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Living in Beirut: Not What You Think

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“You are going to live where?” My best friend looked at me as if I had finally lost my marbles. “Beirut,” I replied.

One of the most famous landmarks of Beirut is Pigeon Rock. The rock formation is often compared to Capri and even more stunning to look at when the sun sinks into the sea

“Beirut? Well, you better pack your tin hat and bullet proof vest and leave the heels at home,” she continued.

“It just goes to show, that you don’t have a clue,” I enlightened her, “because Beirut is a party town, not a war zone.”

“Says who?”

“Says my friend Simone. She is one of the chicest ladies in Beirut and she has promised to show me that the preconceived ideas the rest of the world still has about Beirut and Lebanon are outdated. Naturally, I have to go and see for myself.”

“Naturally,” Wendy grumbled. “Well, I’m not going to bail you out when you are abducted.”

I arrived at Beirut airport in the middle of the night and was surprised by how friendly the immigration people were at that hour.

I was greeted with a warm welcome and a bright smile, my passport was stamped in two minutes flat, and I was on my way to the apartment I had rented for two months on Beirut’s famous Hamra Street.

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Despite my bravado as a new Middle East expat, I did look out for signs of war destruction as the taxi driver made his way in a rather reckless fashion, and saw one brightly lit new high-rise after the other, designer shops and luxury hotels as we whizzed along the waterfront.

Settled in my cozy apartment I got my first education from Simone the next morning. “Beirut ladies are health and fashion-conscious,” she said. “We exercise and look after ourselves. Put on your running shoes, we go for a jog along the Corniche.”

Off we went, and I saw for myself a huge crowd of men and women, all turned out in designer sports gear, huffing and puffing along the wonderful Corniche following the shore of the Mediterranean. We stopped to look at Pigeon Rock, one of the most famous landmarks of Beirut. A rock formation often compared to Capri and even more stunning to look at when the sun sinks into the sea.

Beirut - panorami
In recent years Beirut has regained its popularity as a lively and safe tourist destination

Construction of new buildings is going on everywhere and the new apartment houses, cafes, and hotels are very elegant. Our conversation of course turned to the war (2006 Lebanon War), and the aftermath. Simone explained the Lebanese spirit to me: “They destroy our country? So what, we dust ourselves off and start all over again.”

I have found this spirit of optimism many times during my stay, together with incomparable hospitality and joie de vivre.

True: bombed outbuildings are still to be found and some of the palm trees along the Corniche are marred by bullet holes, the army is very present and on trips further into the country particularly towards the border with Israel you are stopped by many roadblocks, but never have I felt threatened or unsafe.

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Al Falamanki Restaurant is a local favorite and serves authentic Lebanese cuisine

Simone’s next important lesson? Beirutis love to spend a lot of their spare time in cafes and restaurants.

Going out, meeting friends or playing backgammon is a way of life. Therefore our next stop that evening was at Al Falamanki, one of the most popular and traditional restaurants frequented by the Beirut in-crowd.

Located in Ashrafieh, a fashionable district of downtown Beirut, the restaurant has a unique atmosphere with a beautiful terrace and garden where you can spend hours, chatting with your friends, enjoying fabulous Arabic cuisine, smoking a sheisha and playing cards or backgammon.

It’s fun to read about the history of the place on their menu. The father of the current owner became through a chain of circumstances the bosom buddy of many Hollywood stars and other famous people and the walls are covered with pictures and souvenirs.

Most of the famous historical sites like Byblos, Saida and Baalbeck are outside of Beirut, but the city has her fair share of ancient ruins and museums too.

To my delight and thanks to Simone, I discovered the Robert Mouawad Private Museum. It’s located in a palace built in 1911 by Henri Pharaon, a distinguished Lebanese politician, collector, businessman, and traveler. The palace was not meant as a museum but as his private residence where he placed his collection of oriental and occidental art, including 14th century carved, wooden panels from Syria forming the doors and ceilings.

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Robert Mouawad Private Museum

After his death the palace was acquired by Robert Mouawad, a member of the world-famous jewelers to house his own collection of jewelry and fine art and to continue the tradition of Mr. Pharaon but now made accessible to the public.

