To be Lebanese is to be many things. Lubnan is the mountain, the valley and the sea. The cedar, the pine and the almond. Maronites and Alawites, Sunni and Shi’a, Coptic and Greek Catholic. When such diversity calls a place home, anything can happen but – more importantly – anyone can belong.
Stacker stormed off across the street and down another side road and I found myself lagging behind. I squeezed through the only gap in the cars parked bumper to bumper against the curb and tried to thread my way through a line of stationary traffic to follow him. A queue of cars was blocking the intersection and the air was screaming with the honks of the frustrated motorists.
The light was green for pedestrians to cross but, as they saw me trying to do so, the cars inched closer to each other to block my way. As I was looking for a way through, a blockage ahead freed up and the traffic lurched forward, tyres squealing as they passed inches from my feet and not one driver had the courtesy to spare me a glance, let alone the two seconds it would have taken to let me cross the narrow street.
“Arrrgh!” I vented out loud. “I f**cking HATE this f**cking place!”
My outburst earned me an evil look from a young student also trying his luck on the crossing. I glared back but at least had the decency to feel a little ashamed.
What I didn’t suspect then was that, if that same student were to cross paths with me a mere month later, he’d encounter someone who has completely the opposite view. A person who now has a large place in her heart reserved for Beirut, its people (when they’re not behind the wheel!) and its mother country, Lebanon, the so-called land of milk and honey.
During those first few days, Beirut was pretty much a jungle to us. Despite the fact that both my mother and Stacker’s grandfather are from Lebanon, neither of us had been there before and we had just a few snatches of reminisces to guide our expectations. However, because of our family ties to the country, we did find we had a ready-made support network to cushion our landing.
Stacker’s uncle generously hosted us in an apartment that he owns in Achrafieh, already saving us the pain of trying to find a place to stay for a month. Two of his cousins also live in Beirut. One of them, Blondie (a nickname, I hasten to add, that was not invented by me!), scooped us up at the airport and began our Beirut initiation by taking us directly to the Sporting Club, a private beach (albeit an extremely rocky one) that has a restaurant where you can eat mezze and freshly caught fish while smoking a shisha and taking in the view out onto the Mediterranean sea.
“Where do you go if you wanna hang with the Snoop? Beirut, Lebanon. Where do all the party people go to have a good time? Beirut, Lebanon,” – Snoop Dogg, 2009
We capped off our first day with some bar-hopping in the popular Gemmayze area, where Blondie introduced us to the Dou Dou shot – a cloudy concoction of lemon juice, vodka and tabasco sauce with an olive bobbing around the bottom of the glass. The Dou Dou is a Beirut rite of passage, but if you ask for it anywhere else you’ll probably just get a funny look. It is also as polarising as Marmite – you either love it or hate it and, assuming the former, you probably won’t stop at just one. With that in mind it’s perhaps no wonder we were in such a terrible mood the following day as we grid-searched Hamra for my mum’s mythical restaurant. We never did find it until, two weeks later, we stumbled across it by accident.
The transport puzzle
The total lack of addresses – or should I say the lack of popular use of official addresses – is part of what makes the city so intimidating at first. Instead of giving an address, which no one would know anyway, locations are simply described by giving their general area and orientation relative to a known landmark. A website for a restaurant or shop may simply state “Opposite the Commodore Hotel” or “Achrafieh, behind Spinney’s”. Which is fine – if you know where the Commodore Hotel is or have any idea what the hell “Spinney’s” is.
Once you’ve figured out where a place may be, getting there is another challenge. Public transport seems to be somewhat of a dirty word in Beirut and it seems anyone with the means to own a car uses it almost exclusively over any other method of transport. And that includes after having one too many Dou Dous. At around 3am, the streets of Beirut are the traffic equivalent of the Wild Wild West: red means green and seatbelts are for wimps.
Not having heeded Blondie’s advice of renting a car, we tried to initiate ourselves slowly by taking a taxi on our first trip from Achrafieh to Hamra. We couldn’t believe our luck when we flagged a taxi right outside our apartment.
The driver rolled down the window. “Taxi, Taxi.” he said. “Yes!” we said and jumped in. We told him our destination. He turned around and repeated, “Taxi,taxi.”
“Sure, sure” we replied, laughing to ourselves and thinking, does he think we don’t know what a taxi is?
Ten minutes and 15000LL ($10) later we were starting to think that getting around in this fashion was going to become unfeasibly expensive. We certainly weren’t expecting prices comparable to London taxis but we clearly hadn’t done our research so we were totally at the mercy of the unmetered taxi.
Later that evening we met with some of my mum’s friends from when she was growing up in Beirut. In addition to spending a lovely evening hearing fascinating stories over homecooked kebbeh, they shared with us the most important piece of the Beirut transportation puzzle – the concept of the “service”.
