PHOTO ESSAY | Lebanon: A Whole New World

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When it became clear to me that my journey from Asia back to North America would take me through the Middle East, Beirut topped the list of destinations I wanted to visit. The city’s recent past — it was the place to be for Europe’s rich and famous before the devastating civil war of the 1970s and 1980s — enchanted me as much as its preceding Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman periods, particularly in light of the fact that it seemed to be regaining its status among tourists at lightning speed.

Most of the history I did know before arriving Beirut fell by the wayside once I took to the streets with my camera, as did many of the preconceived notions I carried with me as an American tourist visiting the Middle East for the first time.

After checking in to the University Hotel, a bare bones property located near the American University of Beirut (one that seemed to be the only room in town to be found for under $50 per night), I met up with my friend Rami, who grew up in Beirut but now lives and works near Dubai. I had planned my arrival in Lebanon to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — I didn’t want to spend all day, every day cooped up inside as I’d just done in Malaysia. Thankfully, my first day in Beirut coincided not only with the end of Ramadan, but also with the beginning of the Hamra Street Festival, which celebrates Lebanon’s cultural and creative diversity. Among the facts I learned while spectating: Only about half of Lebanese people are Muslim.

Rami and I took in sunset along the Beirut seaside after we had our fill of the Hamra Street Festival. One of my favorite things about traveling in east Asia was how open people were to having their pictures taken — except for in rare case where a rural people believes the flash takes his soul, of course. After snapping a few shots of curious onlookers without much afterthought, I realized photo etiquette in Lebanon was dramatically different. This group of guys seemed less upset — they didn’t chase after me or say anything — and more shocked that I was bold enough to photograph them without warning or permission. As pretentious as it may sound, I attempt to capture life close to how it actually happens. Asking leads to posing, which I never, ever want. So I never, ever ask.

Rami was nice enough to take me into central Beirut my second day in the city, which revealed to me how little of Lebanon’s history I actually knew. This statue in the aptly-named Martyr’s Square, for example, commemorates the Lebanese nationalists the Ottomans hanged during World War I in retaliation to their call for independence. Although the land on which the country now sits has been settled for an estimated 7,000 years — longer than history has been recorded — the modern state of Lebanon was declared in 1920, with official recognition by the United Nations taking an additional 23 years. Spires of the Al-Amin mosque in the background, the burial site of slain former leader Rafic Harriri, echo the struggle that underlies Lebanon’s very existence.

Of course, struggle often coincides with progress — and progress is also very much a part of the modern Lebanese story. Huge cranes rise over the Roman ruins that sit to just to the north of the Al-Amin mosque, part of a huge construction project that seeks to completely restore the city’s coastline to its pre-civil war glory. As you can see, the reality of today’s Beirut is far from the Hezbollah horror story the American media would like you to believe. On the contrary, Lebanon’s current leaders seem to be doing everything they can to move their country past the violence and terror that has defined much of its recent history.

This isn’t to say that certain aspects of daily life in Beirut don’t call to mind a war zone — or more of a war zone than I’d previously encountered, anyway. Armed guards are a common site in the Lebanese capital, especially in heavy-traffic areas like Martyr’s Square and the Beyrouth Souks shopping complex, picture above. The soliders who man these checkpoints, however, aren’t bloodthirsty meatheads who haplessly kill any passer by who approaches them — this cat’s curiosity sure didn’t kill him. The strapping gentleman packing this weaponry took a few minutes not only to greet the pint-sized spectator, but also to flirt with his apparently single mother.

Prior to visiting Lebanon, I was curious not only about what kinds of social freedoms I’d have or lack, but also about how society would work for locals. As I mentioned earlier, Lebanon is not completely Muslim. Some of the ramifications of this fact are more obvious — not all women veil themselves, for example. After visiting many other places in the Middle East, my opinion that Islam correlates strongly with repression has softened, but I can’t help but think Lebanon’s religious diversity contributes to how relatively carefree locals are — and particularly when they congregate, dine and exercise along the shores of the Mediterranean in central Beirut, as shown above.

Ramlet El Baida, the city’s only public beach, is located just south of the Manara district, which sits at the tip of Beirut’s peninsula. Here, it became evident that in spite of any moderating influence the country’s religious diversity has on the social freedoms of its people, Lebanon is still relatively conservative by Western standards. I would estimate that roughly eight of every 10 people on the beach was male — and I can’t recall seeing any unaccompanied adult females. This is a very good thing, from a strictly gay perspective: By and large, Lebanese men remove their pants and swim in their underwear rather than changing into swim trunks. I particularly enjoyed this in the case of the young man eating ice cream in the picture above — until, of course, I noticed a local invalid exposing himself to the poor boy, at which point I quickly quelled my own inclinations, harmless as they were by comparison, and peaced the fuck out.

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