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Navigating Beirut is an exercise in collective memory

Where the streets have no name

Navigating Beirut is an exercise in collective memory and subversion. India Stoughton explains 

Navigating Beirut is an exercise in collective memory and subversion. India Stoughton explains 

India Stoughton | June/July 2017

A couple of weeks after I moved into my previous 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 bushes.

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 (1920-46) 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 the city’s informal landmarks. Streets were known for a prominent local family or a distinguishing feature. After independence, a committee was created to assign formal names to the city’s streets. Some, like Sursock Street and Makdisi Street, referred to 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 tenth-century Iraqi poet, and Mozart. But the small alleyways like mine were never given names at all.

Navigation by landmark is not unique to Lebanon, but war, capitalism and unstable government have made traversing Beirut especially confusing. Many buildings were destroyed during the civil war of 1975-90; others fell victim to post-war redevelopment. Following the conflict, the government loosened zoning restrictions and turned the city over to property developers. 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.” For outsiders, learning how to navigate each new neighbourhood is a process similar to, and as satisfying as, mastering a new language. This sort of knowledge is “part of the narrative of being an insider, a true Beiruti,” says Ghubril.

Sometimes these conventions are appealingly subversive. 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 its official name, Sadat Street, after the former president of Egypt. In Mar Mikhael, a recently gentrified area full 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 he goes to the great kennel in the sky, people will no doubt start saying, “I’ll meet you where the dog used to be” – much to the bewilderment of tourists.

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