It turns out if you hail a taxi on a big intersection and say “Service” you can get to most places for a flat fee of just under $1.50. The catch is the taxi will also stop and pick up other people going in the same direction as you. It means your driver may be constantly slowing down searching for other fares and you’re likely to get dropped at the nearest big intersection rather than right at your destination, but at one fifth of the regular taxi price one can’t really complain. Besides, it often makes for entertaining rides depending on your co-passengers.
Once we’d nailed the taxis we graduated onto the buses, which turned out to be mainly privately-owned minibuses, usually driven by a couple of young men and often decorated with memorabilia relating to their Premier League football team of choice. In a way even better than a traditional bus system, the minibuses will stop to pick up or drop you off anywhere along their route. They’re often crammed to the rafters, mainly with the working classes and students, and air conditioning consists of leaving the sliding door gaping open. At maximum capacity seats can be folded out over the aisle and, if someone in the back wants to get out, all the passengers must shuffle around like a game of human Unblock Me.
The first time we successfully hailed a minibus and actually made it home we felt unduly proud of ourselves. It was like the city was slowly opening up to us. After a week or two we realised that we’d started to recognise enough landmarks to be able to understand most central addresses. Being able to navigate around took away the lost in the jungle feeling. Soon we also started becoming accustomed to the special vocabulary of the city – phrases like “The Green Line”, “Solidere” and “Neighbours to the South” were no longer gibberish.
Eventually, we began to see the invisible lines drawn in the city, not just between richer and poorer areas but between the various religious communities. I started to realise that when people ask where in Beirut my mother grew up, what they were really asking is “What religion are you?” Often people we met were very interested in finding out about our roots and trying to see if we had connections in common. Amazingly, a couple of times the line of questioning succeeded. Our Baalbek tour guide turned out to have gone to university – and many student protests – with my uncle back in the 1970s.
When the older of Stacker’s cousins started to ask about my family we started to sweat. What if we found a relation in common? We breathed a sigh of relief when his inquiries turned up nothing. It wasn’t until we were in France, a month later, that the connection was made as I was meeting Stacker’s uncle (whose apartment we’d stayed in in Beirut) and his wife, Stacker’s aunt by marriage.
On hearing my mother’s family name, Stacker’s aunt did a double take. She asked me a few more questions and then declared that we were cousins. Or rather, my great-grandfather and her grandfather were cousins. It was a bolt from the blue as I realised that I had been hanging out with Stacker’s cousins who are also, via their mother, my cousins too (albeit more distantly).
Just in case you haven’t followed all the family tree talk – no this doesn’t mean I am related to Stacker!
Anyway, back in Beirut, Stacker and I were settling in and starting to feel less out of place. We got into a routine of ordering a ‘mannakish cocktail’ from the local baker in the morning and then frequenting Hamra’s studenty cafes to get work done while smoking a shisha and grumbling about the poor internet connection.
We explored the city, went skidooing in the Faraya ski resort, swam in the (chilly in March!) Mediterranean, drove to the Bekaa Valley for history and wine and to Byblos for seafood. We discovered that Beirutis know how to live big, for lack of a better expression, and it’ll take some practice and plenty of energy to keep up with them.
We made a few sorties into the legendary party scene but, being total scruffs, we never managed to get totally comfortable with the glitziness of much of it. Nevertheless, we soon found the restaurants and bars for the likes of us – or at least those that didn’t make us feel too underdressed and under-botoxed.
We were also somewhat uneasy with the very visible and very tooled-up military and police presence, especially around the highly-fortified area we were living in, but we took it as a fact of Beirut life and quickly learned not to try and photograph this particular aspect of it! I found it almost amusing when we’d come across a camouflaged guard-post, draped in fake vegetation as if that would prevent us from seeing it rather than making it stick out like a giant green thumb in a grey cityscape.
Being able to speak both French and English seemed to help with integrating ourselves and communicating with the locals, especially as conversations would regularly flit between languages. I noticed that I was more comfortable speaking French with the Lebanese than I am with most French people – probably because I learned my French from a Lebanese mother but mostly because they wouldn’t even blink if I switched mid-sentence to English whenever my vocabulary failed me. We soon found, though, that we only spoke half the number of languages as many of the people we met.
Being trilingual (English, French & Arabic) seems to be the norm for those with an equivalent level of education to us and only if you speak more than three languages would you be considered to be above average, linguistically speaking. It has to be said, however, that that education generally didn’t come cheaply.
During our stay we were treated to a visit of the American University of Beirut campus, which can only be described as an oasis in the madness that is the Hamra district. Set high on a hillside that slopes down to the Mediterranean sea, the views were spectacular. A vast swathe of exotic flora and fauna to rival botanical gardens around the world wound its way down the hill, around the stately buildings, past the sports fields and almost all the way to the university’s very own private beach. Students sat tranquilly on benches, reading under the shade of the trees. I didn’t dare to ask the price tag attached to a semester.
After seeing what money can build in the city, it was clear how acutely other parts of the city suffered from the lack of it – or at least the mis-management of it. Bullet-ridden buildings and traffic-clogged, pot-holed roads are very much part of everyday life. Amazingly, the power goes out for up to three hours every day, adding the running of a back-up generator to the cost of living.
