I make eye contact with him and smile. I walk past him, then turn around to see if his eyes are still fixed on me. He discretely gestures at me and my friend to come over. He wears a wide grin crowned by a neatly trimmed mustache—the type that was common among men of all ages in Syria up to the late ‘90s, and continues to persist there and in parts of Iraq today. My friend and I scuttle along the corniche westwards. It’s almost quarter to eight and we are still by the Ain Mreisseh mosque, and if we want to make it to our eight o’clock dinner by the Manara, we would have to rush. Getting cruised by this handsome man was not a part of our schedule that night.
We navigate the wide sidewalk, past the families smoking their arghilehs under the no arghileh signs posted by the Beirut Municipality. A jogger in a complete Lululemon outfit wizzes by. She is much faster than us, despite our hurried pace. The fishermen lined up along the railing at their usual spots, in front of the old fishermen’s port—what (or perhaps who?) will they catch tonight? We slow down to watch one of the teenagers nosedive (or better, bellyflop) from the railing into the water. How high is that jump? 20 meters? The young woman seated on the ground with an infant in her lap asks me if I want to buy gum from her again: “not this time,” I say.
My friend is Palestinian, but like me, has lived most of his life outside the region. I use the opportunity to explain to him how cruising works on this uniquely wide sidewalk of the city. Between the sound of the crashing waves and the cacophony of the car traffic, our conversation is (thankfully) concealed and our privacy preserved.
We hold our breath as we walk past the sewer that dumps its contents directly into the water. We try to convince ourselves that it is stormwater, but the smell reveals otherwise. It is still technically winter, and the beach at the American University of Beirut has not officially opened yet. But as we stride by, we make sure that we take a good look at the men who have taken over the beach, playing their sports on its bare concrete grounds. A young man is hiding behind a massive bouquet of transparent balloons wrapped in multicolored LED lights, selling them to nagging children and couples going on first dates. He looks like a character from a Miyazaki film. A Black couple leans against the railing, facing the sea, probably to avoid seeing the spectrum of gazes of the passers-by. Their own gazes sway between each other and the sea. The tiling under our feet delineates a lane for cyclists, but neither cyclists nor pedestrians acknowledge it. Miraculously, I have not witnessed any significant collisions, yet.
Our eyes scan the people of the corniche. If my friend and I hold hands, can we pass for Syrians? Or will we be spotted as homos first? Do we want to put ourselves in danger like that? Practically, I am Syrian, but not to the eyes of the corniche goers, I think.
It’s eight o’clock. On a different night, I would walk my friend down all 4.8 kilometers of this sidewalk. We would absorb all the encounters that it facilitates. But tonight, we hop on Bus number 15 and ride all the way down to Manara. One thousand liras each is our fare. A reasonable price, in a different epoch before the 2019 economic crises.
17 October happens, and the protest square is barricaded and reclaimed. Suddenly, the corniche is no longer the only public space in the city. The downtown, now restored to its original name, وسط البلد—turns from a network of streets into a large network of sidewalks. Even the Ring road, normally a congested urban highway, becomes a sidewalk (and occasionally a living room, when the protestors blockaded the road and furnished it accordingly). All the activities that used to belong to the corniche now happen here as well. The commerce, the leisure, and even the jogging—back and forth from the teargas and the police line.
And of course, there is the cruising. There is so much cruising, because there are so many of us at the front lines. On a telephone exchange box under the Ring Road and across from the Armenian Catholic Cathedral, someone has spray painted a declaration: “ثورة قوم لوط”, meaning “Revolution of the Sodomites”. I cannot tell, is the artist (yes, whoever drew this is an artist) declaring their own sexuality? Or is the statement meant as a mockery of the protestors? Is it actually both?
In his book “Unsettling the City”, Nicholas Blomley reads such public interventions as supplications. Is this statement actually a supplication as well? Is it a wish for a Beiruti Stonewall Rebellion to replace the repeatedly failed Beiruti Pride Parade? A wish for a reconfiguration of the fragile equilibrium of social relationships that has shaped the city thus far?
The location of the supplication is in one of the highest traffic areas of the city. Under the Ring bridge, surrounded by highways and speedy Van 4s, it is at a location extremely hostile to pedestrians. The protestors for a few days turned the city center into a space dedicated for foot traffic, instead of car traffic. They slowed the circulation of people and materials in the urban fabric, and forced us to look and read. The supplication is reconstituting the underpass as a space of slow engagement. It invites us to see it, and in return, it sees us. In a way, it is a reimagination of urban citizenship, transformed away from its intended function, and supplanted with a space of possibility.
Sidewalks are a unique space in the city: they are a human-paced buffer, standing between the static buildings (even though in Beirut buildings get demolished and change very quickly), and the motorized speed of the street (even though Beirut traffic is sometimes slower than foot traffic). Pedestrians, who not long ago, used the entire width of the street, are pushed to its margins. The marginal space that remains is precious: it enables us humans, made of flesh and moving at less than 1 meter per second, and our brains processing information even more slowly, to encounter each other.
On the other end of the sidewalk usage spectrum is another Mediterranean city with a conflicted relationship to the water that created it: Venice. Lacking in motorized vehicles, Venice has only sidewalks. As you use your feet to move around the city, it reveals itself with instant familiarity and intimacy. The sidewalk tugs you into the city’s fabric, and cradles you as you navigate it. Intimate human encounters are the default, sometimes annoyingly so.
But Beirut’s sidewalks—where they exist in the first place—are notoriously unusable. It is not unusual to see parents who have opted to push their child’s stroller on the street instead of the sidewalk. Scenes of solidarity, of strangers helping each other climb the impossibly high curbs, are commonplace. But I sometimes wonder if the city intentionally makes our most basic function, like walking from one place to another, a continuous struggle. Does the city want us to suffer, in order to revolt? Are the sidewalks cluttered with obstacles as an invitation for mutual aid? Or are they a punishment, driven by the same logic through which the city deprives its many vulnerable inhabitants—Palestinians, refugees, migrants—as if cruelly seeking their misery?
If sidewalks are an infrastructure of care, does their absence in Beirut indicate malicious neglect?
The revolution square and the Corniche are connected by a series of haphazardly maintained sidewalks.
I take the Ring road back westwards, and I walk on a sidewalk that straddles the shoulder of a three-lane urban highway on the one side, and a highly restricted military zone on the other. Here I remember that this eclectic collection of parking lots, awkwardly restored buildings, and luxury homes is also what used to be Beirut’s Jewish neighborhood. I walk by—as one of the rare pedestrians who dare to walk along the same route as Van 4—and I feel the gap that is left by the absence of those who lived here not too long ago. I wonder: what encounters could have happened on this sidewalk, but will never happen now?
There is an absence that results from the evacuation/expulsion of the Jews of Beirut. A rupture of the urban fabric, now mostly parking lots. We will never know what encounters we missed, on this street.
Whether it is revolutionary encounters or a clandestine sexual encounter (itself revolutionary in its own way), sidewalks grant us the possibility of seeing each other. As such, they function as an infrastructure of care. In a world where the automobile accelerated our separation, where every person is isolated in their air-conditioned glass-and-metal machine of death mounted on four wheels, we reserve a margin between buildings where we can walk with little fear. The sidewalk tells us that we are not alone. It tells us that, at least in theory, the urban plan has extended this margin of space between the static building and the dynamic road for us to move at a human speed. To encounter each other. To exchange glances, to hold hands, and occasionally to turn around and find the other man looking back, with confirmed interest, at you.