Beirut : At the Crossroads of East and West
Beirut. The metropolis of Middle East where two worlds meet, live and collide. Eastern and western civilization have fought over this city for centuries but none managed to consume it. And for that Beirut and Beirutis are a spicy mix which I have not seen anywhere else.
A trip to Beirut had been in my plans for the past five years. George—a mate who was in the UN there, had invited me countless times. But something always came up and in his four tours there I never managed to go. “That will be my last weekend, so I will go to Beirut to farewell some friends” he said and I knew that if I didn’t go this time probably I never would, since this was the big guy’s last tour.
Veronika would go to Dubai for the weekend, so I thought “what the heck”. What better way to spend a weekend than with an old friend in the Paris of Middle East.
I booked the tickets and the next Saturday morning I boarded the plane that would make the hop from Larnaca to Beirut. Less than forty minutes later, I saw the city’s skyline on my left as we were approaching for landing. Its buildings were taller than I thought.
As I was waiting in the queue for the passport check I could feel that I was in Middle East. For a start the place had the same aesthetics, airports had back in the eighties. People talked loud in Arabic and there was this souk ambient that you find in Arabic countries. But there was also a Western essence in the air.
George greeted me and we went straight to the parking. “I rented an ‘X-Trail’. Size matters here” he said and I confirmed that in the first few seconds we spent on the road. The traffic in Beirut has a Darwinian quality. It’s the survival of the biggest. But left me wondering—since they want to squeeze four cars in three lanes, “shouldn’t they pick small cars?” The unbelievable number of Escalades and GMC behemoths says that Beirutis think they shouldn’t. It also pointed out the love that Lebanese have for anything American. Be that car, fast food or mall.
George had booked a nice room on the hotels quarter near the seafront. We gave the car to the valet, picked our luggage and… went through the metal detector to get inside. The luggage went through a security belt too. And it’s not just for newcomers. We went through the same routine every time we got in the hotel.
The Stormy Past
Lebanon has a turbulent history which includes the worst kind of conflict a country can have—a civil war. The country had two of them in the last two hundred years. The first was the “Mount Lebanon war” which was a peasant uprising of the Maronites against the Druzes. Its outcome was the massacre of the Christians in Damascus which caused the intervention of France. A small army was deployed in Syria and stayed there for almost a year.
The French left but they would come back after the First World War to establish a mandate which lasted until 1943. The years after, will be remembered as the golden years of modern Lebanon and it was at that time that Beirut got the title “Paris of the Middle East.” Jet setters and oilers flooded the cosmopolitan city which flourished with the Persian Gulf oil boom.
But unfortunately the euphoria came to an end by 1975. The Palestinian PLO which was expelled from Jordan on one side, and Maronite militia on the other started the first fights. The Sunni Muslims, Syria and Israel soon joined in and the country got into a bloody war of brother killing brother which lasted fifteen years. Hezbollah was the offspring of that war.
Beirut was divided into West (Muslims) and East (Christians). The Downtown where the hotels and commercial part of the city were located, became no man’s land.
“The bus massacre,” “The battle of the Hotels,” and “The Karantina massacre” were just a few episodes that show the atrocity of this war where almost a quarter of a million people lost their lives and another million fled the country.
A couple of blocks from our hotel, the mortar and rocket‒beaten Holiday Inn stands as a monument of the battle which took place in the area. The state probably didn’t demolish it, so that it would be a reminder of how fragile peace is in this multi‒religional and multi‒cultural country.
As I walk with George, I observe the thousands of bullet holes on the walls and I try to visualize the ferocious battles that took place there and at the Phoenician which is just opposite—a luxurious five star nowadays.
“Let’s go to the marina for lunch” he said and I agreed. It was a warm spring day, so we turned towards the seafront and walked to Zaitunay Bay. The city has a beautiful coastline which along with the rest of Downtown is well looked after. This is the cosmopolitan face of Beirut. Skyscrapers, designer’s shops and fancy restaurants. It may have lost most of the sparkle and glamour of the sixties but I could still see it. It’s on the people too. More than half of the residents speak French and almost always the are smart dressed.
George showing who’s the man
The lunch was not bad. The place was like an American dinner—no surprise, and had a nice view to the sea which was crowded with yachts. One particular made an impression on me. It was called “Bismarck”!
