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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > July 2016 > Skyscrapers amid the rubble

Skyscrapers amid the rubble

Can Beirut rebuild itself despite the region’s turmoil? Just maybe, but it won’t be government that does it

Lebanon’s capital is coping with a million refugees, a corrupt political system and the unhealed wounds of a 15-year civil war. But as Wendell Steavenson discovered on her return to the city she once called home, the people’s spirit offers hope that Beirut could again become a cultural centre of the Arab world, and its recovery a model for the Middle East. There is building everywhere—though nothing like a working government.

I lived in Beirut 10 years ago. When I returned this spring, I went on long walks through the city to reorient myself. What is going on here? What is happening? What phase of history am I looking at? I tried to feel the pulse of the city, throbbing through the honking traffi c, to measure the hopes of the construction cranes on the skyline against the number of army checkpoints. How is it possible, I kept asking my friends, that you guys are apparently—pause for an ironic eyebrow lift—well, a bit, relatively, stable? The horror of the civil war next door in Syria shows no sign of abating; refugees are still coming over the border to join over one million of their displaced compatriots. Beirutis shrugged, laconic. Somehow, they would say, it’s in everyone’s interest (Syrians, Saudis, Iranians, Turks: those powerpushing regimes who play with the country as geopolitical leverage) to keep Lebanon a safe space this week. To invest and recycle cash, buy things and sell things, eat and drink, make deals and negotiate… For the Lebanese I think, sometimes, peace just feels like a period of uncertainty between wars.

“The centre was badly bashed up by the fighting—but it was post-war development that bulldozed the place”

In the meantime, the Lebanese do what they have always done: build. My walking tours were parkour, hopscotch, detouring around building sites, dashing across highways with no pedestrian crossings, backing out of blind alleys, climbing up staircases set in hillsides or over wasteground banks overrun with rosemary and nasturtium. Everywhere the clanging and banging of construction—construction everywhere. Beirut is built on green mountains that fall into the Mediterranean. From the high suburbs, the centre appears dense, dun-coloured and spiked with towers. It looks as if the Lebanese have tipped a bucket of concrete over the most beautiful place in the world.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s July issue: In her final issue as Editor Bronwen Maddox explores the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair having spoken with him at a Prospect event on 24th May. She examines his domestic policy, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and what the future holds for the Labour Party. The Chancellor George Osborne lays down his view on why the public should to “Remain” in the EU, and Ian Hargreaves takes a close look at what is happening at the BBC. Also in this issue: Former Conservative leader David Davis suggests he can see a very narrow set of circumstances that might push him towards running for the party leadership again, William Skidelsky writes about why tennis is the best sport and Vanora Bennett looks at Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary work recording Russia’s lost voices.
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