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13th – 16th Jan 2011: Beirut and a whirlwind of party time, exploration and collapsing governments

March 4, 2011

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Beirut was one of those cities that I had heard and dreamed a lot about in equal measure. Conversations about its turbulent history with my good mate Lionel who was a previous resident, plus the fact that my old office in Amsterdam did a small research project into the city gave me enough curiosity to want to see it for myself. I have to say that the image I had in my head contrasted sharply, and somewhat disappointingly, with the reality.

The city itself is still in recovery from a large amount of recent warring, both domestic and international. Large swathes of the city are in an excited state of rebuilding – every neighbourhood is playing host to the erection of new luxury apartment blocks and shopping arcades. Jean Nouvel’s bald head is displayed in a huge manner on one massive site in the centre – but the renders on the billboards do little to stir the imagination.

It seems that the huge part of Beirut that is being rebuilt is at the mercy of a lot of very wealthy international developers. I later gathered there was a huge influx of Saudi money coming into the city to encourage its regeneration, which seems to be causing its becoming as the next Dubai (it has been already heralded as the future Saudi playground) and its evident in the type of apartments they are planning to build.

Beirut seems at the centre of many conflicts of interest, be it politically with the Western influence over government and Fundamentalist Hezbollah, economically with the international stimulation of capital, and socially, with the largest number of minorities to be represented in such a small country. I cannot help but feel sorry for the Lebanese caught up in the middle of the tug of war that is going on within their country.

This influx of quick money is most evident on the streets themselves, and particularly with the dominance of the car. The streets are totally overrun with the biggest, most ludicrous and expensive cars imaginable. Every other car is a BMW or Mercedes 4 x 4, and there is a constant jam across the whole city. Add to this the fact that the streets (particularly the older streets round Gemmayze) are particularly narrow and you create an environment that is ripe for honking. And honk they do; an immense cacophony of car horns fills the city from dawn until dusk. You can’t help but feel that all the honking going on makes the horn itself entirely obsolete. Taxis are the worst; they actually hail you (despite already having a passenger) if your fare is there for the taking, there’s plenty of space for you in the back as well, and if needs be, the smaller fare can be kicked out to make way for your more lucrative journey. Taxis are ones to avoid – namely because they’re very much out to rip you off at every opportunity. Though avoiding them is tough, as the city doesn’t have provisions for public transport (that’s how much of a mess the government is) so everyone relies on them, or service taxis, which are basically unmarked vans driving round the city and will take you near enough to where you need to go, as long as they’re heading in your direction.

But, of course, it wasn’t all bad. We were very lucky in the sense that on day one, we managed to hook up with some great people, have a great time experience life as a Beirut resident for several days.

Our first night saw us wandering aimlessly around Hamra looking for a bar or something cheap to eat – not too much success however as the area was dominated by posey bars and expensive restaurants – a staple of Beirut – when we were approached by a young Polish guy who could tell from our somewhat bewildered demeanour that we weren’t local. His name was Shimon, and he took us in somewhat and showed us somewhere cheap to eat, where he was heading. We got chatting and it turned out he played percussion for The Lebanese Symphony Orchestra (hey was very interested to hear about my Dad in The London Symphony Orchestra). He ended up inviting us to a house party he was attending with some of his friends. We picked up some beers and off we went.

The house party was a multicultural affair, with a mix of Lebanese, New Zealand, Polish, Iraqi, Jordanian and French attendants. We had a great time, and our story of cycling and chance meeting in the street with Shimon quickly did the rounds and we made friends.

By the end of the night, we met Sally, who after several  glasses of Arak (the strong stuff) let slip that she was a couch surfer and would love to have three cyclists bring all their bikes and cycling gear to her top floor apartment the next day and crash on her floor. We were more than happy to oblige!

The next few days saw us chilling on Sally’s totally awesome rooftop flat, taking in the sights and sounds of Beirut, a bit (a lot) of drinking, and a lot of chilling.

Of all the things I mentioned earlier that were not to my taste about the city, the one thing that more than agreed with me was the food. Particularly from one place, The Saifi Arab Institute, which we seemed to spend a lot of time hanging out, using the wireless and drinking the cheap tea. Here the food is immense – Lebanese food served up cheap and plentiful. Dishes include Foul, Humus, and Fateh to name but a few. Foul was a particular favourite of mine, as were the fresh dedicated humus bars that dotted the city – you had to get there early though as the humus was usually gone by 1pm! For a couple thousand LL (about £1) you could get three types of humus, a salad and endless bread. I could have sat in those places all day if the humus didn’t run out!

Despite the fact that I was dazed by the image of the Englishman proclaiming the demise of the government in his shiny new loafers, he was indeed correct. During our time in Beirut, the government had actually collapsed. It all came down to the mysterious assassination of now president Rafik Hariri’s Father, who it is most commonly believed was assassinated by Hezbollah. They wanted him out as he was too left leaning and sympathized with the Israeli’s*, and Hezbollah definitely do not sympathise. They were about to start a tribunal into the assassination, at which point Hezbollah, who made up half the government, walked out. So everyone in the city as you can imagine was on tenterhooks. There was a vast military presence throughout the city (although we were told this is normal in Beirut) but it was quite unsettling all the same. In the downtown district where the government buildings are you are forbidden to take photos. The streets are lined with razor wire and soldiers sit among the tanks on street corners. They were all quite relaxed and friendly, but their numbers increased over the coming days. Eventually we were not able to walk through downtown without being questioned as to what we were doing. We felt it may be a good time to leave.

As is always the way with cities, leaving is bloody difficult. To leave the comfort and familiarity of our new friends was not easy! However we had it on good authority from Fouad, a Lebanese friend of mine and Harry’s from Nottingham, that to head south to Nubateye and check out the Hezbollah museum at Mleeta was well worth doing, so before long we had packed up and were heading out of the city (yet again a late one) and unwittingly, unwisely, heading south…

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