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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Beirut - Lofty Past Ebbs Back
Text and photos by Piers Gladstone

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Beirut was “the Paris of the Middle East”. A long and vicious civil war put paid to this era, and it is only now that the yacht clubs, nightclubs and tourists are returning after a ten-year reconstruction programme. For the most part these tourists are from the Middle East, but Beirut is once again attracting Europeans with its history, culture, cuisine and the good life.

I take my expresso to the four plastic chairs on the pavement and settle down to watch the Friday morning rush hour traffic. Old beaten up cars jostle with brand new Audis and BMW’s, while ancient Mercedes Service Taxis honk their horns at anyone standing still on the pavement. An SUV swooshes to a stop in front of me and a young boy emerges from the general store-come-takeaway coffee parlour to take the driver’s order. He returns with two plastic terracotta coloured expresso cups on a tray that are handed through the open window.

Dead ahead of me I can see the sea, but only because there is a building missing in the row opposite. To the right of the empty plot is an abandoned ten-storey office block, complete with bullet holes. Less than one hundred metres down the road I can just make out the red and white tape that cordons off the area where Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister and powerhouse behind Beirut’s recent rebirth, was assassinated by a one tonne bomb. Even at first glance it is clear that Beirut’s past and present troubles are part of the very fabric of its inhabitants’ daily life.

I head uphill from the Ain Al-Mreisse district towards Hamra. I walk along Rue Bliss, past the manicured gardens and regal sand-coloured buildings of the American University of Beirut, reputedly the Middle East’s most prestigious, before sitting down at Al-Kahwa for a late “Lebanese Breakfast”. A large plate of scrambled eggs with mince, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, fried halloumi, lebni (cottage cheese with olive oil) and hot pitta arrives, along with a Turkish coffee. A few students wander in with files and books tucked under their arms and order cappuccinos.

Colonial Style, Hamra

The streets of Hamra and Ras Beirut are residential and commercial and for the most part narrow and one-way. Balconies burst with potted greenery, some with carpets hanging over them to air. Tangles of cables loop and criss-cross from one side of the street to the other. Most of the doorways of the small shops are filled by their owners watching life on the streets go by, invariably smoking cigarettes and sipping coffees.

Beirut’s Holiday Inn in the Ain Al-Mreisse district was opened shortly before the war. It is a behemoth of a building, over 25 storeys tall, and was designed to withstand an earthquake, which it looks like it has, just. Due to its commanding location, it was a favoured position for snipers during the war, which in turn meant it attracted incoming fire of various calibres. Whilst it is still firmly standing, the walls and balconies are bullet-riddled and pockmarked with shell holes, some of which are several metres in circumference.

I cross the street and for $10 climb aboard a hot air balloon. Beirut stretches out before me as I float above the Holiday Inn, its destroyed revolving restaurant and helipad both visible. It is a forlorn sight, especially now that the gleaming InterContinental Phoenicia and Hotel Monroe are a matter of metres away. I find myself wondering how people feel about this symbolic and constant reminder of the war – do they not notice it anymore, or is it a painful sight to see even now?

Nargileh pipes, Downtown.

I decide to walk the length of the palm-lined and sea-fronted Corniche (about four kilometres) from Ain Al-Mreisse to Pigeon Rocks, Beirut’s only natural landmark, for sunset. All along the seafront tower new and gleaming high-rise apartment blocks, their rectangular shadows angling across the road and Corniche, interspersed by stripes of clear winter sunshine. I buy a coffee and admire a corn-on-the-cob stand, beautifully arranged and resplendent with several Lebanese flags fluttering in the sea breeze. Behind it stands Dreams Buildings, an apartment block with underground motorboat parking facilities. I take my coffee and sit next to an old man and watch three young boys fishing to the rhythmical click of the old man’s prayer beads.

At night I realise just how much of this city still lies derelict. There are dark gaps in the jigsaw puzzle of lit buildings. Whole blocks are shrouded in a blanket of darkness as I make my way to the downtown area, or “Central Business District”, which has been completely rebuilt over a ten-year period thanks to Rafik Hariri’s Solidere organisation. The closer I get to Downtown, the greater the number of security guards and soldiers there are on the streets. I get lost en route and find myself by the Grand Serail, a majestic Ottoman era building which is now a government building and off-limits to the public. “Where you go?” enquires a twitchy soldier with a large assault rifle and red beret, as an eight-car motorcade with motorcycle outriders emerges from an arch and sweeps onto the street.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbeck

The French Mandate-era and Ottoman buildings of Downtown have been immaculately restored, housing the likes of Mont Blanc and Bang & Olufsen, as well as many of Beirut’s best restaurants along its cobbled and pedestrianised streets. It is one of the places to be seen. There is an air of sophistication as large groups of friends and families dine al-fresco, served by waiters in tuxedoes, the hum of a myriad of voices echoing along the arch-lined buildings. Young ladies with menus and clipboards help people to find tables as the sweet smell of nargileh smoke wafts from the many pipes placed on the ground next to their respective smokers.

I find a small table at Al Balad, a popular looking restaurant on a small side street off Place D’Etoile. I order spicy red hummus and an Ouzi – I have no idea what it is, but the irony of a dish which sounds like an Israeli sub machine gun tempts my sense of humour. The table next to me is full of smart thirty-something Beirutis ostentatiously switching their conversation between French, Arabic and English while loudly greeting their friends who pass by. As I people watch, I realise that I have not seen any women wearing traditional dress of even headscarves all day. In many ways I do not feel I am in the Middle East, just as much as the Downtown area does not feel real, but an illusion; an artificial and somewhat soulless recreation of what used to be.

