My swan song to Beirut, through running.
I have pounded these streets over and over, and I think I know every smell and sound and colour. The salty sewage as the corniche pans out beside the seafront opposite McDonald’s at Ain el-Mreisseh. The illuminated balloons, touted by wandering sales children, providing an alternative to the failed street lamps. The swoosh of the sea. The cordoned-off stretch, smashed by a storm last winter, which no one has come to fix.
The young men slouching on the seafront railings, waiting out displacement and war and conscription and unemployment next to the waves. The young couples who perch on the rocks, side by side, soul by soul. The families with impressive picnic sets, chicken and bread and garlic paste set out on the benches in plastic boxes. They complete the set-up with shisha pipes whose “toufah-tayn” — double-apple — flavoured smoke perfumes the air.
For four years, I have gone running in Beirut. It is often hot and sweaty. There is little green space. But running has carried me, and allowed me to explore the city that became my home, even as I loved and loathed it all at once. It was my way out of discomfort and my way into my thoughts, the part of my mind where everything is organised and going to be OK at some point, even as I saw my adopted home fall further and faster.
Time was, these streets were different. I would run from my apartment near Sassine Square, up along Damascus Street. I would use random road blocks scattered on the pavements as an obstacle course, leaping high over them. I’d pass through Downtown, where shiny Mercedes and glass store fronts represented a city that most Beirutis could not afford to be part of. Down on the corniche, sitting on a bench, an old man played the oud and crowds would gather to watch. Children took their first wobbly steps on the grey slabs. The summer streets were humid and polluted, but there was at least cheer among the heat.
I would sometimes change routes, and when I found solace in running after a relationship ended, I started setting out on longer courses. I’d run and run until the corniche petered out into Beirut’s southern suburbs. At this tail end, bottle green weeds and wild daisies reclaimed Beirut from ugly concrete T-walls, half-finished construction projects, and barbed wire. I’d wend my way around the roadblocks and security guards at the luxury resorts clustered along the rocks, which blocked the way to the sea. From the southern suburbs, I’d find the long avenues weaving back into the city.
Running in Beirut, I started to believe that I was capable of achieving things. I ran three half-marathons. Then, when the full 42.2km marathon course I signed up for last October was cancelled, I did a DIY version, running six times up and down the corniche. On another occasion, I ran a 10km event for female runners through the port: the industrial hub, with its blue and red cranes and tankers, was an odd backdrop to a run. Little did I, or the hundreds of other participants, know that a year or so later, our one-time running route would be declared a disaster zone.
Then came economic collapse, and frustration rose. People protested peacefully in the hollow that was Downtown’s supposed wealth. Anger followed, and entrances to government buildings and shops were smashed up by people understandably angry at their government’s long-standing incompetence, corruption, and prioritising of personal gain over service provision. For a while, running through Downtown was impossible, as tear gas and rubber bullets on one side, and people frustrated at a government running a country into the ground on the other, replaced pavement cafes and the cinema block. Foreign designer brands pulled out: no one could afford to buy their products anymore. Now, the whole place is dark, dead, patrolled by a few soldiers and bored-looking security guards who look up from their phones as I run past.
Then the streetlights went out. That illumination was one of the public services — already thin on the ground — that disappeared almost altogether as state authorities bickered over revenues. The corniche was plunged into darkness. The economy continued to worsen. The Lebanese currency collapsed in value against the dollar. The post-run Lipton’s diet peach iced tea that I used to buy for 1,000 Lebanese lira from a convenience store doubled in price in the local currency, but plummeted in US dollar worth: 2,000 lira was now worth less than $0.20. As coronavirus restrictions eased, more people than ever seemed to gather on the corniche. Ever more, there were people with little else to do, as jobs were lost and hours cut in their hundreds of thousands. In the darkest spots, couples pulled each other close, seeking out stolen moments of privacy in a city many wanted to leave.
I continued to run — uneasily, in this new, gloomy Lebanon — dodging obstacles on the pavements. People on the corniche looked more drawn, tired of life. It was as if people were trying to escape having to deal with life there, but failing to do so; the fatigue on the faces was obvious.
Then came the explosion at Beirut port on August 4, caused by thousands of tons of improperly-stored ammonium nitrate. Our beloved home was damaged — spirits bottles thrown to the floor, prompting our American neighbour to remark how, “It smells like a frat party in here,” as we tiptoed our way through the smashed glass to inspect the damage. Slowly, we pieced our home back together. I didn’t run for weeks: with the streets around us broken into a trillion pieces, it felt wrong picking my way through what remained of people’s homes piled in alleyways and on roads, for an activity I call leisure. When I eventually returned to pounding the streets, I realised that I was afraid of buildings collapsing around me. My trainers crunched on glass that still covered the pavements. Buildings I used to see along my route — the Ottoman townhouses on Pasteur Street, the Sursock Museum, with its orange and blue stained glass windows — all were battered. I no longer jogged past, slowing to admire them, but ran onwards quickly, not really wanting to accept what had happened to them. Sometimes, so I didn’t have to face doing so, I caught a taxi over to the corniche and started my run from this less damaged part of Beirut.
The streetlights haven’t been fully switched back on, and Beirut is still broken. I run past trashed homes, businesses and lives: the World Bank estimates the damages at $3.8-$4.6 billion. It’s impossible to escape it. The Syrian poet Ghada Samman wrote of Beirut as a city that,
“Grows like a wound in my memory,
I don’t want to be cured of it.”
Beirut has itself been that wound too many times over. Running in this city cradled and shaped me; this place has been kind to me. Now it is screaming out for kindness in return.