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Story Publication logo May 26, 2023

Beirut: Creativity Amid Crisis

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Women are leading Lebanon’s film industry. They are illuminating Lebanon’s environmental crisis...

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I write this while sipping on an espresso lemonade at Kalei, a local coffee shop in Hamra. It’s an unlikely combination, but two Lebanese journalists I met at a bar recommended the citrusy caffeinated beverage, so I figured I had to try it. Needless to say, it did not disappoint! And most importantly, the cafe has steady Wi-Fi and an outdoor garden, a nice escape from the heat and stickiness of a Beirut summer.


Locals enjoy the coffee and ambience at Kalei, a popular cafe in Hamra. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Enjoying my espresso lemonade, a Kalei speciality. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

As I near the halfway point of my reporting in Beirut, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned about Lebanon thus far. The locals have taught me that Lebanon is a place of contradiction. Running along the Corniche in the mornings, I witnessed firsthand the glitzy 5-Star hotels, yacht clubs, and eateries that line Zaitunay Bay, the ritzy promenade run in large part by Solidere, a controversial corporate giant founded by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


A sign criticizes Solidere, a Lebanese development company founded by former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in front of what used to be St. George’s Hotel. The sign, erected by the hotel’s owner, Fady El-Khoury, symbolizes the ongoing real-estate battle between local property owners and the controversial corporate giant in Beirut’s downtown area. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Zaitunay Bay, a waterfront promenade that opened in 2011, boasts dozens of cafes and stunning Mediterranean views. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Beirutis take a Sunday stroll along the Corniche. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

But the hotels are all closed, the sleek high-rises halted mid-construction and frozen in time, the cafes abandoned or destroyed. Following the October 2019 revolution (a series of protests in Beirut, spurred by proposed taxes on everything from WhatsApp to gas, which rebuked the government as both corrupt and complicit in Lebanon’s twin financial and environmental crises), the Beirut Blast (the largest nonnuclear explosion in history), Lebanon’s financial crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown was essentially shut down. The Four Seasons closed; the once-bustling restaurants shut their doors if not already destroyed; the construction halted. Some establishments prepared to reopen following the Revolution and the ongoing pandemic only to be destroyed by the Blast and the worsening financial crisis. Downtown felt like a ghost town, nearly empty save for those headed to the Al-Amin Mosque to pray or en route to luxury shops. Indeed, as my tour guide Karim explained, only the designer shops can afford to stay open.


Beirut’s downtown streets, once buzzing, are largely devoid of people. While downtown was reconstructed after Lebanon’s civil war, many argue it is missing the city center’s old spirit. Today, architect Mona Hallak calls it “a culture-free ghost town for the rich.” Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

A shop is boarded up in Beirut’s downtown area. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

 Lebanese take to the streets on the two-year anniversary of the Beirut Blast, the largest nonnuclear explosion in history, to demand justice for the victims killed or injured by the blast. The August 4, 2020, blast, caused by the explosion of ammonium nitrate stored in a port warehouse for six years, killed more than 200 people and left 7,000 injured. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Graffiti in the streets of downtown Beirut reads “Power to the People.” Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Yet Beirut, at the same time, is bustling. The streets of Hamra, the nightclubs of Mar Mikhael, and the malls of Achrafieh are filled with Beirutis and brimming with life. Beirut is in pain, filled with the hurt inflicted by corruption, the financial crisis, the garbage crisis, and the explosion, but it is also filled with singers, filmmakers, and artists. To paraphrase a few filmmakers I spoke to, it is experiencing both creativity and apocalypse, hope and despair, joy and sorrow. These contradictions are everywhere in Beirut. Lebanon was recently ranked the second saddest country in the world, yet watching young Beirutis twirl in summer dresses at the Hamra resto-pub Mezyan and teenagers laughing over mint lemonades under string lights at the city’s many outdoor cafes, the moments of joy amidst crisis were deeply palpable. Despite the trifecta of crises facing the city, people, though sometimes disillusioned, still refuse to become bitter and hold fast to art.


Lebanese artists display their work at a gallery in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood as part of an exhibition organized by the NGO Rebirth Beirut. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

In the aftermath of the Beirut Blast, street artists created a mural on a facade of the Le Gray Hotel featuring two doves standing before the word “HOPE.” Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Feminism in Lebanon is rife with these contradictions too. As a young Beiruti poet told me, women in Beirut can, for the most part, dress however they want, express their opinions, and make films without censorship. Yet at the same time, per the personal status laws, they lack universal civil rights and are bound legally by conservative sectarian laws. Additionally, Lebanese women are unable to confer nationality rights to their children, who are left without citizenship and in many cases, stateless. Adultery is a crime in Lebanon, though to date, only women have been incarcerated for it according to Zeina Daccache, an actress, therapist, and filmmaker who choreographs plays within Lebanese prisons, including Baabda Women’s Prison. Indeed, sect-specific religious courts entirely govern women’s personal status laws, all of which discriminate against women.


Beirutis relax at the beach on a hot August afternoon. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Cafe Younes, a popular Hamra joint, welcomes guests with coffee and colorful eats. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Locals chat in the Cafe Younes outdoor patio under string lights. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

Hamra Street abuzz on a Saturday night. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

In many ways, contradiction defines life in modern Lebanon. Crisis and art, freedom and discrimination, and hope and despair all coexist. I’ve found myself returning to the question: What is the role of art in times of crisis? And what does it mean to live in a state of constant contradiction? Of course, contradiction isn’t unique to the Lebanese experience, but as I have to come to learn, it is inextricable from it. As the silos burn, the dancing girls still twirl.


The grain silos, which absorbed much of the impact of the August 4, 2020, port explosion and shielded portions of West Beirut, stand as a reminder of the deaths caused by the blast and the lack of justice for the victims. On the two-year mark of the explosion, remnants of the silos collapsed after a fire started from fermenting grains that ignited with the extreme summer heat. Image by Meera Santhanam. Lebanon, 2022.

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