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21st Century Coffee Break in Beirut

If aliens were observing Earth from some observatory elsewhere in the galaxy, they could be forgiven for believing that human societies were continually contending with spontaneous combustion. Shootings, bombings, riots, gang wars, clan wars, border wars, civil wars, invasions, insurgencies, counter-insurgencies–all over the planet “hot spots” keep erupting as if from some molten lava field barely below the surface of civilization. Scenes like this are all too familiar, ritual irruptions of violence.

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This is from a couple of days ago when things were heating up again in Beirut. We are looking at the stock scene of street violence in the third world. The burning tire spews its oily smoke amidst the debris of destruction, a young man becomes the figure of revolution, and bystanders mill about in various combinations of self-preservation and collective resistance. Everyone knows the script so well that this photo could be a movie still: male lead front and center, moving confidently between light and fire, while the little people and a smoke machine create atmosphere. Look at his hair–he could be the young De Niro.

Some of the images in the coverage of the recent violence in Beirut do look posed, but the carnage is real. It is important to recognize, however, how our visual knowledge of global violence naturalizes war as it exposes its causes. The image above, for example, reminds us that so much of what is going wrong can be traced back to oil–like the oil used to make that truck tire. The young man’s clothes should remind us that the problem is not a clash of civilizations or one of a lack of modernity–those street fighters look exactly like the guys I see on the subway platform in Chicago. (OK, often they look better. Fitness and fashion seem to be givens over there.) The inversions in the scene–using a tire to stop traffic, setting fire during daylight–suggest that the natural order of things in Beirut is already upside down, a regime of violence and exploitation rather than a well-functioning civil society.

Unfortunately, that path though true enough doesn’t lead anywhere but back into the cycle of violence. The problem is not simply one of removing oppression to let peace bloom. Just as the street scene and its photograph are both now almost ritual performances, actors at every level have become habituated to war. Indeed, the most chilling photograph to come out of the weekend is the one most removed from the effects of the fighting.

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The caption read, “After Shiite fighters seized control of parts of west Beirut, a gunman, right, took a break to drink coffee on a street corner.” This is almost disorienting, or it should be. The scene is the epitome of a worker’s coffee break: thermos, a smoke, a joke. This could be an image of civilization at its best: making the impersonal curb into a place of conviviality. And look at his feet: loafers, no socks. See the military vest as a life jacket and he could be waiting for his yacht to be put in the water. What is all too obvious is that these guys are normal human beings who are nonetheless habituated to moving in and out of war on a daily or even hourly basis.

Just like the rest of us.

Photographs by Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press and Ramzi Haidar/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images.

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21st Century Coffee Break in Beirut

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1 Response

  1. Tom White says

    I was looking for some images coming out of Lebanon that were a little out of the ordinary, thanks John for posting this one of the coffee break. It reminds us that Beirut is not some far away hellhole, but a city where people do the same things they do in Paris, London or New York, albeit inbetween gunfights. The current violence reminds me of the story of a friend of mine, a Lebanese who went to visit some family in the summer of 2006, just days before the conflict of that year broke out. He fortunately managed to get himself and some family members out of the country (through Syria) and back to London where he resides. Another reminder that not everyone wants to pick up a gun or take a side, sometimes they just want to lead a normal life – like drinking coffee on the street…

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