I spent the month of February in Havana, Cuba, the place – earlier than a bloody run-in with a gap within the pavement put a short lived halt to the association – I went for each day jogs on the Malecón, town’s iconic seaside promenade. Every morning, I handed an elegantly crumbling constructing that, with out fail, threw me by a psycho-geographical loop as I grew to become momentarily satisfied that I used to be in reality in Beirut – one in every of my common pre-pandemic stomping grounds and a metropolis that boasted its personal iconic seaside promenade and fair proportion of holes within the pavement.
This specific constructing evoked the Lebanese capital for numerous causes, not solely its colonial-style structure and Ottoman-esque home windows but additionally the truth that one in every of its sections was totally collapsed – a standard architectural repercussion within the previously relentlessly celebrated “Paris of the Center East”. Following its so-called “golden age” within the mid-Twentieth century, Beirut had gone on to host, inter alia, a 15-year civil battle (1975-90), brutal Israeli army assaults backed by the USA, huge post-war demolitions within the curiosity of historical amnesia and ever-savage elite enrichment, and the Beirut port explosion of August 2020. In that last landmark occasion, a good portion of town and quite a few inhabitants have been blown up due to wilful state negligence – a type of battle in its personal proper.
In Havana, itself by the way as soon as dubbed the “Paris of the Caribbean”, up to date warfare has primarily consisted of the longstanding de facto US war on Cuba. This started within the wake of the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution, which spelled the tragic finish to imperial plunder of the island below the charitable supervision of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista – who, as US creator TJ English places it in Havana Nocturne – relied on “torture squads” in addition to “government-sanctioned terrorism”.
An October 2020 Reuters article specified that, within the aftermath of the Revolution, the Cuban state “confiscated a lot of Cuba’s grand historic buildings and distributed them to poor and middle-class households” – particularly in Havana, the place the “eclectic mixture of colonial, neoclassical, baroque and Artwork Deco buildings are thought of among the many architectural jewels of Latin America”.
Whereas the article credit “communist rule” with having lengthy saved these edifices from the “city developer’s bulldozer”, structural disrepair has been inevitable due to a confluence of things that embody the Cuban local weather and an ever-intensifying US embargo – which simply celebrated its sixtieth anniversary of making widespread shortages of all the pieces from milk to development supplies. Regardless of the appeal that’s seemingly undeniably exuded by sure kinds of dilapidation – as documented by many a camera-wielding customer to the one-time Parises of each the Caribbean and the Center East – it will also be deadly. Reuters cites the demise of three women who have been crushed to loss of life in January 2020 by a falling Havana balcony.
As my very own keep in Havana progressed, I used to be struck by the elevated frequency with which my actions by town triggered flashbacks to Beirut – and never simply on account of sheer bodily resemblance, as was the case with the crumbling constructing on the Malecón. Fairly, it appeared that each cityscapes intermittently elicited the identical kind of romanticisation of decay and nostalgia for bygone eras – however eras that have been, critically, marked by colonialism, imperialism, and big injustice, which left me questioning whether or not my susceptibility to such nostalgic whims was itself a essentially morally compromised affair.
Human historical past, basically, has, in fact, been one pretty steady injustice – and injustice can, sadly, be intoxicating. For many individuals, the enduring magnetism of each Havana and Beirut has one thing to do with their traditionally latest service as venues of worldwide glitz and glamour – locations the place socioeconomic inequity and different mundane points mattered solely insofar as they underscored the superior worth of the earth’s ruling lessons.
In Havana’s heyday, hedonism went down on the metropolis’s nightclubs, casinos, lodges, and brothels – a lot of them affiliated with what TJ English phrases “the Havana Mob”, the numerous US mafiosi who determined to make a killing in Cuba whereas the killing was good below US buddy Batista, the wannabe godfather of a Cuban “capitalist Shangri-La”. These days, English notes and ubiquitous classic American automobiles from the Nineteen Forties and Nineteen Fifties complement the “flickering neon indicators and air of insouciance that contribute to town’s attract” – amounting to a “hallucinatory” impact through which, “on sure nights, it’s as if the ghosts of the previous are nonetheless alive, a spooky, spectral testomony to the period of the Havana Mob”.
However spookiness is typically attractive, and in Beirut, too, the ghosts of the previous are alive as ever – and never simply within the present Lebanese political class. They will also be discovered within the metropolis’s war-scarred façades and the lingering essence of that legendary pre-war Lebanese “joie de vivre”, an Orientalist cliché that roughly means flashy Western-style overconsumption in opulent institutions and was clearly solely ever an choice for these with the correct socioeconomic credentials. Within the Sixties, the New York Instances notes, Beirut was “a trendy port of name” and Brigitte Bardot “was a daily”. And what have you learnt: as with the Cuban Revolution, the Lebanese civil battle was itself triggered in no small half by colossal inequality.
Given the excess of Orientalist musings impressed by Lebanon’s capital metropolis over time, it’s little question becoming that Edward Stated selected to begin his seminal guide Orientalism with a story a couple of French journalist who, reporting from Beirut in the beginning of the civil battle, “wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown space that ‘it had as soon as appeared to belong to… the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval’”. Quick ahead virtually half a century, and maybe we’ve got merely tacked one other layer of preconceived nostalgia and mystique onto our conception of what Beirut as soon as was.
In her textual content Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag observes: “To search out magnificence in battle pictures appears heartless. However the panorama of devastation remains to be a panorama. There may be magnificence in ruins.” And because the planet now hurtles in the direction of self-inflicted capitalist destruction, it appears Havana and Beirut are two very high-quality landscapes certainly through which to ponder the aesthetics of smash.
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.