There's no better time to visit the Lebanese capital, a staggeringly diverse city that refuses to bow to any war, violence or turmoil.
Beirut is all things to all people
Can one be addicted to a place? If so, I think I'm a Beirut addict. Despite Iraqi heritage, I've been to the city 22 times since 2004 and my last fix was in June this year. I grew up with music from Fairouz, followed by Ragheb Alama and Majida Al-Roumi (my mum still claims I was a huge fan when I was only a toddler). I still watch the annual Miss Lebanon competition on LBC, and I even went on a strict "Lebanese diet" once that excluded hummous and croutons but consisted of lentil soup, salads and grilled chicken (with some exercise, I lost nine kilos).
For so many people of Arab descent, Beirut is the capital for everything in the wider Arab world: the cuisine, the fashion scene, music and the arts and nightlife. Yet its reach and influence stretches worldwide. It manages to be all things to all people, far more than just the Paris of the Middle East.
Yet Lebanon also has an understandable obsession with France. The country was once a French mandate, together with neighbouring Syria. As a result, the Lebanese have inherited their language (French is as popular as Arabic, the country's official language), their cuisine and, of course, the French way of enjoying life, its joie de vivre. Beirut has been proclaiming itself the Paris of the orient for half a century at least, mostly for marketing purposes (Paris is the world's most-visited city).
And by promoting its Parisian side, it has succeeded in attracting global attention. But the rebellious person that I am doesn't see Beirut as the other Paris. No, for me, Beirut is more than that - it's global. The thing that takes me back to Beirut, besides work, is the joyful and positive feel in the air: it has been through wars, terrorist attacks and sectarian violence, but people still party till early in the morning in Gemmayze and Achrafieh, the cafes are still filled in the downtown district and in Hamra, and the ski slopes and beach resorts still receive their guests. Beirut doesn't bend over for any war or crisis, and after each one of them, it only gets bigger and glitzier.
Beirut reminds me of Rome, Yerevan and Buenos Aires all at once. It has something of Istanbul and Tehran, a little bit of Rio de Janeiro and a piece of Madrid and Caracas. And Alexandra, my Venezuelan friend accompanying me on this trip, acknowledges that last part – the super--gorgeous model has Lebanese blood through her great-grandfather. So, we ask, does the Lebanese capital suffer from an identity crisis?
Yes and no, says Daniela Khoury, a Lebanese-Italian, Rome-born and Milan-based architecture student who we meet coincidentally during a daytime walk in Beirut’s downtown district.
“Beirut has always been a melting pot of different nationalities, cultures and religions,” she says. “The Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and the French all once ruled over this area. Separately, they brought with them new architectural styles, other languages, different cuisines, and built their own religious and cultural sites.”
Not to forget, I add, the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora – from Tokyo to Toronto, London to Lagos – have all, some way or other, contributed to Beirut’s forever-lasting development. And all of these factors, we agree, have made the Lebanese capital what it is today: a city with more than just one identity.
As we talk, Daniela takes us to the ruins of the Roman Baths (in downtown Beirut, behind Bank Street). “The Romans arrived here two millennia earlier than the French,” she says as we explore the ancient site of the city the Romans once called Berytus. “Look at Baalbeck (a town in the Bekaa valley). It has some of the largest and most beautiful Roman sites in the world.” The Roman Baths in Beirut were discovered in the 1960s and restored in the late 1990s. Today, remains of the brick vaults and columns that used to support the floors, allowing hot air to circulate, are still visible. The site is also used as a venue for various open-air concerts and events, mostly during the summer months.
After the unplanned – yet interesting – tour we receive from her, Daniela then convinces us to head to the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Beirut, which has several branches throughout Lebanon. (The head office of the Italian Cultural Centre is located on the ground floor of the Italian Embassy in the suburb of Baabda; visit www.iicbeirut.esteri.it for a schedule of future events). The centre organises, among other things, a broad range of cultural events in the fields of music, dance, cinema, literature, photography and fashion. Its library, which Daniela takes me to, has a well-stocked collection of books, and entrance is free. The Italians regularly hold painting exhibitions, too.
Two hours later, in accordance with her well-taught Lebanese hospitality, Daniela insists that we join her for lunch at her favourite spot in Beirut: La Parrilla (66 Saint Maron Street, Gemmayze; 00 961 1 5858 85), the most famous among the city’s Argentine restaurants. There, not coincidentally, I meet her two Argentine-born cousins, Claudia and Martina. They both visit Lebanon, their ancestral land, at least once every two or three years, they say, and although Buenos Aires is a world away, they always feel at home in Beirut.
“This is like Buenos Aires. The way people dress, the way they enjoy outdoor activities and, of course, the food,” explains Martina, 24, as we try churrasco and end our lunch with delicious fondant au chocolat.
“There’s even an annual Beirut International Tango Festival, in spring, at the American University in Beirut,” Claudia adds. As she talks, the tango music in the background together with the décor bring up memories of Madonna and Antonio Banderas in the movie Evita.
