BEIRUT UNVEILEDAndrija Matic’s article on one of the most inspiring cities in the Middle East
When this city is mentioned in Serbia, it is very likely that the first associations will be war, Hezbollah, suicide bombers or other similar topics. As ridiculous as it may be, it is not surprising, for Serbian media report on Beirut only when a bomb explodes on its streets or when there are clashes near the border with Syria. Quite often we can hear so-called political analysts who describe a war zone as “new Beirut”, alluding to the civil war which ended almost twenty-five years ago, that is, before the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia which were, in many aspects, much more brutal than the war in Lebanon. However, not only the media are to blame for creating such a stereotype. In a large number of Hollywood movies and TV shows, Beirut is often depicted as a godforsaken place with dirty streets and old-fashioned Middle Eastern architecture, where women wear abayas and Islamic terrorists plan their major actions.(1) Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Beirut is a modern, relatively safe city with culture and tradition which many European capitals would envy.
The most popular part of Beirut (especially among the Europeans and Americans living in this part of the world) is Hamra, a quarter spreading to the north and south of Hamra Street. There you will find a lot of restaurants, cafes, pubs, bookshops, galleries… When in Hamra, you are under the impression that you have come to the nightlife hub of a European metropolis. To be honest, more abayas can be seen at Trafalgar Square or by the Eiffel Tower than in this part of Beirut. Hamra is also brimming with live music places, which are rather scarce in the Middle East. I will single out “Blue Note“, a jazz club with a recognizable name where predominantly local musicians play. However, in this quarter, there used to be a place called “Mojo“ that hosted some of the most distinguished American jazz musicians such as Branford Marsalis and Chick Corea, but it was closed a few months ago.
Hamra, nightlife hub of BeirutIf you go north of Hamra, you will reach the American University of Beirut. AUB was established in 1866, and from that time on it has been among the top five universities on the Arabian Peninsula. But this is not the only American university in Beirut. Lebanese American University or LAU is located in the upper part of Hamra and also has a good reputation. Literature lovers will be pleased to know that one of the instructors working at LAU is Joumana Haddad, a renowned Arabic writer and women’s rights activist.
From AUB, down Clemenceau Street, it will take you about twenty minutes to reach Beirut downtown. This is the most important part of the city, not only because the Government building and Parliament are in this area, but also because there you can find a remarkable concentration of buildings from various epochs and civilizations. At the Martyrs’ Square – right across from the monument covered with bullet holes from Lebanese civil war – there is Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, for the most part built during the mandate of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was killed in a car bombing in 2005.(2) (His tomb is in the tent by the mosque.) The Saint George Maronite Cathedral is situated next to the mosque, just before the archeological site with five impressive pillars from the Roman period. In this area, you can also find a synagogue (understandably enough, it is guarded by police officers 24 hours a day), the remains of Roman Baths and Grand Serail, built during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, nowadays serving as the headquarters of Lebanese prime minister. Finally, the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Georges is also in downtown. Having been built in XI century on the ruins of the Church of the Resurrection, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 551 A.D., it is considered one of the oldest churches in this part of the world.
Mohammad Al-Amin MosqueBut it would be wrong to think that downtown Beirut is all about history and politics. I have found there a lot of restaurants, cafes, a snazzy shopping center at Beirut Souks, Virgin Megastore and many other features of modern Lebanon. It is right in this area, during the day, especially if you are sitting at a terrace in a restaurant or cafe, that you will understand why Lebanese women are believed to be the most beautiful in the world.
Sometimes, however, Hezbollah organizes a protest at the Martyrs’ Square, so the army blocks the entire area, which immediately evokes all the stereotypes mentioned above. This is exactly what happened during my stay in Beirut, while I was on my way to Byblos.(3) On the highway, riding in a cab near downtown area, I noticed military tanks and heavily armed soldiers.
“Excuse me, sir, what’s going on?” I asked the driver. “There are soldiers in the street.”
“Ah, that,” he replied calmly. “No worries, my friend. It’s revolution at the square.”
“Revolution?” I was surprised. I had gone out with some friends the previous night and none of them mentioned any revolution whatsoever. At that moment, all the popular stereotypes about the Middle East – Al-Qaida jihadists, suicide bombers, hijacks, etc. – rushed into my mind. I also thought of Arab Spring, which in some other Middle Eastern countries had begun at the capital’s main square.
Having sensed confusion in my voice, perhaps a panic too, the cab driver added:
„It’s just a revolution, you know, a protest.”
