Beirut: “In the absence of an agreed network of streets, there are no addresses; and without addresses, says Ghubril, “the Lebanese GPS relies on the collective memory of the residents.” One long road in the cosmopolitan Hamra district is formally designated Baalbek Street, but colloquially known as Commodore Street after a cinema that was demolished decades ago. A chaotic transport hub in the south of the city, where rickety old minibuses fill up with passengers before careening wildly across the country, is known simply as Cola, after a long-vanished Coca-Cola factory. Ghubril calls these sites “phantom landmarks.”
What this writer describes as “phantom landmarks” in Beirut, I see as the collective resistance and identity of the residents of Beirut. No, we won’t say that we will meet at that newly-constructed, ugly-lit shoe store on Hamra street; we will say we will meet at Wimpy’s, the site of the beautiful act of resistance by Khaled Alwan against Israeli soldiers during the occupation of Beirut in 1982. Yes, Wimpy’s no longer exists (not in that one spot), but by referring to Wimpy’s – rather than the new ugly construction – we are also referring to the time of resistance, and to the time of coffee shops before wifi.
Referring to the landmarks that used to be — though confusing to new residents — is a way to hold on to the city’s identity, to protect the memory against the globalization and gentrification and destruction of the capital’s history.
It pains me to hear people refer to meeting across from the main gate of the AUB as ‘see you at McDonald’s’ — ignoring the historic establishment that used to be there, and forgetting that there was a restaurant on the corner of Bliss street (where now there is a generic supermarket) that was called ‘Uncle Sam’ where Zaki Nassif used to go, sit down, and compose music.
We remember. We try desperately to remember.
Perhaps it is also a way for residents to claim the city, by claiming names and landmarks of their own to remember and through which to identify the city