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Beirut, where the streets have no name

Beirut as it might have been

In a city transformed by war, redevelopment and poor urban planning, navigating the streets has become an exercise in collective memory

In a city transformed by war, redevelopment and poor urban planning, navigating the streets has become an exercise in collective memory

India Stoughton | March 1st 2017

A couple of weeks after I moved into my last flat in Beirut, I asked my new landlord for the address. “Geitawi,” he said, referring to the name of the neighbourhood, a collection of mismatched concrete buildings with flat roofs that sprout like mushrooms from a hillside. When I pressed him for a more precise location, he looked at me suspiciously. “Just say it’s near Bank Libano-Française,” he said, in the voice of someone addressing an imbecile.
 
After persuading him that visa forms require more detail than “I live near a bank,” he finally conceded that I could write St. Louis Street as my address. But that turned out to be the winding road off which my street led – the one where the bank is located. My street had no name at all.
 
Offices and hotels in Beirut have addresses and so, supposedly, do private residences. But give a taxi driver the name of any but the most major thoroughfare and he’ll stare at you blankly and wait for you to elaborate. Beirutis navigate using landmarks agreed upon by some mysterious consensus. These are subject to an informal hierarchy. Government and religious buildings, hospitals and universities come first, followed by garages, banks and pharmacies, all the way down to billboards, dustbins and large jasmine bushes – the landmark I used to direct people to my flat.
 
Post is not delivered – those who really need to receive mail rent a PO box. When collecting payments, employees of the state-run electricity company use a complex mapping system developed during the French Mandate (1920-1946) that identifies each city sector, street and building by a number. Even though no one else uses this system, most street signs still bear numbers instead of names. They are ignored by everyone except baffled tourists, who may find themselves on street corners looking back and forth despairingly between a seemingly random number and a map bearing names that no one has ever heard of.
 
Prior to Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the streets of Beirut had no official names, explains Bahi Ghubril, founder and director of Zawarib, a company that creates maps showing informal landmarks and names. Streets were known for a prominent local family or a distinguishing landmark. After independence, a committee was created to assign formal names to the city’s streets. Some, like Sursock Street and Makdisi Street, retained the names of powerful local families. Others were assigned new names, used to honour local or international politicians and even historic cultural figures like Al-Mutanabbi, a celebrated 10th-century Iraqi poet, and Mozart. Several were divided up into segments and assigned multiple names, while small alleyways like mine were never given names at all.
 
Navigation by landmark is not unique to Lebanon, but war, capitalism and the absence of a stable government have made traversing Beirut especially confusing. Many buildings were destroyed during the civil war of 1975-90, and others fell victim to post-war redevelopment. Following the civil war, the government loosened zoning restrictions and turned the city over to property developers. Since then, hundreds of buildings, including beautiful Ottoman and French mansions, have been torn down to make way for lucrative high-rise apartment blocks, with no effort on the part of the state to draw up a coherent city plan. 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.” 

For outsiders, learning how to navigate each new neighbourhood is a process similar to, and as satisfying as, mastering a new language. The childhood homes of local celebrities are popular landmarks, even if they lack distinguishing features. This sort of knowledge is “part of the narrative of being an insider, a true Beiruti,” says Ghubril. “You just have to know.”

Sometimes these conventions are appealingly subversive, celebrating ordinary citizens instead of the bigwigs in whose honour streets are officially named. One end of a street in Hamra is often referred to as Abou Taleb, after a well-liked shopkeeper who died in the 1950s, instead of Sadat Street, after the former president of Egypt. In Mar Mikhael, a recently gentrified area formerly known for its mechanics’ workshops and now characterised by a string of hipster-friendly bars, it’s common to hear people arranging to meet beside the fat old dog that sleeps all day on a particular stretch of pavement outside a nondescript newsagent. When the Mar Mikhael dog goes to the great kennel in the sky, people will no doubt start saying, “I’ll meet you where the fat dog used to be” – much to the bewilderment of tourists.

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ahannoun - March 2nd 2017

Thoroughly enjoyable piece. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I feel the urge to correct one common mistake young Beirutis repeat (and which was offered at the end of the piece): Sadat street was not named after the late Egyptian president. The name of the street existed long before he was ever known. It refers to the sadat (honourable) residents of the street which at its earliest housed quite a few of them.