Tour guide Ronnie Chatah, 36, is once again doing what he loves after a four-year hiatus – telling the stories that have shaped Beirut’s history from ancient to modern times.
Chatah put the walking tours on hold in late 2013 after the assassination of his father Mohamad Chatah, a former minister and diplomat. He was worried he would not be able to give an impartial view of the city, he said.
“My father is buried in what is probably the most climactic part of the tour,” he said, referring to Martyrs’ Square, a pockmarked statue in the epicenter, where many Lebanese have rallied in times of political crisis since World War I. “It is not easy to look at your father’s burial site and just ignore the emotions.”
But reviving the tour has had a surprising effect.
“I have not had a better therapy session,” said Chatah, who first launched the tours in 2009.
Now for four hours every other Sunday, people follow Chatah as he explains some of the most complicated aspects of Lebanon’s capital.
He explains that the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar and about how since the civil war political power is shared between Lebanon’s 18 different religious sects. He also explains why so many abandoned heritage buildings have been seemingly left to disintegrate.
Standing outside what was once the Holiday Inn hotel, Chatah recounts how the building that once exemplified Beirut’s Seventies glamour became an icon of the 1975-1990 civil war only a few weeks after it opened. It became the military headquarters of whichever militant faction was winning the war in Beirut over the next 15 years.
For him, the building – with its grey exterior, huge gaping holes and revolving balcony – is the best reflection of how the Lebanese have yet to make peace.
“We don’t reflect properly and I think that is our problem. Maybe that is part of our story too, that we are constantly avoiding the deeper issues, and hence a country that still cannot stand properly on its own two feet,” he said.
The tour allows visitors to discover parts of the city that have either ceased to exist or cordoned off by security because of close proximity to government buildings or politicians’ residences. This includes what used to be the old Jewish neighborhood, once home to a small community that is now all but gone save for a restored synagogue.
“I thought I knew the area but I was surprised to find out about … a neighborhood that I never knew existed,” Sarah Harakeh, 24, a teacher said.
Chatah said he had been planning to resume the walks for just a couple of months, but now there are tours scheduled for the rest of the year.
“That is the persuasion of this city, you keep coming back, and even when you know it is not good for you,” he said.