The thing is, Beirut is rarely what you expect it to be.
Let me explain. Last year, two photographers, one American and one Spanish, came to town to shoot stories I was writing. Their visits were practically back-to-back.
The first photographer, David, flew in from New York to shoot an architectural feature. He seemed a bit worried about his visit, so after dealing with a flurry of mildly panicked questions about whether shorts were permitted and if he would be able to have a cocktail in the evening (the answers respectively being ‘absolutely’ and ‘whenever, wherever’), I offered to pick him up from the airport. I asked him to send me a photograph so that I would be able to recognise him.
The smiling, fashionably dressed man in the photo was in his late 30’s with unruly hair and a large but carefully trimmed moustache. The nervous man I met at the airport still had that unruly hair and the fashionable dress sense but the lower half of his face was obscured by a bushy, untrimmed beard. The kind you see in Al-Qaeda videos. It didn’t look like he’d had it for long.
Three days and many photographs later, David and I were having coffee at one of the pavement cafes on Rue Maarad, in the heart of Beirut’s renovated city centre. The sun was setting, tingeing the decoratively elegant Ottoman-era sandstone buildings around us pink. As the call to prayer wafted up from the Omari mosque, it was joined by the sound of bells from the St George Orthodox cathedral, sending the flocks of starlings that roost in the Ficus trees around the 1930’s clock tower in Nijmeh Square wheeling across the purpling sky.
I looked over at David, who was scratching uncomfortably at his beard.
“Is that the trend in New York these days?” I asked, pointing at his impressive facial hair.
His face reddened but he didn’t reply.
“Don’t tell me you grew it to come to here?”
“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I thought it might make me look less conspicuous.”
“So,” I asked, surveying the cliques of flawlessly made-up women in skin-tight tops and Chanel suits and men with slick-backed hair, puffing on foot-long cigars, dressed in expensive looking Italian suits sitting at the tables around us, “how’s that working for you?”
The following morning, the beard was gone.
Two days later, the Spaniard arrived. It was Alejandro’s second visit. He’d come to shoot a story about Beirut’s legendary nightlife back in 2004 and he’d spent two weekends camped out at the Ibiza-style parties organised by beach resorts to the north and south of the capital, every summer.
His flight touched down at the same time as one coming in from Senegal, which is home to a large and wealthy community of Lebanese Shi’ites. The airport was packed with their relatives. Plenty but not all of the women were veiled, one or two were even wearing the distinctively un-Lebanese chadoor.
As Alejandro walked out of immigration and into the crowd waiting outside, he seemed to do a doubletake. Later, as we drove to his hotel in Hamra, I found out why.
“Has something changed?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“I don’t remember seeing so many veiled women last time I was here. Why is everyone looking so conservative?”
I was about to explain that, to borrow the clichéd observation so often made of the crowds strolling the city’s seafront promenade, in Beirut “you find women in mini-skirts right next to women in veils”, when Alejandro beat me to it.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m criticising. I know this is the Middle East. It’s just that Beirut reminds me so much of Spain that sometimes I forget this isn’t Europe.”
If visitors are unsure of where they are, they’re in good company. Beirutis are always complaining they don’t really know who they are either. Are they East? Are they West? Or are they somewhere else altogether? Is their city best embodied by the Ibizan beach culture of Jiye or the Republique Français pretensions of Ashrafiye? Is it the American campus culture of the universities in Ras Beirut or the Iranian-influenced chic of the Southern suburbs? In London, you may sometimes experience four seasons in a day but only in Beirut can you drive through four countries in 40 kilometres.
“Beirut is multiple,” is how Lebanese playwright Elie Karam puts it. “From the start, it’s always been open to the world. We’ve been part of so many different empires and each has left its mark. We’re nourished by eastern and western ideas, so we allow ourselves to have many different identities.”