On Saturday morning I make my way towards the National Museum along Rue Damas, the former Green Line, which saw the city divided into Christian and Muslim areas on either side of this street during the war. Rue Damas is a strange mix of the old and the new; incredible post-modernist cube and glass restaurants with footmen opening the doors of Porsches stand next to empty plots and bullet-riddled colonial-style buildings. I stop and drink an expresso with a man named Ali. “Behind us is all Christian”, he explains as I watch an old man haul his wife’s shopping basket up to their balcony with the help of a rope. “On the other side was all Muslim, and here it was fighting. War is very bad for Lebanon. We do not want war again.”

Beirut’s newest Mosque

The two storey Museum is a fascinating historical journey from the 2nd Millennium BC through to the Ottoman era. The most fascinating aspect though is the ten-minute video of how the staff saved the artefacts from pillage during the war. Large pieces, such as the Roman marble sarcophogi, were encased in reinforced concrete, while smaller objects were entombed in the basement. The building itself suffered greatly and took four years to restore, while footage of the reinforced concrete being removed showed how prescient their decision was.

I meet Alex, a friend of a friend, at Le Chef on Rue Gourard in the rapidly gentrifying Gemmayzeh district for lunch. Between mouthfuls we talk with John, an ex-Wall Street banker who now works as an investment banker here, and private property speculator and developer. “This area here is happening at the moment”, John explains. “New bars and restaurants are opening all the time and property is rocketing”. Le Chef is not new though, and has been run by the same family for forty years. It stayed open during the war, and all the fittings and fixtures, from the wood panelling to the mural, are original.

We walk to Place des Martyrs, where a tacky shrine to Rafik Hariri has been placed under a marquee, complete with tinny Koranic music, plastic flowers and burning incense. The influence of this man and his death cannot be overestimated though. His picture adorns the city along with Lebanese flags, and soon after his death more than one million people demonstrated in Place des Martyrs against Syria’s military presence and perceived meddling in Lebanese affairs, which lead directly to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, in what became known as “The Cedar Revolution”. Many still believe Syria exerts their influence on Lebanese affairs, and point to the fourteen assassination attempts on high-profile anti-Syrian figures since the summer.

‘Place des Martyrs’

In the evening I return to Rue Gauraud and meet Alex at Torino, the first bar to open on this street a year or so ago. A DJ mixes CD’s in the window alcove, facing the street. It is full, so we go next door to Bar Godot, one of about fifteen tiny bars in what used to be small artisanal workshops. There are 30 people squeezed in here, the atmosphere is intimate and relaxed, and the crowd positively bohemian. Two girls sit and chat at the bar, one dressed in a Sari, the other wearing a fur-lined waistcoat and cowboy hat, drinking mojitos from strange shaped glasses to an eclectic mix of blues, jazz and west-African music.

After a Sunday morning on the Corniche followed by an afternoon of horse racing at the Hippodrome I decide to make a day trip out of Beirut. I wait at the Cola Bus Station for an hour before the driver of the minibus is satisfied he has enough passengers to leave. The Monday morning traffic is terrible and it takes us an hour to crawl towards the mountains looming over the city. A man pushing a trolley of boxes with neatly stacked muddy potatoes in them overtakes us. We pass an exchange bureau that makes me laugh: “$EXCHANGE”, before starting on the race track that is the mountain road. The engine screams and the tyres squeal as we climb into the shroud of clouds, before bursting into sunshine as we cross the Nakleh summit and enter the Bekaa Valley.

Baalbeck is famous for its Roman ruins and infamous for being the headquarters of Hezbollah, which explains why this small town is awash with green and yellow Hezbollah flags and that Hezbollah t-shirts are on sale as tourist souvenirs.

Rafik and Saad Hariri, Ain Al-Mreisse

I climb the giant staircase and enter the Great Court. I am the only person in this huge expanse of large pieces of Roman rubble flanked by towering walls, niches, statues and intricate cornicing. Six of the fifty-four monumental columns of the Temple of Jupiter (which took 120 years to build) are still standing, over twenty metres high - the largest in the world. Beneath them stands the Temple of Bacchus, beautifully preserved and dwarfing the three ant-like people below it. It is the most highly decorated Roman temple in the world, with stunning intricate friezes and carvings, including Mark Anthony and Cleopatra with a snake.

As I head out for my last dinner in Beirut I bump into Mohammed, who I met in the barbers on my first day. Five minutes later and I am in the passenger seat of a silver Hummer on a night cruise of Beirut. Mohammed tells me he is Kurdish and his

Bullet. Riddled building - ‘Holiday Inn, Ain Al-Mreisse’

grandfather came to Beirut in the 1920s. During the war he fought for one of the many Muslim militias. “It was crazy,” he says shaking his head. “We did not know what we were fighting for. We would drink coffee with our Christian friends until we received the order to fight, when we would go to our separate sides of the street and start shooting at each other. Then and now we dream always of the future.” What this future will be is very uncertain, but with the Middle Eastern money that has recently poured into Lebanon, the withdrawal of the Syrian army and the will of the Lebanese people, a brighter future looks possible.

Piers Gladstone flew on Aeroflot to Beirut for $500 including taxes. A very basic single room at Pension Home Valery cost £8.00 per night.  Tel:  +961 01 362 169

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