The result is a reflection of eclectic, personal taste in invaluable works of art displayed in the beautifully restored rooms and gardens. Mouawad’s jewelry collection contains a curiosity worth looking at: the world’s most expensive bikini, made of diamonds and rubies. Each year the firm of Mouawad designs and makes a bikini which is the centerpiece of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

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With over 200 shops and a department store, the Beirut Souks is Beirut’s largest shopping area, as well as the densest.

Another inevitable stop are the Beirut Soukhs. The original soukhs were destroyed during the civil war, and only an archway remains, which is integrated into the new complex. Tree shaded cafes alternate with an incredible variety of national and international designer outlets, all in a pedestrian zone which invites endless window shopping. Or – bank balance allowing – shopping.

It’s just as well that the soukhs are a pedestrian zone, because traffic in Beirut is horrendous at all hours. Don’t attempt to drive yourself, because the #1 rule is that there are no rules.  Crossing the street means taking your life into your hands every time.

Fortunately becoming a true Beiruti is by no means as dangerous as crossing one of its streets.

After a while, as in with many things having to do with traveling in unfamiliar territory, you get used to any local challenges. You just have to remember to step out confidently and never to hesitate once you have started to cross over.

And no matter what your friends may say, remember to bring the heels.

*All photos by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte ©, except photo of Beirut skyline from Flickr by Luciana Luciana

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19 thoughts on “Living in Beirut: Not What You Think”

  1. love this post inka! this type of see-for-yourself / dispelling of myths is exactly why i became an anthropologist, a documentary filmmaker, a traveler. good for you for having the guts and thanks for sharing what you gleaned with those of us who otherwise wouldn’t have known (me!) 🙂

  2. I lived in the Mediterranean, in Malta, until I was 27, and everyone I knew understood very well that Beirut was the playground that offered everything to the knowledgable traveller, with a level of sophistication and worldliness that was refreshing. So I am not surprised to read this very lovely favourable description. (And the pictures are great!)

  3. Nice Story Inka..
    Thank’s for giving a new story that change my assumption about the tourism condition in Beirut..
    I wish i’ll be there soon to see the beauty of Beirut like you did.. 🙂

  4. Great post Inka. We felt the same way after spending time in Jordan. Aside from the obvious conflict zones, the Middle East is actually pretty safe… and the hospitality is outstanding!

  5. Hi Inka – loved your post, but I’m so curious who these people are with the same preconceived notions about Beirut? Americans? Because Europeans have always been flocking to Beirut, especially the French, because of the colonial history there. I loved reading your story, but I found it to be the very opposite of my experience – and that’s not just cause I was born in the southern hemisphere! 😉

    Growing up in Sydney in the 1970s I had Lebanese friends, and the Lebanese in Australia I have always known have been confident, outgoing, entrepreneurial, creative, and style-conscious. In Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, all we heard about then was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Of course the war was reported continually in the papers and that’s why so many Lebanese moved to Australia, but that didn’t change my perception of Beiruitis being fashionable, sophisticated and artistic.

    In 1998 we moved to the UAE (Abu Dhabi and then Dubai) and did our first trip to Beirut, and while all our preconceptions of a glamorous city were confirmed – even back then the restaurants were brilliant, the bars were cool, and the clubs stayed open til way past dawn. The Lebanese in Beirut were as outgoing, alive, and as cultured as the Lebanese expats we’d made friends with in the UAE.

    It was only when we left the centre of Beirut and travelled further afield, into the suburbs, and on trips around the country to Tripoli, Baalbek and to Southern Lebanon that we began to appreciate the complexities of the society – its multifarious nature – all the religions (way beyond 3!) and ethnic groups (dozens), as well as economic and social classes, and that there were extraordinarily poor people there too, especially the Palestinians in the refugee camps.

    Dozens of trips later (and a couple of books and many stories) over 13 years and we finally feel like we have a better grip on the city, and country, but still, it’s one that doesn’t cease to beguile us. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope you’ll go back!