These days, in this part of the world, that multiplicity makes Beirut all but unique. The Lebanese capital is the last gasp of the cosmopolitan civilisation that flourished around the Mediterranean for thousands of years, linking east and west through trade, ideas and temperament. It began with the Phoenicians, was strengthened by the Greeks and the Romans and continued to exist in assorted forms all the way through the Arab conquests and up until the end of the Ottoman Empire. The vast, basically borderless region that resulted, at times under the control of a single empire, at times controlled by several helps explains why for thousands of years, Beirut – and until a century ago, Alexandria, Istanbul and Haifa too - is so mixed, home to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Turkomen and Kurds.
Even today, Lebanon’s diversity isn’t unique in the Levant. Syria and Iraq both have as many different religious and ethnic communities. The difference is that in Lebanon, which has 18 officially recognised religious sects, each with its own governing body and personal code of law, everyone is a minority. So unlike in Syria or Iraq, no single community has ever able to dominate. At least not for long. As a result, Beirutis have never had to grow used to being told what to think, what to say, what to wear or how to live their lives and while the balance between the communities isn’t always stable, over the centuries the Lebanese have learned to create a society that, within limits, allows everyone to live the way they please.
You want to live a conservative, religiously oriented lifestyle? You can. You want to dance until dawn and frolic half-naked in the surf? You can do that too. And if no one is required to approve, no one is required to disapprove either.
Beirut’s liberty is born from the hard-won understanding that if you start imposing your vision of life on others, one day, those others might be in a position to do the same to you. As such, the city’s unofficial motto - and remarkably, this remains true even when things go wrong - might as well be ‘live and let live’, or at least, ‘you live the way you want to over there and I’ll live the way I want to live over here’.
It is these wildly different visions of life that give the city its ferocious edge. As they rub up against each another, sparks fly, adding an effervescence to everyday encounters. Combine this with Beirut’s luminous light, sweetness of life, beautiful people, fantastic food and its constant state of physical and psychological flux and you have a city so seductive that you feel impelled to stick around, if only to see what will happen next.
These days, a lot more people are doing exactly that. Only four years after a disastrous 34-day war between the Islamist militia Hezbollah and Israel, which devastated large swathes of the country and briefly took Lebanon back to the darkest days of its troubled past, Beirut has emerged as the hottest travel destination of the year.
Barely a week goes by without a glowing article in the New York Times, a listing in Travel & Leisure or a restaurant review in Le Figaro for in 2010, with tourists pouring in from all over, the only battle in Beirut is to get past the velvet rope at Skybar, to snag a rooftop reservation at White or to land yourself a corner suite at Le Gray, British hotelier Gordon Campbell-Gray’s sumptuous boutique hotel, right in the heart of the newly restored downtown.
“I’m not sure what I think of all the fuss,” Maria Hibri tells me. She’s part owner of Bokja, a chic furniture boutique specialising in re-upholstering classic, mid-century furniture in dramatic embroidered fabrics from Central Asia and beyond. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s fantastic that so many people want to come to Beirut. I’m glad we’re getting rid of our scary reputation. I just hope we’ll still be as popular when the magazines decide somewhere else has become the hip, new destination.”
Barring any surprises – something that Beirut cannot guarantee – the city’s future looks bright. Le Gray, with its deft blend of 1950’s Beirut and 21st Century elegance, rooftop restaurant, bar and infinity pool overlooking the French Mandate buildings of the city centre, the Byzantine remains of old Berytus, assorted historic mosques and churches, Mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean, may have become the face of Brave New Beirut but it isn’t the city’s sole source of glamour.
After years of stagnation, the recent stability, coupled with a financial boom – Lebanon’s conservative banking practices shielded it from the worst of the global downtown - means Beirut is not only awash with tourists, it’s also awash with cash and hundreds of new projects.
The souks, destroyed during the civil war and delayed for over a decade afterwards, have finally reopened and if the shopping options are a little more high-end than they used to be, they’re becoming a popular place to wander around or stop for a coffee.
