By Samir Kassir
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Additional info for Beirut
With a population of only slightly more than a million, its demographic weight was modest by comparison with Cairo, even with Damascus; and as the capital of one of the smallest Arab states, it could scarcely claim to be a major international center of decision making or diplomacy, even if the welcome Beirut granted to the leadership of the Palestinian resistance placed it at the heart of a political dynamic that transcended regional boundaries. No matter. And yet since the early 1960s it had incontestably been one of the premier poles of cultural and economic attraction in the Arab world.
And if one limits oneself to the cold cruelty of statistics, even taking into account the devastating number of fatalities (some 130,000 dead in fifteen years) as a share of the country’s population—roughly the equivalent of two million dead in a country the size of France—the butchery of the Lebanese war was modest by comparison with the genocide in Cambodia. No matter. The Lebanese conflict stands out as one of the most prominent events in the journalistic historiography of the second half of the twentieth century, having taken over from Vietnam as the lead story of the world’s newspapers and broadcasts before being supplanted in its turn by the conflicts that drenched the Yugoslav Federation in blood in the 1990s.
If it is reborn, is it then the same city? Is its history the same history? The historian of Beirut cannot evade these questions. At the very outset he finds himself confronted with the problem of choosing a starting point for his inquiry and, by virtue of that, a point of view. Are Beirut’s many lives and deaths in need of rediscovery? If so, how far back must the historian go? e.? Is he obliged to search for evidence of a linear progression linking the ages of the ancient city and the metropolis of the twentieth century, by turns proud, battered and bruised, convalescent?