The 26-story bombed-out skeleton of the Holiday Inn Beirut is barely noticeable unless you know about it and look for it. From a block away, it just looks like a building under construction, nothing out of the ordinary in Zaitunay Bay, a new development on the corniche — Beirut’s seaside promenade. Around the Holiday Inn, gleaming skyscrapers have come to dominate both the skyline and local conversation.
Any (semi-)serious running in Beirut is done on the corniche, given how little the city’s urban planning cares for pedestrians (its drivers care even less). So over my week in Lebanon, I pass through Zaitunay Bay at least twice daily, just from running. The skyline is ever fascinating, but I always skip the skyscrapers and instead look for the Holiday Inn, a needle in a haystack that seems like another Dubai.
When others I run with — I practice with two local running clubs — see me cock my head up in Zaitunay Bay, they invariably assume that I’m gazing in awe at the aggressive new constructions of metal and glass, mostly glass. They offer their opinions on the development: most consider the skyscrapers emblems of vice and immorality, since, they reason, only with stolen or laundered money could someone afford rents that nearly match those on the Upper East Side. The conversation often devolves into them reciting countless examples of corruption in Lebanon’s highest offices over the past few decades.
I never tell them what I’m actually looking at. I want to, of course: I have endless questions about the whole situation. The Holiday Inn opened in 1974 and the civil war broke out within a year; the hotel’s height and location between the two sides meant that capturing the hotel — or shooting rockets at it — was always good strategy. That much is clear, but what fascinates me is the current juxtaposition. Why does the ex-hotel still stand in its ruined state amidst the Dubai-esque reconstruction? What does the building symbolize for the locals? Do they even care?
But while people in Lebanon are rather open — conversations I have in the country often broach topics like corruption, Hezbollah, and Israel (Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem a week before my visit) — for some reason, nobody ever brings up the war, so I never dare to ask about the Holiday Inn.
Is the hotel, like the war, just out of sight and out of mind? Countries that have emerged out of conflict — at least the ones I’ve visited — seem to approach their histories singularly. In Rwanda, the genocide figured into most of the serious conversations I had with locals; people were resoundingly proud of their country’s recovery and reconciliation. But Rwanda is an exception. Over three months in southern South America, only once did I encounter the region’s history of totalitarian dictators and widespread human rights abuses, at the Museo de la Memoria in Santiago. China, of course, is even more silent on subjects like this.
What does the Holiday Inn mean amidst this gradient of post-conflict narratives? Demolishing it to build condos would say one thing. And renovating the tattered hotel into a memorial or history museum would say something different entirely, a phoenix out of the ashes. But for now the hotel just stands — as it has ever since 1975, bullet holes and all. Forty years is a long, long time, especially at the speed at which this place has developed.
Development, of course, is never straightforward. There are two sides to Beirut, the same as with every capital city, especially those in the developing world. You can buy a gyro at the most popular place in town for a dollar or two, but a small coffee at Starbucks, or even the local Western-style cafes, costs five. Run far enough down the corniche, past the pigeon rocks, and you come to a rather decrepit area of the city, where a worn beach of rough sand is littered with plastic waste, a far cry from the sleek marinas in Zaitunay Bay.
Beirut’s development makes it easy to occasionally forget about the city’s other side. But only temporarily — a stark realization usually comes soon. One example: inside Beirut Souks, a miserable neoliberal reproduction of an Arab souk, most of the stores would seem to belong on the Champs-Élysées. But just outside is an intense security checkpoint: rolls and rolls of barbed wire, soldiers with assault rifles, and barricades formed by jerry cans painted with the red and white of Lebanon’s flag.
Another example: once, over breakfast after a workout, a man I ran with tells me he’s an entrepreneur and shares two ideas he’s working on. The first is some kind of decentralized communication system, for when the internet goes down, which he says is more often than I would expect because of Lebanon’s rolling power outages and its government’s authoritarian tendencies. The second is a locally-adapted version of ShotSpotter, a gunfire locator system. There are so many guns here, he says.
We are at the Starbucks in Zaitunay Bay, where everything around us looks like Dubai. The stores along the waterfront are set below street level, so I can only see the row of skyscrapers lining the corniche and not the Holiday Inn two blocks back. But I do not forget where I am and why this place is not Dubai.
The evening before I fly home, I run with a woman from one of the clubs, and we fill our run with conversation about what life is like, for her in this place and for me halfway around the world. She is young, twenty-something, and studied at the American university here, so our dialogue feels freer and more fluid than usual. I decide that it is time to finally ask about the Holiday Inn.
Before we get to Zaitunay Bay, we pass through a wide part of the corniche that gets crowded even on weeknights. I comment to the woman about the remarkable number of young families there — children with kites and bicycles and rollerblades, infants wobbling precariously close to the guard rail, parents and grandparents at ease — telling her that with a populace so lively, Lebanon’s future must look rather bright.
“It’s so nice to see the families out here,” I say. “I can’t believe they all just come to enjoy life.” She gives me an astonished look of do-you-really-not-know, before realizing that perhaps I really do not know.
“Refugees. From Syria. It’s young families who come to Lebanon,” she says in quick succession. “And now there are two million. Our population before was only four million.”
I can’t tell if the brevity of her statements is a symptom of breathlessness from our pace, or a reluctance to discuss the subject — a more profound tiredness. And from the composed way she describes the refugees, I can’t tell how she feels about them and I do not ask. There is only so much she’ll say to the boy from America, who is here for just a few days…and there is only so much he can understand. Does he finally understand that conflict, in this place, is not something from history but something immediate, something faintly ever-present?
The young woman and I soon run through Zaitunay Bay, but I do not ask about the Holiday Inn.