The restaurant scene, a major part of life in a country with such a rich a varied culinary tradition has begun to evolve as newcomers like Kamal Mouzawak, the force behind the city’s weekly farmer’s market and Tawlet, a very contemporary restaurant that showcases village cooking and Joe Barza, a chef who has made his name with by subtly reworking dishes that have essentially been cooked the same way for a millennia, introduce new flavours and combinations. Higher up the food chain, a number of Michelin-starred chefs are set to open outposts in the downtown. To date Joel Robuchon, Yannick Alleno and Antoine Westermann are confirmed and two others are rumoured to be in discussions. Nor will impatient diners have to wait long. Westermann’s Relais Foch opens later this year, as does Mourad Mazouz’s new restaurant and lounge, which will occupy 1200, square metres of prime rooftop in the souks while Robuchon and Alleno’s restaurants should be finished by summer 2011.
Hotels too, are flooding in. Beirut has suffered chronic seasonal shortages of hotel beds for the last 3 years but after the massive success of the long-delayed and eagerly-anticipated Le Gray, other hoteliers, foreign and Lebanese, are rushing to join the fray.
Equally, although Spanish architect Rafael Moneo is the most prominent name to have built in the city centre for the moment – he was responsible for the downtown souks - Jean Nouvel, Steven Holl and Kevin Dash are already at work on their projects, while Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster are jockeying for the chance to build something as well and if not everyone approves – the construction boom has almost been as destructive to Beirut’s architectural heritage as the years of civil war – the lack of space and the ever-rising demand for apartments means that for Beirut, the only way is up.
Then, of course, there are the clubs. On rooftops, in basements, in ancient, vaulted sandstone chambers, in brand new glass and steel cubes, bars, clubs and lounges are everywhere. The most exclusive, like White or Skybar, voted the best bar in the world in 2008, require reservations a month in advance (unless you know the doorman or the manager, anyway) but as a night out in Beirut involves a constant migration from bar to bar, who really has the time to sit in one place anyway? This is why the buzz in Gemmayze, a once quite, traditional neighbourhood on the eastern side of Beirut, is so intense. With dozens of small bars, pubs and restaurants to choose from, Gemmayze makes bar-hopping almost compulsory and as easy as going from one door to the next. Hamra, Monot and the Downtown have their adherents too and if Gemmayze is mostly about the 30-something, Hipster crowd, who are also beginning to spill over into the neighbouring district of Mar Mikhayel, which is rougher, readier and edgier than bourgeois Gemmayze, Monot attracts their younger, rowdier twentysomething counterparts, Hamra draws a mix of students and the middle aged and is home to Beirut’s two main gay bars, Bardo and Wolf, while the Downtown is for big spenders, Gulf tourists and older Europeans.
Wherever you go, expect to start late – few places get busy much before midnight – and to carry on well after dawn. Weekends are European, meaning the big nights out are Friday and Saturday but during the summer, it’s almost non-stop with the weekend starting on Wednesday and ending on Tuesday.
Outside observers often ascribe Beirut’s appetite for life to a post-war desire to dance away the destruction. That’s probably true in part. But in this ruggedly mountainous country where it is possible to attend a wedding above the cloud line without ever leaving the ground, where even rampantly ugly development cannot disguise the incredible beauty of the Mediterranean coastline and the sunset routinely out-psychedelicizes the most purple of hazes, glamour is the only sensible response to such surroundings.
This is why regardless of what they actually earn, Beirutis are united by their love of looking good. This is the kind of city that understands that some people need to buy a lipstick in instalments and where people who can’t really afford it will save for months to get their Gucci. Hairdressers are cheap enough that some women still go several times a week and while life is becoming gradually more expensive, a trip to the tailor still does not depend on earning a salary capable of taking on Saville Row.
The emphasis is very much on looking smart. The unironed look is taken as evidence that you are lazy, not laid-back and while it is easy to appear under-dressed, it is almost impossible to be over-dressed. This is not the kind of city that goes in for Casual Fridays and does not believe the answer to bad hair is a baseball cap. Even a quick trip to the corner store means dressing up – not in anything designer, mind you - but certainly no tracksuits either. No wonder then that the streets feel more like catwalks.
