Beirut and her lost identity

Sébastian Dahl (25) is a born optimist and an adventurer. The photographer’s life consists mainly of travelling, and he was raised that way. When he was 8 years old his parents moved from Norway to Southern France, but after twelve years Sébastian called it a day. He moved back to Norway to enroll at the Bilder Nordic School of Photography. And then several years later came the big adventure. The photographer travelled 10.000 kilometers, hitchhicking his way from Oslo to Beirut, spending only one night in a hotel. In Beirut he ended up staying for a year.

Is your family fond of travelling?
“Yes. I can count myself lucky. My parents introduced me to many countries. We often drove from Norway to France, as my family lives in both countries. On the way we used to stop a lot. It took a long time for me to realise how lucky I have been.”

But it has to have been intense too.
“Sure. Moving from Norway to France at the age of eight was very confusing and it took me many years to like France.”

It probably did influence you. Are you a restless person?
“I love to spend time in my two home countries, because I love my family and I acknowledge my roots. But I didn’t expect all that travelling to influence me all these years later. I am now too much aware of all beautiful, interesting things that are to be found beyond the borders of my two home countries to just stay here. That’s why I indeed do often feel restless. Luckily I have the luxury of being able to freely move around. I a man independent kind of person and can do as I please. And I’m extremely lucky to be born with a European passport.”

But all that travelling costs money too.
“I figured you would be curious about that. I am living in one of the richest countries. That helps. I have been able to save up enough money, so I can afford all that. Besides, many people have preceded me who came far with little money. The way I travel is almost free. There’s no cheaper way of travelling, so after all, money really isn’t an important aspect of my travels.”

Is that why you decided to hitchhike?
“It is both free and easy. I’ve been hitchhicking for years. I started out with short trips around Toulouse and from there deeper into France, towards Spain and Italy. In the Summer of 2006 I made my first big trip. I travelled through Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. It was a life changer. I found it very interesting to talk to random people during my travels.”

What did it teach you?
“I realised the world we live in is quite different from the world the mainstream media present to us. And that you don’t have to be afraid of your neighbors.”

Do you value life?
“I am intensely happy, yes. Sorry for this overdose of optimism.”

It indeed makes one envy you, but what exactly does being happy mean to you?
“Being true to yourself without behaving self-centered. I have simple desires, few material stuff, and good friends. I am free of obligations, live on the cheap. I work little, but travel a lot. I have arrived at a point where I’m satisfied with the past, where I enjoy today, and where I can be enthusiastic about the future.”

What made you go to Beirut?
“Well, that’s quite different story. After having lived in Oslo for years, I dreamed of travelling around the world. This time I didn’t want to do that by simply passing through several countries. To really get to understand a country and its corresponding language and culture I wanted to stay somewhere for a year. Beirut became the first chapter of that book.”

But why did your trip finish there?
“I’ve been asked this question a lot and I can’t think of anything better to say than blaming the delicious falafel. Originally I wanted to go to Lebanon, because I was attracted by the Middle East and Arabic seemed an interesting language to me. But I could really have chosen many other countries for many other reasons. I could have traveled to Mongolia to ride on horses, to Canada to work in a ski resort, to Japan to meet Haruki Murakami.”

What was your first impression of Lebanon?
“I arrived in Tripoli by boat. My first impression comes from the Lebanese people I was on the ferry with. I observed the mand go tinto converations with them. When we arrived in Tripoli we took the bus together, where there was no room for me. Then I was allowed to come along for free. It wasn’t comfortable, as I was sitting on someone’s lap. But I enjoyed the trip to the capital with a big smile.”

How would you describe the atmosphere in Beirut?
“It is very noisy, mainly because of all the car horns honking and the construction sites. It takes some time before you start to love the polluted, chaotic city. I came to understand Beirut better and better with time.”

And the people?
“The Lebanese are incredibly hospitable. As the younger generation and the Beirutis mostly speak both English and French, they are very easy to connect with. They smoke a lot and get angry fast, but they are most of all inquisitive and loving.”

Beirut is known for the long civil war. To what extent did you experience anything about that?
“The most visible signs will be the bullet holes you see throughout the city. Sadly it looks like most old buildings are being destroyed instead of restored. Beirut is a highly unstructured city.”

How important is architecture for you?
“I enjoy looking at buildings, but I wouldn’t call myself an amateur of architecture.”

Still, the Downtown project seems to be about the architecture of Beirut.
“This area has been rebuilt over and over, and what you see no wit primarily new buildings. Empty, grey and common. You don’t have to be an architect to see that there’s something wrong. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere as I experienced it. I wanted to slowly photograph the neighbourhood, to document what was missing. I believe in the importance of preserving cultural heritage. In that a city should be built in a way that includes everyone, not just the rich. Downtown Beirut has been built by the richt who do not seem to care about the city’s history, when I feel the most charming part of Beirut’s architecture are the old French buildings. I have seen loads of old pictures and it’s really mind blowing to compare the mto what this part of town is looking like nowadays. It is quite evident cultural heritage isn’t a priority for the people who are leading the reconstruction of the inner city. Beirut seems to be losing her identity, when the history is so interesting. It is sad.”

In what why does Beirut differ from Oslo?
“What’s lacking in Lebanon is a functional political structure. This is why the list of cultural differences is just endless, but it didn’t take me long to adjust to Lebanese culture. The hospitality of the Lebanese and the liveliness of Beirut is something unique and the country has a lot to offer. Something I never got accustomed to, is the enormous number of guns one sees in everywhere.”

How was it to live in Beirut?
“Despite the overwhelming presence of armed groups, my life there was very relaxed. I cycled a lot, travelled a lot all over the country and meanwhile worked on personal photography projects and worked as a freelance photographer. But it is terrible to see the desperate situation. Many things aren’t working as they should. In my opinion religion and politics shouldn’t mix. It causes a lot of problems in every country.”

Dit artikel verscheen op 29 april 2014 op al.arte.magazine.