The photograph of Jamil’s nephew was taken not long before he was murdered. It occupies a prominent position in this airy apartment in east Beirut. The young man resembles a youthful Jamil, with his wide-set eyes and broad smile. “We were very close. He was like a son to me” says Jamil quietly. He was killed in a car bomb explosion in a leafy suburb of Lebanon’s capital city four years ago to the day.
I am staying in Jamil’s apartment for a few days, using it as a base to explore Beirut. He is in his mid fifties with a thick thatch of greying hair and bristling eyebrows. He has lived in this apartment all his life, even during the dark days of the bitter fighting between Christians and Muslims. Now he offers bed and breakfast to tourists in order to supplement his income as a textile designer. He carefully lays out the olives, cheese and thyme bread as we discuss my plans for the day. He clearly delights in talking about his native city, his eyes dancing behind his glasses. When I casually ask him about his own schedule there is a slight pause. “I am going to my sister’s house. It is the fourth anniversary of my nephew’s death”. He goes onto explain; Charles was walking home from work in the fading evening sun. As he passed through the Christian district of Sin Al-Fil, he was caught by the blast from the exploding car of a leading anti-Syrian politician. Jamil’s normally animated face clouds over, the sparkle fading from his eyes. “I don’t visit the grave very much, I don’t believe in such things. But every year there is a memorial service, I go to support my sister.”
Reminders of Lebanon’s troubled past litter the streets of Beirut. Despite attempts to reconstruct the areas worst hit by the fifteen year civil war, pock-marked buildings loom amongst the sparkling new hotels, their empty hulks slowly decaying as controversies over land ownership continue to wrangle. A taxi driver, standing chatting to his friends, catches me staring up at the gaping windows of the derelict Holiday Inn, a large hole blasted through its side. I wonder if there is not a hint of pride in his voice as he explains this was where the first bomb fell in the civil war. Not far away in the Place des Martyrs, a monument to the Lebanese heroes, executed by their Ottoman oppressors in 1915, is spattered with bullet holes where it was caught in the crossfire. Just across the busy road, the large white tent that shelters the tomb of Rafiq Hariri, the ex-prime minister assassinated in 2005, warns of the tensions that continue to surround his murder, still the subject of a controversial UN tribunal.
And yet, things have moved on. The reconstructed downtown district glimmers optimistically in the heat of the midday sun, as I stop in the shade of a cafe in the Place d’Etoile for a refreshing lemonade. I could be in any European city as I watch the collection of small children on their bikes, eyed by their doting parents, making the most of this pedestrianised and tranquil area. In the early evening, the crowd swells around this square or heads down to the Corniche, to watch the sun sink gracefully into the Mediterranean Sea. In the area around Jamil’s apartment, a fashionable crowd in designer labels gathers in the trendy restaurants and bars, partying like there is no tomorrow.
“I don’t like to look back at the past” says Jamil, and I know not to press him about the days of the war. Lebanon is enjoying a period of fragile stability, but it seems there is always a distant rumble of unease not far away. Right now it is events in Syria which dominate the chatter in the coffee houses and living rooms throughout the country. Its close neighbour has always played an important part in Lebanese politics and the outcome of the struggle there may have major implications for the country’s own stability.
When I reach Jamil's apartment that evening all is quiet. I stop in front of the photograph of Charles, endlessly smiling, one joyous moment in time captured forever. For him, nothing has changed nor will it ever change. But like Jamil, I am looking forwards, to a different future.