Beirut is a city that is alternately triumphant and tragic, where paradox has been raised to an art form. The evidence is everywhere; two women walk in the street, one covered head to toe in black hejab, chatting on her cell phone, the other in a miniskirt, carefully avoiding the traffic. With what may be the largest number of Internet subscribers in the Arab world, the city has Internet cafés everywhere but usable sidewalks are in short supply.
Beirut is arguably the most modern and vibrant capital of the Arab world, with an unsinkable entrepreneurial spirit and a near-palpable fever for renewal. The downtown district, a no-man's-land of bombed-out buildings after the civil war, has since been touted as the largest redevelopment project in the world. Archaeological sites unearthed during construction have brought to light 5,000 years of Beirut's past, creating a wealth of antiquity to rival that of Rome or Athens.
Before the war began, Beirut was a wildly successful experiment in hard-won tolerance and freewheeling investment. Writers, artists and intellectuals from all over the Middle East took advantage of the country's lack of censorship. Beneath the superficial glamour, however, seethed ethnic and religious tensions that erupted in civil war in 1975 and did not end until October 1990.
Now Beirut is back, and bursting with filmmakers and musicians, poets, writers, playwrights, artists and dance and theater groups. Historic buildings are being restored; the National Museum of Beirut has reopened; a new archaeological park will open soon; and the new version of the old souks will offer an exotic array of goods. But everywhere the paradox is still obvious: new construction displaces unexplored archaeological sites, pollution and sewage damage the beaches and harbor, and noxious exhaust fumes from automobiles cast a gray-brown pall over the skyline.
Yet despite the chaotic construction and the mind-numbing stress of daily life, Lebanese society is, as film director Randa Sabbag points out, very joyous.