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Travel Story by Helga McGilp

  The City That Would Not Die
Beirut, Lebanon
 




Beirut may not be a typical destination for travellers, with its reputation and preconceptions of being a ravaged city; a war zone with kidnappings and assassinations. The news might read badly from home and Lebanon’s security situation has always influenced whether or not tourists will visit, but in Lebanon, life just goes on, no matter what happens.

Needless to say, there weren’t too many tourists around when I visited Beirut, especially with the Israeli war with Gaza in December 2008.

Indeed, when I demonstrated the sign for Beirut (the two-handed sign for BOMBS, as if several bombs are going off), my friends asked me if it was safe to go.

I have always dreamt of becoming a war correspondent or journalist, so when the plane sped towards Beirut, I felt adrenaline bubbling inside me, curious about what lay below us. “Why choose Beirut when you know it’s not safe?!”, my partner Avril signed when the night lights of Beirut appeared – this was especially so after breaking news had appeared on BBC24 the night before, announcing “Hezbollah leader Nasrallah says he has asked his forces to be ready for possibility of Israeli attacks on Lebanon.”

Throughout the journey from Beirut International Airport to Achrafieh, I had constant thoughts of ‘kidnap’ in my head, with flashbacks of Brian Kennan’s The Evil Cradling. So, we remained silent, with me restlessly trying to navigate our whereabouts on my map of Beirut in case we got kidnapped! My knowledge of Beirut only goes back to before the millennium, of its troubled times and kidnappings.

We discovered that hotels in Beirut were very pricey, so gladly opted for the L’Hote Libanais, a sort of bed and breakfast place, and experienced true Lebanese hospitality in the heart of Achrafieh.

On our first night, we went to Rue Gouraud, the chic Mediterranean street in the heart of Beirut, where we were pleasantly surprised when the barman called out “On the house!” when we ordered soft drinks. It was pretty obvious that we were the only tourists in the street, in our non designer-clothes. “Damn,” I thought. With all the tempting cocktails in the supercool bars of Beirut, my willpower was certainly tested as I avoided alcohol.

Beirut is not one of those cities of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’; but more one of curiosity. If you want to see a real tank and armed troops on the streets, in readiness for public order, Beirut is the place to go, rather than the Imperial War Museum. When we walked through buildings with mortar holes on Damascus Street, we saw a shop with a slogan; ‘Too cute to shoot. When it’s this cute, you have to shoot!’ It was a kids and family photography shop. It was a bizarre sight.

The Holiday Inn, the Beirut landmark, still dominates the city’s skyline, complete with mortar holes. As a prime sniper post, it is the most shocking sight, compared to other masses of construction.

Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’, with its French colony and elegant Ottoman buildings, until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war which lasted 14 years. Between 1975 and 1990, Beirut was subjected to a traumatic ordeal, which led to the destruction of the old quarters. In July 2006, after the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, Israel declared war on Lebanon, which further damaged the city.

Beirut is a city of contradictions, especially when you look at it through 360 degrees. The construction works in the city are considered to be the most extensive in the world. There is a huge construction project underway in the Corniche, a seafront which would be popular with tourists if the country became stable. However, Martyrs’ Square near the 12th-century Al-Omari Mosque, known as the Old Beirut, looked like some kind of Ground Zero. This area became the crown jewel of the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was responsible for the city’s huge construction project. He was assassinated in March 2005 and there is now a memorial tent next to the Al-Omari Mosque. Squeezed in between Government buildings, you can find a badly damaged19th-century Jewish cemetery.

Our favourite bar was the Kayan Shuman in Gemmayze, especially for our usual servings of crunchy, raw carrot sticks in lemon juice, which certainly helped with my daily dosage of non-alcoholic cranberry juice and sodas. There, we asked the locals about the situation in Gaza. They said life in Lebanon goes on, and they were certainly buzzing with hope. Although most Lebanese people in bars left us alone, they looked at us as if to say, “Thanks for ignoring the stigma about this ravaged city – welcome to Beirut.” It certainly seemed as if they appreciated that we had ignored the tales of violence that we had heard back home.

At some swanky bars in Gemmayze, we were told that they were full. To us, this was a reminder that two women of our sort would never get in, especially not in our travelling clothes; most Lebanese take pride in their clothes and appearance.

Our favourite restaurant has to be the Adbel Whab near Monot Street, especially for its Arabic mezzah and the mustaeh nuts. They only have restaurants in Beirut and Riyadh. There, we sat next to a group of six women in their mid-50s, one of whom tapped me when I was reading. “George Galloway is my good friend,” she said; “Me from Aleppo.” and pointed to Syria on the front cover of my Lonely Planet book. Ironically, when I was at the Syrian Embassy, I was behind the person who prepared George Galloway’s visa application!

We only met two Deaf men selling fingerspelling cards, which stated in Arabic and English: “I LOVE YOU. Hello; I am a Deaf Person. Will You Kindly Buy One? Pay Any Price you Wish. Thank you.” outside Virgin Megastore at Martyrs’ Square. Avril was uncomfortable by this, as one proudly claimed that his brother was a Hezbollah fighter in the 2006 war. Their sign for Israel involved – two ‘V’s positioned together to show the Star of David. Avril was struck by the way he aggressively stamped the two Vs together, which demonstrated his hatred of Israel.

