Dots and dashes

The road that failed to connect

Lea Poggioli

Damascus road harbors dark memories, elusive people, and far too many cars. It cuts through the Lebanese capital, from central Beirut’s Mediterranean coastline through the suburbs, towns, and villages that wind their way up Mount Lebanon. As its name implies, it extends beyond the horizon toward Damascus and a tumultuous relationship with neighboring Syria. Along the first three-kilometer stretch where it divides East and West Beirut, it is lined with familiar milestones: the national museum, the headquarters of General Security, the prestigious Saint Joseph University, the Sodeco Square business center, and the all-important Falafel Sahyoun—a landmark for takeaway sandwiches.

Yet for all its bustle, the street remains disjointed—failing to form a clear identity or sense of purpose. Rather, Damascus road tells us the broader story of Lebanon and its capital: fragmented but endlessly durable, riddled with contradictions that are as difficult to reconcile as they are integral to its character.

From lifeline to warzone

The history of Damascus road runs parallel to that of Beirut itself—an ancient but historically minor port city, until Ottoman authorities began to build it up as a new maritime gateway to Syria. They opened Damascus road in 1863 as part of this process. The artery extended south from the port and the new city center—now Martyrs’ square—and up the hill between the underclass district of Bashura and the wealthy developments of Ashrafiyeh, before reaching semi-rural areas such as Ras al-Nabaa and Furn al-Shebbek. From there, it scaled steep slopes where much of the country’s character was forged: as an age-old refuge for minorities, a source of great wealth during the silk boom, and a summer resort for Beirut’s emerging elites.

By the mid-twentieth century the capital had become a well-rounded and expansive city, its cultural and economic weight increasingly spread out from its historic center. Hamra street, on a hill to the West, was a locus of intellectual and social life. The corniche and downtown’s “Banks road” embodied the modernist, liberal outlook of the so-called Switzerland of the Middle East. Connections between Beirut and other coastal cities like Saida, Jounieh and Tripoli deepened. Ties to Syria remained powerful, but not so dominant as during the city’s initial rise.

Damascus road thus became one thoroughfare among many, and only regained its centrality from 1975 to 1990, during the civil war. In a grim inversion of its original role, it split the city in two. Barricades and snipers rendered the axis unpassable in all places but one—the checkpoint at the national museum, where people were nonetheless known to disappear. As the street decayed and overgrowth took over, it took on a new moniker: the green line.

Perpetual movement

Today, Damascus road has recovered some of its liveliness. Its peak hour traffic is a solid cacophony. In the mornings, a sample of Lebanese society lines up in front of General Security and the nearby French embassy to deal with official paperwork and visa issues. Students gravitate toward Saint Joseph University’s multiple campuses. Other magnets include Sodeco Square—a complex of offices, shops, and medical practices—and the Beirut Digital District, an upscale project attracting IT companies and venture capitalists.

Adding to the commotion are several churches, mosques, and even graveyards, which all draw people on a cycle of their own. On Sundays, for example, Baptist mass in Badaro spills part of its large following of Ethiopian maids, dressed in white veils, into the small garden across the street from the national museum, where they sit and chat on the ruined walls and neglected mosaics of a long-forgotten temple.

Damascus road is also a popular spot for hurried errands, dotted with minimarkets and gas stations where passersby dash in and out. As it drops down to Martyrs’ square, a flurry of tiny stalls compete to bring coffee, juice, cigarettes, and street food right up to the car windows of drivers impatient to move on. At least one of its four hotels cater to people who seek less a good overnight’s rest than a few moments’ privacy.

Obstacle course

Damascus road’s sidewalks are surprisingly quiet: Pedestrians are as few as the vehicles are many. The pavements are uninviting, scattered with unkempt trees, acrobatically parked cars, security barriers, concrete blocks, and lengths of yellow tape barring the way for no apparent reason. In 2018, large parts of the roadside were dug up and refurbished, only to make space for obstructive trash bins. Understandably, most people opt for jumping into a collective taxi rather than walk any distance.

Some of these hurdles have a post-war flavor. Army outposts complete with sandbags and firing loopholes are manned by soldiers whose mission appears unclear, leaving them to glare at pedestrians—especially young women. An aging armored personnel carrier faces the entrance to the French embassy, without contributing much to the premises’ actual safety. The short stretch between General Security and the national museum is encumbered by anti-tank obstacles known as Czech hedgehogs. Amblers don’t seem to notice: They circumvent them both physically and mentally. 

Lebanon’s contemporary drift into evermore surveillance and repression is also on display. In the one kilometer section between Mathaf and Sodeco, almost one hundred cameras keep watch. The street may have more eyes than pedestrians to train them on.

