It was unfortunate that I arrived in Beirut with concussion but these things happen. After getting overexcited at the end-of-term party for my course on existential psychotherapy, I had fallen over and knocked myself unconscious.
I am only telling you this because a lot of the time in Lebanon I felt not quite the full shilling.
Dave didn’t help. I took Dave with me because Dave will go anywhere. “Is it safe?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “It’s the playground of the Middle East.” Dave likes an adventure but always has rules. Rule number one: we couldn’t get in a taxi as we could be kidnapped. She had read about it on the Foreign Office Website.
Dave likes an adventure but always has rules. Rule number one: we couldn’t get in a taxi as we could be kidnapped
We arrive to find our room at Le Gray is the size of a two-bedroom flat and the bathroom so big that I can’t find the separate shower room. It is all quite gorgeous, with easy-going staff: no designer uptightness here. Dinner on the terrace overlooking the old mosque – which turns out not to be old but built in 2007 – is quite something. We drink a lot of white wine (everyone rates the reds, but the Leb whites are good too) and go back to our room, where Dave tries to recharge her phone, immediately smashing it and fusing all the lights.
We sit in the dark, listening to the strange sounds of downtown Beirut: some techno from the roof top bar, with its glass walled swimming pool; the ever present traffic; bells and mysterious banging and shouting.
In daylight it is hard to distinguish between Roman ruins, building sites and the aftermath of the war. Shelled-out buildings are everywhere. All of this is encircled by roads with five lanes of traffic – not that Beirutis do lanes. It is incredibly hard to get around: there is no public transport to speak of, and at first we spend a lot of time walking on the edge of motorways trying not to be run over in the midday sun. Oddly, no-one else is doing this.
We meet up with social entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak at his restaurant Tawlet in Mar Mickhael. Mouzawak grew up during the war and set up the farmers’ market Souk El-Tayeb, along with restaurants and food festivals all over Lebanon. His is a model of reconciliation through food. The restaurant is lovely, bright and busy and each day chefs from a different area come to cook. Kamal tries to draw up a programme of activities for us. It proves useless to attempt to organise us, but… he tries.
“We are the BBC!” yells Dave, breaking one of her own rules about revealing we could be worthwhile targets for kidnappers
There are two strains in Lebanese culture, it seems: one is to try and erase the war with manic reconstruction and the other is to commemorate it. Beit Beirut seems a must: a museum to remember the civil war, it stands on the Green Line – which was the demarcation line for the different fighting factions between 1975 and 1990 – and is covered in bullet holes. But the guards won’t let us in. They say we need permits. “We are the BBC!” yells Dave, breaking one of her own rules about revealing we could be worthwhile targets for kidnappers.
At Jeita we go to the most magnificent caves, a dreamscape of crystal and stalagmites. But going underground makes my head feel funny. We lunch at Byblos, a Phoenician port thought to be the oldest inhabited town in the world. At the marvellous Pepe’s we dine simply but well on labneh and tabbouleh, surrounded by pictures of Jean Seberg, Brando, Jean-Paul Belmondo and the 1950s jet set. It’s gorgeous. Then we go up into the mountains to Beit Douma, Kamal’s bed and breakfast. It is a stunningly beautiful and a labour of love. Dinner is to be at 8pm but Kamal suggests Dave and I go down to the village to the Greek Orthodox church as it is a saint’s day.
On the way back we take a wrong turn. And not just a little bit wrong. It is dark, we are in the mountains and our phones won’t work. We are now an hour late for our host’s special dinner. Eventually we see some old people sitting outside and ask for help. A lady says “voiture” and invites us into a car with her elderly mother and a teenager with learning difficulties. She yells, “A Londres!?” “Yallah!” I yell back. “Are we being kidnapped?” Dave whispers.
This wonderful woman drops us back and waves us off. It is a real kindness, indicative of a Lebanese hospitality that we find everywhere. People help us across the roads, run out of shops to direct us to the right place, repair Dave’s iPhone. I love these people.
We move to the Phoenicia Hotel, which is all marble and bling and whose PR chases me round pointlessly my whole stay (I know what I like in a hotel and it isn’t a thirty-minute talk on conference facilities). The pool here is fabulous for people watching: pumped-up dudes and women in glittery bikinis, implants and Dior “We should all be feminists” T-shirts. There is one woman in particular who I could watch all day: she is “curvy”, as the magazines would have it, meaning she has a massive arse. She has huge red lips and lies on a sun-lounger smoking the biggest cigar I have ever seen. Magnificent.
Dave has finally relented on the taxi front, which makes things easier. Meantime, we’ve discovered that there are places you can walk around when you get to them: Gemaayze, Ashrafiye, and the Corniche for the whole hijabi and skateboard number. Le Vendôme is the Phoenicia’s sister hotel and is smaller, calmer and more ordinary but right on the Corniche so has amazing sea views, allowing you to see all of Beirut on its passeggiata.
The strange reconstructed downtown is ghostly with its empty Burberry and Versace outlets. It feels like Disneyland, but with a call to prayer and guns. We love small places like Goûtons Voir and Armenian restaurants like Seza. I dream still of makanek, those tiny sweet Lebanese sausages.
While we have fallen in love with the place, Travis Bickle taxi drivers tell us that “Life in Beirut is shit”. Most want to leave; one dreams of a fish farm in India. Obviously while we are staying amongst moneyed people who see Beirut as the new Dubai or next Ibiza and are happy to pay the expensive hotel prices, life here is tough for many. Architectural experimentation is throwing up towers that literally look like piles of cash (Herzog and de Meuron’s Beirut Terraces), but from the roof of Le Gray, you can hear the sound of a demonstration below, protesting the deaths of Syrians who died in refugee camps. This tiny country has taken as many as two million people fleeing the conflict, adding another facet to an already diverse and politically complicated country.
One night we go to Music Hall, which is a Lynchian old abandoned cinema with a neon stage set against the sky. The acts are terrible – not even cheesy terrible but Riverdance terrible. That aside, these people know how to party. And we hear so many tales of how they partied during the war. After, as we drink G&Ts on the rooftop of the Albergo, Dave suddenly asks: “Is Hezbollah still here?”
“Of course not,” I reply. Though of course this is not true. It’s not true at all. But it’s impossible to know precisely what is going here, because everything is going on. Everything is in fragments of the past and the future. Everything is dizzying, strange and wonderful and impossible to grasp. I am utterly disorientated. I love it. It’s blown my mind. C
Beit Douma, Douma Main Road، Douma, Lebanon
+961 6 520 702; soukeltayeb.com
Le Gray, Martyrs’ Square, Beirut Central District, Beirut, Lebanon
+961 1 971111; campbellgrayhotels.com
Phoenicia, Minet El Hosn, Beirut, Lebanon
+961 1 369100; phoeniciabeirut.com
La Vendome Beirut, Rafic E Hariri Street, Beirut, Lebanon
+961 1 369 280; lavendomebeirut.com