Lebanon is a tiny country, half the size of Wales, but it has a big history. Lebanon is bordered by Syria and, in the south, by Palestine. You can be based in Beirut for a couple of days, as most popular destinations are under an hour away; for example, you can easily hit the slopes of the Faraya Mazaar ski resort above Beirut for the day. Unfortunately however, the majority of ski-toting Beirutis tend to race down the slopes exactly like they drive in the streets of Beirut! As mad as the ski-ing situation reads, our eyes were kept peeled on the ‘bi-polar’ traffic on the slopes for an entire day.

It is also a very educational place to visit – for example, Byblos, the ancient fishing harbour, 35-40km north from Beirut, is known as the birthplace of the alphabet. In 1300 BC, the Phoenicians developed a simple 22-letter phonetic alphabet, which was the forerunner of the Latin alphabet. The town was once a stopping off place for traders en route to Egypt, so the alphabet was invented as a practical way of recording trade transactions, and quickly spread throughout the world. It is worth visiting Byblos (now known as Jbail), especially for the cobbled streets of the old souk (market) and souvenir shops (the best in Lebanon). There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants by the harbour.

We also visited Baalbek, a Roman site in the Bekaa Valley, which is best visited when it is nearly sunset, when the sun turn the stones to a rich orange. We were overwhelmed by the sense of freedom we felt with just six tourists on site, and by the massive Roman stonework; the ruins in Baalbek are most impressive, in comparison to Athens and Rome. It is a mystery how the stones were moved into place.

Before we entered the temple complex, we were approached by locals selling yellow and green Hezbollah t-shirts and flags depicting a fist clutching a Kalashnikov rifle. We also witnessed locals putting up anti-Israeli banners on the streets of Baalbek. Also on the way to Baalbek, we saw portraits of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, and posters of ’martyrs’, or suicide bombers, and realised that Hezbollah had a strong presence in the region. Tourists probably avoid the ruins because of the Hezbollah stronghold, but both of us felt safe. The only troubles we encountered were the frequent power cuts, and the sudden disappearance of my hearing aid, which was probably left inside the black pot-bellied boiler at my hotel after a nightmare!

Baalbek, the City of Sun in Roman times, is located about 85km northeast of Beirut, and about 75km north of Damascus.

After receiving re-assurances, Jamil, our landlord, highly recommended several places to visit outside Beirut. Approximately 55km from Beirut, we visited Sidon, the capital of the south and the birthplace of Rafic Hariri. There, we became rather attached to the souk in front of the Sea Castle, with its beautiful maze of old cobbled alleyways. It was rather risky visiting Sidon at the time of the Gaza war, as there were Gaza protesters near the Grand Serail. The main attraction to Sidon is the liveliness and diversity of people, although it is also famous for its soap museum and its oriental pastries/sweets.

En route to Sidon, we stopped at the picturesque Beiteddine (House of Faith), an early 19th century Ottoman architectural building with spectacular collections of mosaics and great views of the Chouf Mountain. We also briefly visited Deir El Qamar (or Monastery of the Moon), a mountain village with 17th century red-roofed Lebanese houses and narrow cobbled stone streets to stroll through.

If you have courage, keep an open mind and, most importantly, are fearless, then you will be surprised that the Lebanese are some of the friendliest hosts in the world. An extremely welcoming country to visit, Lebanon is apparently being listed as one of Lonely Planet’s top ten cities that travellers really ought to reconsider visiting in 2009.

Lebanon is also considered as being the most liberal and democratic Arab state in the Middle East. It is not a very easy place to understand, but we only had one week in the country before heading to Syria. I certainly got the impression that Beirut – the city that would not die – seemed determined to recover from the past; its people just got on with things in their own unconventional way. Indeed, for the time being, they have already moved on with a driving force to proceed with the reconstruction. Go now – before the international sign for Beirut becomes ‘TOO MANY TOURISTS’ – the exact sign for Beirut now!


Useful tips:

• Most importantly, you will not be allowed into the country if your passport holds an Israeli visa stamp.

• Visual landmarks are crucial for taxis. Service taxis are not dependent on street addresses (even in Arabic), so you will need to show drivers landmarks; for example, the Al-Omari Mosque, Place de Martyrs, or the Clock Tower. Simply show them photos of your destinations.

• Buses or service/private taxis will take you to your destinations directly from your hotel, from Charles Helou bus station, or the Cola Cola hub roundabout.

• The Al-Omari Mosque is the most prominent landmark in the city.

• The Clock Tower around Place d’Etoile is a historical monument and distinctive landmark.

• You can easily book a one-day ski trip at the traffic-prone Faraya Mzaar with SKILEB.com. This will include pick up from your hotel, skiing or snowboarding gear, clothes hire and a ski pass for the resort.

• B&B specialists L’Hote Libanais (www.hotelibanais.com) is highly recommended.

Books:

• Once Upon a Time in Beirut – A Journey to the heart of the Middle East by Catherine Taylor is a fantastic memoir about Beirut.

• A Complete Insiders Guide to Lebanon, published by Souk El Tayeb Press (IBSN 978-9953-0-1302-2).

• Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2009 – 850 Trends, Destinations, Journeys & Experiences for the Year Ahead.


Click on photo to enlarge


   


E-mail: helga@deaftravel.co.uk
Date Submitted:
23 May 2009


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