many of those present had ties to Egypt and/or had worked there and had strong opinions about events. Interesting night. Another example. The evening that the Lebanese government collapsed, we "ended up" at a cafe for a bookclub event. We read drafts of memoir chapters written by a teacher in Hamra, an American who had grown up here in Beirut in the 1950s, and of course talked about what was happening with Hezbolah, the Hariri cabinet, etc. And last night, a friend of ours made Chinese dumplings for the new year. He's from China, teaches Chinese at AUB, and took my graduate class last term because he wants to improve his language teaching techniques and perhaps earn a master's in English while he's in Beirut. He and his fiance made three kinds of dumplings from scratch. And in an odd culinary combination, we sampled a walnut liqueur from the Bekaa Valley. It was amazing. Even Nicole, usually a teetotaler, sampled it and enjoyed.

Anyhow, Hamra, with its loud heartbeat and hotmix of people, is conducive to nice evenings like that. Maybe we can bring a bit of that with us to our neighborhood back in Michigan. Start walking to more places and talking to more people more often. I hear many people observe that despite its political problems, Lebanon affords a nice lifestyle. Social, friendly, warm.

**A note of the title of this post. Even though I'll be here for another four or five months, I already find myself regretting that the year will come to a close so soon. I'm like the kid (or my dad before he retired from teaching) who in June observes that summer vacation's going to end in less than three months.


  1. Very nice observations, but I have to make it clear that there are NO donkeys connected to the fruit carts--people push the carts themselves. I have not seen any animals other than cats and a few small birds in the city.

    (One of our Lebanese friends throws a fit when people from outide the country have the impression that Lebanon is not totally modern. Ask her if she rides a camel and it's over!)

  2. Yes, good point. I still call them "donkey carts" though. There's probably a better term.

    Lots of cats. A few birds. And the occasional dog, usually very small, usually being walked by a housekeeper, never being cleaned up after.