Written by William Dobson
Sugar Street review has been going for more than two months now and, while there is so much culture from the region making it to the shores of our green and pleasant land, we thought it time to head back out to the Middle East. It’s been three years since my last visit to Beirut and four since I was based in the Levant on a more permanent basis. Much has changed since then and there’s a certain irony that, after one rather intoxicating visit to the party capital of the Middle East, we were greeted on our return to Damascus by the news that Hamra, where we had based ourselves for the weekend, had been taken over by Hezbollah. Now, by some glitch, short-lived say many of the locals, for pretty much the first time since the early 70s, Lebanon is the safe haven of the region (with the exception of their driving); stable and welcoming, a stark contrast to the atrocities occurring in neighbouring Syria.
Like a starfish that regenerates its arms when cut off, so Lebanon keeps regenerating after every war, invasion or revolution which threatens its lifeblood. Surely there can be no place on earth which has so much in so small an area; beautiful climate, sandy beaches, skiing to rival any resort in Europe a mere 45 minute drive from the nation’s capital, a vibrant, eclectic and unique night life, wonderful food (both local and international), a rich cultural heritage, and home to one of the most attractive races on earth. Beirut itself, through all its troubles, remains the jewel of the region and, now, 22 years on from the end of the Civil War, has the potential to become the haven it once was in the 1960s; the vibe more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern.
As such, cranes dominate the skyline, a sign of the reconstruction and redesigning of the city, particularly Downtown, which is turning it into everything that Dubai, so culturally moribund, has tried and failed to become. Five star hotels which were there before the war, such as the magnificent Phoenicia, have reopened in all their glory and remain in keeping with the city’s ethos and charm. Furthermore, more recent offerings such as the Moevenpick, with its own private beach and, in particular Le Gray, a boutique located in the heart of Martyrs’ Square, are tasteful and resplendent. Zeitounay Bay, a waterfront boulevard next to the marina which opened this year, epitomises the new image of Beirut; stylish, chic and modern with bars, cafés and restaurants serving everything from shasimi to shisha.
Of course, some things will always remain the same and areas such as Hamra, home to students, international journalists and Western tourists, is the perfect example. Bliss Street offers a wonderful juxtaposition. The American University of Beirut (AUB), founded back in 1866 sits on the one side, looking like something straight out of Orange County, with elegantly modern buildings, leafy passageways and views of the ocean. On the other are open shop fronts selling manaeesh, freshly cooked on a saj topped with za’atar, jibneh or nutella. Meanwhile, the delightful scents of flavoured tobacco, mixed with burning charcoal, freshly brewed coffee and jasmine, redolent of spring, waft down the street. Elsewhere, the eclectic mix of French, Ottoman and Arab architecture, often seen simultaneously, reflects the cultural influences on the city.
And while Solidere, founded by former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and responsible for the development of Downtown may be doing its best to invigorate the city (not to everyone’s pleasure), archaic laws still render many of the buildings as telling reminders of past turmoil. Bullet holes are still ubiquitous, while old rent, a system whereby tenants who remained in flats before the war have had their rent frozen – bearing in mind that the US Dollar was then worth two Lebanese Pounds compared to 1,500 now – leaves little incentive for landlords to maintain their properties. Moreover, with no expiration laws on ownership, houses abandoned by those that left the country remain just that. With the diaspora spread all around the globe (there are over twice as many Lebanese living outside the country than there are inside) and the deeds passed on to the various members of the next generations, they’ll stay that way for some time to come.
The most obvious example is the infamous Holiday Inn. Unveiled as the largest and most luxurious hotel in the Middle East back in 1974, it was open for just a year before the outbreak of the war, when its central location made it the focal point for the various fighting factions. After being subjected to siege after siege, it now stands as a gutted, hollow yet impressive monument to Lebanon’s history, although not one that is cherished by the locals. With the exception of the removal of the sign, at the hotel company’s request, the shell will remain until the Kuwaiti Emir who owns the building hands over the deeds to the government.
Martyrs’ Square, too, acts as a stark reminder of atrocities past. A revolt against the Ottoman rulers in 1916 resulted in many intellectuals and nationalists being hanged there, while the bronze statue, erected in 1960 to commiserate the event, is now riddled with bullets holes and further damage from the war. The site of mass protests during the 2005 Cedar Revolution, after Hariri’s death, is flanked with swanky bars, a virgin megastore, Roman ruins and the magnificent Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, completed in 2008 when Hariri’s son, Saad, finished off the project started by his father. Just a short walk away you can see a memorial where Rafik, and 22 others, were killed by a huge car bomb.
Of course, the most memorable part of any visit to the Middle East is always the food. As a resident of Damascus, where the restaurants are largely limited to local cuisine, trips to Beirut would afford us the opportunity to sample more international fare. This time, however, I made the effort to discover the true delights of Lebanese cooking. From more formal and elegant settings such as Karam in Downtown, to cheap kebab joints, such as Barbar, they, almost always, exceeded expectation. Other particular highlights included Armenian eatery Seza’s Bistro; Tawlet, a cooperative venture dishing up regional, organic food; and Boubouffe, one of the few places where they grill their shawarma meat with charcoal instead of gas. Since my last visit, sushi has also taken over the city in a massive way, the Lebanese embracing the diet of raw fish on a scale perhaps only seen, outside of Japan, in the US.
Any trip to Beirut wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the buzzing nightlife that the city offers, with the assortment of trendy, down and out bars and pubs on Gemayze Street, the student vibe of Hamra and the more upmarket offerings of Monot and various hotels. The standout of this trip was a night spent in the Music Hall, an old cinema converted into a cabaret theatre with a mix of local and foreign acts while Grand Cafe, serving argileh with views over the Mediterranean until 5 in the morning, was a more traditional experience. Add in a couple of days skiing and an afternoon sampling the wonderful wines at Chateau Ksara’s lovely vineyard in the Bekaa Valley and it ended up being a pretty memorable trip.
Anyway, watch out in the features section where we’ll be bringing you a more detailed synopsis of what to do when you next make your way to this fascinating, complicated but hedonistic city! The region’s stability always seems somewhat precarious, emphasised by our encounter with a waiter, originally from Homs, who had spent six months in a Syrian prison having already lost his brother in the fighting. For now though at least, Beirut is at peace and I can’t think of many better places I’d rather visit.