And he was right. It was merely a protest – probably influenced by the media, the good-natured driver thought that in English “protest” meant “revolution” – which ended quite peacefully. Because of all the turmoil Beirut had gone through in its history, the Lebanese Government decided to send the army to secure all high-risk protests, so as to prevent any attempt at violence. To tell you the truth, it is much more dangerous to walk down the streets of Belgrade after the football match between Partizan and Red Star or when a Serbian right-wing horde gathers at the Republic Square than during a protest in Beirut downtown, even if it is held by Hezbollah. The situation is a bit different in the southern suburb, where Hezbollah has its headquarters and where several explosions have taken place recently, but that part of the city is far away from main tourist spots and, unless you have some friends in that area, you will never go there.
Two important parts of modern Beirut are located around downtown. Zaitunay Bay is a newly built quarter with luxurious hotels, restaurants, cafes, and a yachting club. It is by all means the poshest part of Beirut, although in the seventies, as a friend of mine told me, it was a seedy red light district. Not all the citizens of Beirut like this area – Lebanese youngsters inclined towards rock music and alternative culture will tell you that mostly tourists and nouveau rich go there – but it must be said that Zaitunay Bay is one of the best proofs against all the aforementioned stereotypes. After all, those ones who detest posh tourism and who, nevertheless, reach this area can easily take a nice walk down Corniche, a modern waterfront with impressive Raouche Rocks at its end (the Lebanese also call them “Suicide Rocks”).
Raouche RocksIf you go east of the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, you will come to Gemmayze Street, the second major nightlife spot in Beirut. The Lebanese go out there more often because this area is not as packed with tourists as Hamra. By day, Gemmayze Street pretty much resembles a downtown alley, since most of the bars and pubs are closed. At night, however, this part of Beirut transforms into one of the liveliest places in the entire Middle East.
During the Lebanese civil war, Gemmayze Street, along with the neighboring Achrafieh, was a sort of border between Christians and Muslims. Nowadays, it is predominantly a Christian area, but that becomes completely irrelevant in the evening. Contrary to what many biased Westerners think, no one will ever ask you about your religious beliefs in either Gemmayze or any other part of Beirut.(4)
When I visited this area – it includes not only Gemmayze Street, but also the streets and alleys around it – my friend took me to a cafe called Em Nazih, where mostly locals go out because there they can find masterly-played Arabic music and authentic Lebanese cuisine. It was in Em Nazih that I became a huge fan of the dishes such as warak enab, batata harra (you’d better watch out how you pronounce “h”), hummus with beef, kibbeh, tabbouleh, fattoush… That evening the musicians played songs by the legendary Fairuz, a singer who can be clearly described as a symbol of Lebanese music. Regardless of their age, education, and social status, all the Lebanese will tell you that they listen to Fairuz and many of them will claim to wake up with her songs every morning. In Em Nazih, apart from Fairuz, I also heard several songs by Mashrou’ Leila, a very popular band among Lebanese youngsters nowadays.
Beirut, of course, is not the only place to visit in Lebanon. Byblos, Jounieh, and Baalbek are also interesting towns with distinguished culture and tradition. The mountains are worth visiting as well. But even if you go to Beirut only, you will discover an immensely inspiring city and soon you will realize the absurdity of all the stereotypes about that part of the world.
(1)The most recent example is an American TV show Homeland, very popular in Serbia too. In an episode on the protagonist’s spy action in Beirut, the leaders of AL-Qaida and Hezbollah (two bitter enemies in reality) meet in Hamra Street, which is one of the most westernized streets in the Middle East, but in this show it is represented almost as a dead-end alley on the outskirts of Sana’a or Riyadh.
(2) Rafik Hariri was killed in an explosion in February 2005, along with 22 other people. Several Hezbollah members are indicted for the assassination (the trial began in The Hague several months ago), though a lot of Lebanese people believe that Syria or Israel might be to blame.
(3) Byblos is a small town 40 km far from Beirut. It is one of the oldest Phoenician towns, where you can also see the features of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman traditions. Likewise, every summer, Byblos hosts a big music festival, where up to the present there have been the bands and singers such as Gorillaz, Nightwish, and Lana Del Rey.
(4) Despite the fact that Lebanon is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, religious divide between Christians and Muslims, as well as the clashes between Sunni and Shia, have significant impact on marriages. It is unlikely (though it happens sometimes) that a girl from one religious group marries a guy from another, primarily because her family would not approve of that marriage. Civil marriages are also quite rare. If they decide to get married in this way, Lebanese couples usually go to Cyprus. For that purpose, there are agencies specialized in so called “marriage tourism” which provide the couples not only with the plane tickets and accommodation in Cyprus, but also the necessary paperwork, sometimes even wedding witnesses.