Alexandra and I say goodbye to the trio and head towards the northern suburbs of Beirut. As we leave downtown, I take a quick glance at the iconic, Ottoman-style Mohammed Al-Amin Grand Mosque in the central Martyrs Square. Commissioned by the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (who was assassinated two years before its completion and is now buried beside it), the mosque’s beautiful blue dome brings up images of Sultanahmet in Istanbul.
Around 12km later, on the road towards the northern coastal towns, near Zouq Mosbeh, a large statue of Jesus Christ on a hill evokes Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. “An almost exact copy,” our driver Yousef tells me. Maybe a Lebanese expat in Brazil brought the idea here, I respond. We quickly arrive at Casino du Liban (north-west of Beirut, in Maameltein, overlooking the Bay of Jounieh). The Monaco-styled venue is mostly associated with gambling but it also deserves to be visited for the variety of culinary, cultural and entertainment settings it offers. For more than five decades, the casino’s Salle des Ambassadeurs has hosted theatre and other cultural shows (visit www.cdl.com.lb).
The next day, after a long night at Casino du Liban, Alexandra decides to spend some time at the spa in the newly renovated Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel (my home in Beirut ever since my first visit back in 2004). Instead, I head to Al Dahiyah Al-Janubiyah (or simply, Al Dahiyah/Dahieh, meaning the southern suburb). Seeing women in mini-skirts and tops in Beirut is nothing out of the ordinary but in the city’s Shiite-inhabited quarter one might think they were in Tehran: chador-clad women, anti-American graffiti and larger-than-life posters of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Here, I meet Ghassan Ali, a local former journalist in his early thirties. During a tour of his apartment building, damaged during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, he explains more about Beirut’s identity crisis.
“Lebanon is a nation with tens of ethnic and sectarian groups who, despite the Civil War (1975-1991) and some other recent political tensions, still continue to coexist side by side, and they respect each others’ beliefs and origins – each group complements the other.
“But because of our diversity, which we are proud of, we have used different styles and influences in every corner of the country, not just in Beirut. That diversity is part of our heritage. Al Dahiyah doesn’t mind being the miniature version of Tehran, neither is Jounieh unhappy with its sophisticated French Riviera lifestyle. And we’re probably two totally different worlds, but only 20km apart.”
Today, nowhere in Beirut is as distinctive as Bourj Hammoud, my next destination. Referred to by many as the Armenian town, Bourj Hammoud is a mostly Armenian-inhabited neighbourhood. The area, north-east of the Lebanese capital, is today home to nearly 100,000 ethnic Armenian Christians who escaped genocide in their homeland almost a century ago. With its specialised shops and eateries, the area still has a distinct feel of Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
Armenian architecture, especially the churches, and the streets named after the cities in their -ancient homeland, are surprising features in the Arab-dominated Middle East. The district is also renowned for shoppers who seek cheap but rare artisan’s handicrafts, souvenirs, copper and brassware, all with an Armenian touch. Here, haggling is always allowed.
The most obvious difference between Bourj Hammoud and the rest of Beirut is probably the dominance of Armenian cuisine instead of the usual Lebanese menu. Of the many Armenian restaurants here, my favourite is Varouj (on Maracha Royal Street; 00 961 3 8829 33), located in a narrow backstreet in Bourj Hammoud. The place, run by a father-and-son team, is tiny and offers only four tables. The son cooks while the father takes care of the guests who have come to order specialties such as fried or baked chicken liver, basterma and soujouk, and even frogs. I was strongly advised to go early or make a reservation because of the tiny capacity and, to my disappointment, the place was full on my arrival. I -immediately headed to another popular restaurant: Onno (Aghabios Street; 00 961 3 8014 76), famous for its kofte, Armenian salads and kebabs. It’s an affordable eatery, with very generous portions.
After tasting little Armenia and with dusk approaching, I venture back to the downtown area where I earlier left Alexandra to do her shopping. While she’s still checking out the latest designer bags, our driver reminds us to “hurry up or else we’ll miss the best moment of your trip” – a hot-air balloon ride with Beirut Balloon (Allenby Street, entered through the Biel Convention Centre; 00 961 1 9859 01; open daily from 10am – 10pm). The 30-passenger balloon is moored to the ground and reaches a maximum altitude of 300m. Halfway up, I ask Alexandra: “Does the city, from this height, look like Paris? Even if Paris were located on the Mediterranean Sea instead of the Seine River and it had these beautiful, forest-clad mountains as a backdrop, it still would have been very different because Beirut has no Eiffel Tower.”
As we float across the orange--coloured sunset sky above the city’s skyscrapers, minarets and roads, she whispers back to me: “But unlike Paris, Beirut has the beauty and charm of at least 20 other cities on five continents.”
And I am reminded of Carlos, a Dubai-based Lebanese friend who once told me that Beirut is not Paris – Beirut is the entire world.
If you go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers return flights from Abu Dhabi to Beirut from Dh580, including taxes
The hotel A double room at the Phoenicia Hotel (www.phoeniciabeirut.com; 00 961 1369 100) costs from US$288 (Dh1,058) per night, including taxes.