Beirut Journal: Walking Tour of a City’s History, Assassinations Included

“The hardest thing to do is to access Beirut’s history,” he said. “If you are walking alone, you’ll miss the whole story.”


Mr. Chatah taking his group to the Leila Osseiran Garden, once called the Roman Baths’ Garden.Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

That history is rather expansive. A Mediterranean seafront city of about 2.2 million, Beirut has been home over the centuries to Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and many others. Its last century alone has been packed with momentous events involving the Ottomans; the French; the Palestinians; a 15-year civil war; a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the militant group and political party; and a large refugee influx from neighboring Syria.

But there is little public commemoration of any of it.

Beirut Journal: Walking Tour of a City’s History, Assassinations Included
Beirut Journal: Walking Tour of a City’s History, Assassinations Included

Many of the city’s historic sites are neglected and unmarked, or they have been bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks. Scars from the civil war, which ended in 1990, are everywhere, mostly bullet holes and shrapnel markings on buildings. But that conflict’s history is not taught in public schools because the subject is still so contested and politically and emotionally sensitive.

Mr. Chatah’s tour is one modest effort to remedy this historical amnesia for anyone with $20 and four free hours on a Sunday afternoon.

This week, a few dozen people showed up in a plaza on the city’s west side near an airline office and a cafe to take the tour. They were a mix of foreigners and local residents — a Swedish couple with two boys; some Italian aid workers; an engineer for Lebanon’s national airline; some British finance workers on vacation; a woman with blue hair.

After an introduction, Mr. Chatah led the way through 13 stops, pointing out landmarks, telling stories and explaining the roots of Lebanon’s peculiarities. On the steps of the Central Bank, for example, he explained how the country’s currency had crashed during the civil war, leading it to be pegged at about 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, a rate that still stands.

The group passed the First Armenian Evangelical Church, where he talked about the Lebanese diaspora — Lebanese expatriates greatly outnumber Lebanese living inside the country — as well as the country’s complex political system and its 18 recognized religious sects.


Discussing the local currency.Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Nearby, Mr. Chatah pointed out the private family home that was turned into Trad Hospital, where he said he had reason to believe — if no definite confirmation — that Mr. Reeves, the actor, was born.

And standing between a beautifully maintained historic mansion and an old house collapsing into a weed-filled lot, he explained why development in the city had been so uneven. Disputes between far-flung relatives often prevented the unanimity needed to sell property, and the government lacked the power to declare eminent domain and intervene.

The most glaring example of such a property dispute, he said, involves Beirut’s Holiday Inn. He called it “the largest headache we have in this city, the headache we can’t solve.”

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The huge, 26-story tower opened to great fanfare in 1974, but closed the next year when the civil war broke out and gunmen moved in to take advantage of its commanding views of downtown. Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, moved in for a while but was later pushed out, and the city’s many other fighters struggled to control the building or shell their enemies who were holed up inside.

The building is now a towering concrete shell covered with bullet holes, its owners unable to agree on whether to sell it or redevelop the site, Mr. Chatah said. “They are waiting for Lebanon to be stable again,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever happen.”

Other stops included the old Jewish Quarter, now a high-security zone where Saad Hariri, the prime minister, lives. The only trace of Lebanon’s Jews, nearly all of whom have left the country since the war surrounding the creation of Israel, is the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, a white building with yellow trim and Hebrew lettering above the entrance.


Visiting making a memento in downtown Beirut after the tour finished.Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Given the sensitivities around anything having to do with Judaism or Israel, the synagogue is not open to the public. It is not even visible from public streets.

Near the end, the tour stopped in Martyrs’ Square, the traffic-clogged center of the city. There, Mr. Chatah told his tour group, the Ottomans once hanged people and the Lebanese protested against French rule and, much later, both for and against the presence of the Syrian Army in Lebanon. The latter side got its way when the Syrians pulled out in 2005.

The tour itself has ridden the waves of Beirut’s tribulations.

Mr. Chatah began it in the late 2000s, when tourists traveling between Istanbul, Cairo and Damascus often stopped in Beirut. He was soon giving tours seven days a week, he said.

But after the conflict in Syria broke out in 2011 and a wave of new bombings and assassinations shook the city, business tapered off and the tourists were gradually replaced by aid workers.

“I rode that roller coaster that went from tourism to conflict tourism,” Mr. Chatah said.

Then, on Dec. 27, 2013, his father was killed and he decided to leave the country, spending a few years in Scotland to write and grieve.

As with most political assassinations in Lebanon, there have been no investigations or arrests in his father’s killing, he said. But being away made him realize that he loved Beirut in a way he had not before. So he returned last year and soon revived the tours, considering them a tribute to his father.

Most people on the tour knew Mr. Chatah’s history but said it made little difference in how he laid out the city’s history.

“We all have personal history here,” said Rosy Raggi, who took the tour with six other Lebanese friends. “His personal history is not as important as how he tells the story.”

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