“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley
After a great Christmas in the real Paris, I decided to head off on a whim to the Paris of Middle East. It turns out that the Beirut’s old nickname is not far off the mark.
My first impression of Beirut was a unique one: nearly 90 minutes to get out of the airport, standing in long queues as every stamp in my passport was scrutinized by one agent, then a second, and then a third. They don’t seem to mess around with those who have stamps from Israel, with whom Lebanon remains officially at war.
Finally in a taxi, I quickly got over my initial pockmarked views on the drive into town from the airport and ultimately found an incredibly welcoming and beautiful city that lived up to its reputation as the region’s sophisticated party capital.
Beirut was the first city I ever visited where I saw a tank in the street. Soldiers and security guards seemed to be found every few yards — even more than in Cairo, a place where they crawling around everywhere — making the city feel incredibly safe (some might feel the opposite is true). One Cairo similarity: both cities have such oppressive, smog-choked air, that it’s nearly impossible to breathe.
Here, contrasting architecture abounds:
It’s hard to believe that for most of my lifetime Lebanon has been immersed in civil war. There are few signs of strife left in the streets, with most of Beirut having been rebuilt, flush with money from Europe and the Gulf. The city feels incredibly safe, with only the occasional vacant lot or bombed-out building to remind us of how things were:
The still-standing shell of the Holiday Inn, site of the 1975 “war of the hotels“:
For a language fanatic, Beirut is a dream. Every interaction in shops, restaurants and on the bustling streets is a melange of Arabic, English, and French (with all three often used in a single sentence!). I made use of all ten words in my Arabic vocabulary this trip (a simple shukran goes a long way), but having passable French made life easier. An English-only speaker would probably encounter no problems.
The impressive Al-Omari Mosque:
In contrast to the rest of the Arab world, gay life does indeed exist here! One day I lingered at Bardo, one of the gay bars highlighted in the 2009 New York Times article that described Beirut as the “Provincetown of the Middle East.” At lunchtime, I was the only person in the place. By late night, even on a weekday, the place was packed. In that piece, The Times wrote that “Beirut represents a different Middle East for some gay and lesbian Arabs: the only place in the region where they can openly enjoy a social life denied them at home.”
For a tourist, Beirut feels incredibly carefree — which seems even more incredible, given the city’s war-torn past and still-heightened security concerns. With its glittering downtown, spectacular Mediterranean climate, and its relatively liberal French-influenced attitude, living here seems good (certainly as long as you don’t happen to be one of the refugees living in camps on the southern fringes of the city).
Still, there is no denying that Beirut is in a bad neighborhood.
It was hard not to think, as I sat in the beautiful Place de L’Etoile enjoying a cappuccino and watching kids dance in the pedestrian-only streets, that just 60 miles to the east, the regime of Bashar al-Assad was carrying out unbelievable atrocities in Damascus.
All photos from Beirut