Rigid inheritance and rental laws – dare I say it, a hangover from the French mandate? – stand in the way of regeneration in many areas. Houses belonging to long-departed Lebanese remain empty but cannot be purchased without tracking down and gaining consent from every single descendent of the original owner. More bizarrely, some renters still pay “old rents”, dating from before inflation and before the Lebanese Lira was tied to the dollar. Since homeowners are prohibited from increasing rents by more than a certain percentage, there are many people who pay a fraction of a dollar in rent each month. The right to this “old rent” can also be passed down generations.
Little wonder that these homeowners don’t feel like making any repairs to their homes and so it’s not unusual to find a house like this:
opposite a house like this (indeed, these two were in fact on the same street):
A controversial regeneration
Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister before he was assinated in 2005, had a bash at tackling the problem and launched a controversial regeneration of the war-torn downtown area, a project known as Solidere, by using enforced buyouts and applying heavy pressure to clear out the residents.
The results include the beautifully restored homes of Saifi village that have been mainly snapped up as holiday homes for Lebanon’s oil-rich neighbours, resulting in somewhat of a luxury ghost town; the new Beirut Souks mall, the space for which was created by razing the old souks to the ground; and the glitzy Zaytouna Bay, a waterfront promenade-cum-yacht-club where plastic surgery, outsized glasses and designer-clad babies are ubiquitous – along with the accompanying nannies, wearing nurse uniforms so one can’t confuse them for ‘madame’.
As with any drastic change, the Solidaire project is both celebrated and deeply unpopular depending on who you ask.
At the end of the Zaytouna Bay promenade, the shell of the Saint George Hotel holds out defiantly. The owner was miffed that the new marina would steal his own yacht club business and he refused to clear out to make way for Solidare. A protracted legal battle ensued, during which Hariri used every trick in the book to prevent the once-glamourous hotel from refurbishing, having been gutted during the war, and reopening. The hotel still stands empty, one side draped with an enourmous “Stop Solidere” banner, the other side ripped open by the same bomb that killed Hariri.
On my part, I can certainly appreciate the tasteful restorations, keeping many original features, made in Saifi and I definitely enjoyed smoking a shisha while people-watching in Zaytouna Bay. But I have to wonder, after having turned downtown into a rich man’s playground, what’s been done for the non-luxury side of the market, for the improvement of the day-to-day life of normal citizens – assuming, of course, that not all Lebanese are rich and glamourous!
We met incredible, creative, talented and energetic people everywhere we went in Lebanon. It angers me that this potential is dampened by the need to live with daily power outages and internet connectivity that is ranked amongst the worst in the world.
It’s also hard to view a city with no obvious municipal transport as anything less than crippled. Call me rigid, but the fact that the transport vacuum must be filled by enterprising young people driving crammed vehicles that are just barely roadworthy is criminal.
Lebanon has it all – the sea and its accompanying trade links, mountains, natural resources and natural beauty, agriculture and the gift of a water supply it doesn’t have to share with another country. It is rich in culture and diversity. Dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” for its cafe culture, openness towards the arts and its anything-goes attitude, it was also once known as the “Switzerland of the East” for its relaxed banking regulations.
Then it was brutally torn apart during the civil war and, more recently, by Israeli bombings that were uncannily precise at targeting important business links – bridges, roads, the airport and a dairy farm that had recently won a contract from them – along with the military targets.
Yet I don’t think I am alone in thinking that, despite these misfortunes, there is still a massive chunk of potential well within reach that has not been embraced or, perhaps, re-embraced since its prosperous heyday in the 1960s.
…permit it at last to be, after having so well and truely been. – Samir Kassir, 2003
Lebanon should be a major tourist destination – and not just for rich Emiratis – as well as a major business hub and trading route linking Europe to the Middle East. Neither the government, the population, the army nor the religious institutions – or whoever the hell is in charge here – have succeeded, whether though lack of power or will, in providing the stability and infrastructure required for any of these concepts to be fully realised, nor in punishing the corruption and in-fighting that stands in their way.
Then again, I don’t claim to have anything more than an outsider’s limited experiences to draw these conclusions from and, indeed, which nation amongst us doesn’t have problems?
What cannot be disputed is that it is a truly special place. Few who visit will fail to see that and all who visit are warmly welcomed.
- If you visit Beirut, a great starting point is to take the inspirational Ronnie Chatah’s walking tour (Walk Beirut).
- If you need a place to work, check out AltCity – a space for coworking and events – and meet the creative young Beirutis who are advancing the social agenda. Just don’t ask the founders what they have to pay for their better-than-average internet connection; you may just cry.
- You can read my experiences of Lebanese food in Unexpected Delights and of a day trip to the Bekaa Valley in Malbec & Baalbek.
- Get a more informed viewpoint in the History of Beirut by Samir Kassir.