Beirutis are often dismissed as superficial – usually by their less stylish, envious Arab bretheren - but it’s an accusation they often level, with a laugh, at themselves. Tell them that they live beyond their means and few would disagree. Lebanon is a country that first discovered the pleasure of depending on its Diaspora when the Phoenician Princess Elissar set sail for North Africa, founded Carthage and began filling Tyre’s coffers with gold. Today, the tradition continues. There are Lebanese almost everywhere in the world and the billions they send home have helped keep the country afloat.
“There’s a joke in the Arabian Gulf that the Lebanese are beggars living like oil millionaires,” my friend Lina told me shortly after she moved back to Lebanon a few years ago. She’s a journalist, married to an architect who used to be based in Abu Dhabi, a city she lived in for 5 years but never really learned to like. “There’s some truth to that but in our defence, at least we aren’t oil millionaires living like camel traders.”
This constant process of reinvention, born in equal parts of experimentation and destruction, explains why Beirut doesn’t feel old even though it’s been around for the better part of 5,000 years. “She has died and been reborn a thousand times,” is how Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni put it in her love song to her hometown.
To get a better appreciation of Beirut’s storied past, tour the lovely cappuccino-coloured National Museum, with its small but beautifully-curated collection of artefacts or if you prefer your history al fresco, wander the freshly-scrubbed streets of the city centre - the whole of the historic city until well into the 19th Century – where you will find remainders of the city’s Phoenician origins, of its millennia under Greek, Roman and Byzantine rule as well as beautiful sandstone buildings that date back to the Umayyad, Crusader, Mamluke and Ottoman periods.
But let’s get one thing straight. Tueni’s romantic vision aside, Beirut is not a ‘phoenix’ rising from the ashes. It is no longer ‘war-torn’ even if to fresh eyes, it is still visibly battle-scarred. Nor is it some ‘Paris’ of the Middle East. Beirut has always been far more thrilling than that sombre city on the Seine. It isn’t West or East. It isn’t Muslim or Christian. Existing between the lines and outside boxes, Beirut is a city of paradox, where everything is possible, even when many things are not necessarily permitted, a bastion of experimentalism but only because no one is satisfied with what already exists, an arena of free speech but mostly because no one, however heavily-armed, has been able to make the Lebanese hold their tongues. It is a laboratory for the Arab World, the place where new ideas are tried on for size and then accepted, rejected or more often, subtly Lebanized, in order to make them palatable to the country and later, to the region.
This status as cultural, social, political and intellectual portal is why although it is a city of just 1.8 million, Beirut packs a punch that is felt across the entire Middle East. Cairo may be more powerful, Dubai wealthier and Damascus more courted but none of them are as innovative, exciting or as revolutionary as Beirut.
“My city is like an old prostitute and I really don’t mean that in some cheap or pejorative way,” Fadi Mogabgab says as he shows me around his gallery in an Art Nouveau building not far from the bars and restaurants of Gemmayze. “She has all this history, all those stories, thousands of years of experience and yet she’s so full of life and energy that she can still wear the most energetic teenager out. Imagine spending the night with someone like that. Wouldn’t it be the most wonderful night of your life? It’s a city where you feel alive all the time.”
Visibly different from month to month, the world’s oldest capital city is all about eternal rebirth. Effervescent, intoxicating, warm, welcoming, crazy and chaotic and, why not, even a little surreal, Beirut is re-clad and ready to go and all she needs is your affection and admiration. So bring her your preconceptions, your prejudices and your fears. Bring them but come ready to have them all blown away for Beirut, harsh mistress and generous benefactress, is everything you never expected and more. Oh, and don’t forget to tell her how fabulous she looks.
Originally Published in 2010 in DestinAsian Magazine
Photo© Jason Michael Lang