Havana to Beirut: Architectures of nostalgia, aesthetics of ruin

Why does Havana evoke memories of Beirut?

A building in Havana, Cuba
As my stay in Havana progressed, I was struck by the increased frequency with which my movements through the city triggered flashbacks to Beirut, writes Fernandez [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

I spent the month of February in Havana, Cuba, where – before a bloody run-in with a hole in the pavement put a temporary halt to the arrangement – I went for daily jogs on the Malecón, the city’s iconic seaside promenade. Each morning, I passed an elegantly crumbling building that, without fail, threw me through a psycho-geographical loop as I became momentarily convinced that I was in fact in Beirut – one of my regular pre-pandemic stomping grounds and a metropolis that boasted its own iconic seaside promenade and fair share of holes in the pavement.

This particular building evoked the Lebanese capital for various reasons, not only its colonial-style architecture and Ottoman-esque windows but also the fact that one of its sections was fully collapsed – a common architectural repercussion in the formerly relentlessly celebrated “Paris of the Middle East”. Following its so-called “golden age” in the mid-20th century, Beirut had gone on to host, inter alia, a 15-year civil war (1975-90), brutal Israeli military assaults backed by the United States, vast post-war demolitions in the interest of historical amnesia and ever-savage elite enrichment, and the Beirut port explosion of August 2020. In that final landmark event, a significant portion of the city and numerous inhabitants were blown up thanks to wilful state negligence – a form of war in its own right.

In Havana, itself incidentally once dubbed the “Paris of the Caribbean”, contemporary warfare has primarily consisted of the longstanding de facto US war on Cuba. This began in the wake of the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution, which spelled the tragic end to imperial plunder of the island under the charitable supervision of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista – who, as US author TJ English puts it in Havana Nocturne – relied on “torture squads” as well as “government-sanctioned terrorism”.

An October 2020 Reuters article specified that, in the aftermath of the Revolution, the Cuban state “confiscated many of Cuba’s grand historic buildings and distributed them to poor and middle-class families” – especially in Havana, where the “eclectic mix of colonial, neoclassical, baroque and Art Deco buildings are considered among the architectural jewels of Latin America”.

While the article credits “communist rule” with having long saved these edifices from the “urban developer’s bulldozer”, structural disrepair has been inevitable thanks to a confluence of factors that include the Cuban climate and an ever-intensifying US embargo – which just celebrated its 60th anniversary of creating widespread shortages of everything from milk to construction materials. Despite the charm that is seemingly undeniably exuded by certain types of dilapidation – as documented by many a camera-wielding visitor to the one-time Parises of both the Caribbean and the Middle East – it can also be lethal. Reuters cites the demise of three girls who were crushed to death in January 2020 by a falling Havana balcony.

As my own stay in Havana progressed, I was struck by the increased frequency with which my movements through the city triggered flashbacks to Beirut – and not just on account of sheer physical resemblance, as was the case with the crumbling building on the Malecón. Rather, it appeared that both cityscapes intermittently elicited the same sort of romanticisation of decay and nostalgia for bygone eras – but eras that were, critically, marked by colonialism, imperialism, and huge injustice, which left me wondering whether my susceptibility to such nostalgic whims was itself a fundamentally morally compromised affair.

Human history, in general, has, of course, been one fairly continuous injustice – and injustice can, unfortunately, be intoxicating. For many people, the enduring magnetism of both Havana and Beirut has something to do with their historically recent service as venues of international glitz and glamour – places where socioeconomic inequity and other mundane issues mattered only insofar as they underscored the superior value of the earth’s ruling classes.

In Havana’s heyday, hedonism went down at the city’s nightclubs, casinos, hotels, and brothels – many of them affiliated with what TJ English terms “the Havana Mob”, the assorted US mafiosi who decided to make a killing in Cuba while the killing was good under US buddy Batista, the wannabe godfather of a Cuban “capitalist Shangri-La”. Nowadays, English notes, ubiquitous vintage American cars from the 1940s and 1950s complement the “flickering neon signs and air of insouciance that contribute to the city’s allure” – amounting to a “hallucinatory” effect in which, “on certain nights, it is as if the ghosts of the past are still alive, a spooky, spectral testament to the era of the Havana Mob”.

But spookiness is sometimes sexy, and in Beirut, too, the ghosts of the past are alive as ever – and not just in the current Lebanese political class. They can also be found in the city’s war-scarred façades and the lingering essence of that legendary pre-war Lebanese “joie de vivre”, an Orientalist cliché that more or less means flashy Western-style overconsumption in opulent establishments and was obviously only ever an option for those with the proper socioeconomic credentials. In the 1960s, the New York Times notes, Beirut was “a fashionable port of call” and Brigitte Bardot “was a regular”. And what do you know: as with the Cuban Revolution, the Lebanese civil war was itself triggered in no small part by colossal inequality.

Given the surplus of Orientalist musings inspired by Lebanon’s capital city over the years, it is no doubt fitting that Edward Said chose to commence his seminal book Orientalism with a tale about a French journalist who, reporting from Beirut at the start of the civil war, “wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to… the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval’”. Fast forward almost half a century, and perhaps we have simply tacked another layer of preconceived nostalgia and mystique onto our conception of what Beirut once was.

In her text Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag observes: “To find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.” And as the planet now hurtles towards self-inflicted capitalist destruction, it seems Havana and Beirut are two very fine landscapes indeed in which to contemplate the aesthetics of ruin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.