  6. Hi Lara, So glad you enjoyed Inka’s post! To address your curiosity, (and also one of the reasons I wanted her to share this story) is because many Americans only know Beirut as the place in the Middle East where 241 American and 58 French servicemen died in a suicide bomb attack in 1983. It truly sounds like an amazing place – I’m struck by the way so many who have been there and have commented or spoken to me about this post seem to have been “beguiled” by Beirut – you don’t hear that very often. I look forward to visiting there myself someday!

  7. I can’t say how very glad I am about the many comments my story has received. To answer just one specific question from Lara: those who warned me most were actually British! My American friends were sceptical but more open minded despite the memory of the bomb attack. I also have to say that there is a difference between glamorous Beirut (with very poor suburbs too) and the south. The closer you get to the border with Israel the more you notice that you are in a country where conflict glowers just below the surface. If Margo wants me to, I will be glad to write another piece about my travel in the rest of the country. Having said that, my heart is in Beirut and I plan to return many, many times.

  8. Excellent story, Inka. I recall back in the ’60’s when I lived in Edmonton, one of my friends and her husband had evacuated from Beirut during a war time. And I knew about the more recent problems. But it’s nice to know how a city (and people) can recover and it certainly sounds like a fascinating place to explore.

  9. The fifth photo from the top is just like those pre-Islam fire temples of Sassanids in Iran. It’s so interesting to see how Islamic architecture has evolved throughout the centuries and gone from Iran to other parts of the world.

    Anyway, I think it’s the intrinsic mood of the people in Beirut that makes it such a fascinating place to live, visit and enjoy.

    Rahman Mehraby
    Destination Iran Travel & Tours

  10. What a fantastic and fascinating post, Inka! I loved seeing Beirut through your eyes. I have much to learn about this place. I’ve started with the food and now I’m getting current culture from you. 🙂

  11. Beirut loves you too Inka and like we say here “Ahlan wa sahlan ” ( welcome ) anytime in Beirut. When you say your heart is in Beirut , that makes a Beiruti like me instantly think , ” what can I do more to make you more happy and more welcomed in Lebanon ?” … because this is our true spirit , not the guns and the war ugh !!! We have really deep down been trying hard to dust off the remenants of the various wars we have gone through , and not pay anymore for the conflict of nations we were stuck in for 20 years .

  12. I will be visiting Beirut in November 2011. I am a black male and I hope that the traditional hatred of blacks by Arabs does not extend itself to Beirut.

  13. last march I visited beirut with high expectations and it was such a dissapointment. it is the most overrated city I have ever benn to – I have been to london, new york, paris, rome, banghok, singapore, kuala lumpur, lisbon, kopenhag, san francisco and many more…so overrated.

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  15. I’d like to answer the 50 year old question as to who it is that purveys images of a war zone when amerikans are discussing Beirut.

    I’m an Arab-amerikan and have lived in the u.s. for 38 years now. I lived in Beirut for one year and I can tell you that Inka’s perceptions are correct. Beirut is a worldly city with everything from the best to the worst much like new york.

    Unfortunately, you have mostly the zionist owned and controlled media in the united states and it is the duty of every jew or zionist to bad mouth ANYTHING Arabic and grandiose ANYTHING jewish or israeli. Period. If you are a syndicated amerikan writer, you have to be a zionist or else tyou will lose your job and they will get someone else to write. Most of the time, amerikan writers who want success will have to cow down to the publishing houses that are now mostly jewish owned and controlled.

    Couple this very simple reality with the fact that israel needs tourism dollars and what you have is a complete denegration of any Arabic country tourism and the building up of tourist processing companys within israel IN ANY AMERIKAN travel magazine.

    Doubt me? Look at the last names of the writers who publish travel articles in the major periodicals in the u.s. and you will see they are jewish. I’m not saying that EVERY writer is jewish , just the majority of them. In the case where they are not jewish, their political alliance is checked and double checked before getting hired. Their allegiance MUST be with israel or they don’t get the job.

    One day this will change and the entire world will come to know the truth which is that travel and tourism are much more authentic in the Arab world than in israel and that the reputation that place like Beirut have are completely understated if not modified by the media.

    Good luck in Beirut. Inshallah you will have a GREAT tine and write about it.


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