A ten minute walk and we were back to the hotel to pick the car. I had asked George to take me to Raouché because I wanted to shoot the Pigeon rocks—the two great boulders that stand above the sea. An iconic spot of the city.
On the way I couldn’t but notice that a big section of the route was barb wired and had watchtowers. There is this constant presence of security forces in Beirut. They drive around in Dodge patrol cars or riding Harleys and they wear grey camouflage which was confusing at the beginning since it made them look like army. They are not discreet but they aren’t intimidating either. Every time we came across them on a road block or while walking on the street, we were treated respectfully but you could see that if needed those guys meant business.
The Pigeon Rocks were visually interesting. Not my kind of sight but since it was a ten minute drive I’m glad we went. On the way back, George took me to the Blue Mosque. It’s a nice temple with blue domes. Unfortunately scaffolds and other stuff around the temple didn’t allow for a clean shot, so I raised my frame a bit higher and went for the domes and minarets instead. It was already afternoon and since George had planned a night out, we went back to the hotel for a quick shower and a change.
The night had fallen when we hit the road again. Beirut is famous for its nightlife and I was eager to explore it. It was Friday night but the streets were relative quiet. We drove past Gemmayzeh street—famous for its many nocturnal establishments and went to a cool place called “Central Station”. Apparently it is part of the train station that used to operate in Lebanon until the nineties. The bartenders wearing “sleeveless suits” were making some great cocktails and the music was great. In the meantime two friends of George joined us. Lebanese women are lush. They have Arabic beauty and European style. They are also more liberal and enjoy more rights than most other women in the Middle East.
George, Karin and Carla
It was an hour pass midnight when we said farewell to the ladies and left for Sin el Fil where George wanted to meet with his Salsa mates who were having an event in an underground joint there. Dark place. It had the disco ambient of the eighties. The dancing floor was bathed in red light and everybody was dancing or talking instead of using their phones. That was something I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was a jolly group of people, most of them in their thirties. They seemed genuinely sad for George’s departure. I had one more drink while he was setting the dance floor on fire and then we left. The trip back to the hotel through the now empty streets was fast.
Next morning, we met at breakfast. We had only a few hours to spare before leaving so we finished quick, got into the car and set for Yarze. I wanted to see and photograph the “Hope for peace”—a monument located outside the Ministry of Defense.
Driving through the neighborhoods of Beirut, we passed several security checkpoints. I could tell which sectors were Muslim by now. All the balconies were closed with tents from every side. The windows too, with drapes which were hermetically shut. From the power lines tens of cables started and connected to the buildings around like spaghetti. Apparently not an official addition. Hezbollah—the Shia’s dominant party and military group that acts as a state within state in Lebanon, has a presence which is discreet but still obvious inside the capital.
We got lost in the suburbs a bit, but eventually found the place. Now, I just had to find a way how to get out of the car in front of the armed to the teeth ministry of Defense and get some photos without getting arrested.
We decided with George that the best course of action would be to drop the car somewhere nearby and just walk there. And so we did by parking on small place next to the motorway. Crossing six high speed lanes was the most dangerous act of the day since the guard in front of the monument agreed to let us take some shots after we showed him our papers and he took permission from the radio.
“Hope for peace” is a colossal monument. Five thousand tons, shaped like a pyramid. It is made from reinforced concrete and several tanks and armored vehicles which are built in the structure. The gun barrels protruding out in the cloudy sky make it look as grotesque as war itself. It was at that moment that I felt the country’s history weighing on my shoulders the most. In my mind came the young people with the missing limps and scared faces that I had seen during my short stay.
I took no more than six or seven shots and we went back to the car. The sky was getting darker and the weather worsened as we were cruising the city streets on the way back to city center. We had only a couple of hours to spare for packing and a quick lunch before going to the airport. I would gladly stay at least for a couple of days more.
The queue for the first security check was almost outside the building which was why we went there four hours ahead. An hour later we got cleared and went to the airport café to kill some time.
While sitting there I was thinking that it was quite a feat for people to put everything behind and go on with their lives. And they did so by forgiving and accepting their differences thus preserving this mixture of east and west which is what gives the city its notable essence. People dressed in the last trend of vogue from one side and women in hijab on the other, people praying outside a mall. Christians, Muslims, Druzes. Beirut is a land full of antitheses. And that by itself is a very good reason to visit it. There is no other city alike.