Nothing sticks

As a result, Damascus road has a tendency to deter the kinds of socializing for which other parts of Beirut are known. Revealingly, Saint Joseph University’s premises, which are scattered on both sides of the street, fail to create any sense of connection between them. The contrast with Hamra—a neighborhood energized and structured by the student life radiating around the American University of Beirut’s campus—couldn’t be starker.

Much of Damascus street is lined with impenetrable barriers. The security services and the French embassy, hiding behind ramparts garnished with spikes or razor-wire, are obvious suspects. But Saint Joseph’s elegant stone walls add to the impression of enclosure. Luxury housing compounds such as Rudamas are introverted too, as are other places off-limits to all but a few: the cemeteries, the fenced-off lots left vacant by families who for generations have been fighting over succession rights, and the many edifices abandoned since the civil war.

One of the latter, on the edge of downtown, speaks eloquently for its peers. The half-broken door to this pink, vacant building opens onto a time capsule. Charred tapestries bring back the 60s, bullet holes revive the 70s and 80s, and a layer of dust covers the remaining years, creating a sullen atmosphere that somehow muffles the traffic outside.

The street thus juxtaposes blocks that have nothing in common: Any one of them could be removed without adding to the dislocation. Within these units, life can nonetheless be as intense as it is invisible. In the courtyard of Falamanki, a popular café, friends smoke narguile like there was no tomorrow. In the decaying building next door, Syrian squatters have improvised a communal routine of their own. Francophones sip coffee within the embassy compound. At Saint Joseph’s gym, across the street, young people lift weights when they are not scrolling their smartphones. None of these inner spaces interacts in any way with the others.

Of all these units, Beit Beirut best captures the street’s extraordinary capacity for contradictions—blending old and new, wealth and dereliction, busyness and abandonment. Built in Damascus road’s heyday, this superb mansion became one of the civil war’s most feared snipers’ nests. It has since been refurbished to serve as a museum of memory, but one whose very purpose is denied by its nonsensical opening hours, empty library, and the fake bullet and mortar holes mixed in with real ones on its outer walls.

Life finds a way

The incessant commotion along the street would make it overwhelmingly off-putting if not for the hidden gems that are often just a few steps down a side-alley. One example is the quiet old house across the street from the massive Sodeco Square complex, which sits just twenty meters back from the traffic and contains a small front yard complete with pomegranate, medlar and mango trees.

These are not the only fruit to find the area fertile: Avocados, grapes, oranges, apricots, and persimmons dot the road and its offshoots. Hulking ficus trees that have traversed the ages seem equally unaffected by the mayhem. Flowers bloom almost all year round, including fragrant jasmine, blue jacaranda and bright red poinciana. Despite all the trash and traffic, Damascus road remains something of a green line bursting with nature.

Plants help people—and vice versa—in finding ways of surviving amid the concrete. In places, rural migrants who run parking lots have fashioned their sheds into miniature farms, surrounded with greeneries and even poultry. The Matta gas station is equally lush with potted plants. A narrow alley, wedged between two cemeteries, opens onto a hidden cluster of informal housing in many ways akin to village living.

* * *

Through it all, Damascus road’s side streets are sprinkled with quintessentially Lebanese scenes: the basket hanging from a balcony, waiting for groceries; the local bakery, where workers eat breakfast or lunch; and the raucous passage of peddlers. In front of the national museum, two streets bound in a T enjoy the intimacy of a tightly-knit neighborhood, where everyone seems to know each other.

Through its myriad facets, the road expresses that uniquely Lebanese combination of brutal urbanism and almost dystopian disorder meshed with pockets of sheltered, elegant civility. In the space of a short stroll, it conveys many hard truths about Lebanese society—how it emerged dislocated from the civil war, failed to recompose itself, and forged ahead without any real thought for rebuilding a sense of unity. Nowhere in Beirut, arguably, are adjacent neighborhoods so starkly detached from each other as poverty-stricken Bashura—plastered with posters of martyrs recently killed in Syria—and the bourgeois Ashrafiyeh, whose walls are dense with francophone shop signs.

Damascus road shows us how society has broken down into smaller units still—narrow circles of friends, neighbors, and colleagues who lock themselves into bubbles and lock the rest of society out. In between these soft spots, a ferocious individualism finds its expression in unfettered traffic, real estate, and securitization—as the price to pay for the collapse of a collective project.

Yet the street also exemplifies Lebanon’s dogged survivalism: its ability to endure and fight back, carving out space to live in at the worst of times. Even in a harsh world of tarmac, concrete, and metal hedgehogs, new life finds its way between the cracks.

10 December 2018

Grateful illustration credits: author’s artwork. 

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