Night Life, Bright Life in Beirut. I travel around what is now my favorite city.
Beirut. Wow. It is an explosion of life after Amman. It’s almost overwhelming. I realized, flying in last night, that I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it would be quite European, I thought it would be reconstructed more than one might expect. I thought there would be lots of neon and fast food chains. Leaving Amman was almost a nightmare and entering Lebanon was similar. These Middle East airports have a constant series of lines you stand in. You go to one to pay some money and get a receipt, then you bring the receipt somewhere else to get a stamp, then somewhere else so someone can check that you got the stamp. Then there’s two other lines so other people can check your passport for no reason whatsoever. It’s so inefficient and it makes very clear why these economies are not the thriving powerhouses some wish they would be. It makes you realize just how well-functioning and efficient the US is.
But we make it to Beirut! I was traveling with a friend who’s a photographer after we both gave up on our Iraqi visas, for now at least–and meet up with our other friend, a reporter who is from Lebanon and left Amman recently. He took us from the airport to downtown, passing the Sabra and Shatila camps (those are the camps where Lebanese Christians, under the eyes of Ariel Sharon, massacred 800-something Palestinians during Israel’s incursion here.) He said that Sabra is now, literally, a garbage dump but Shatila is still a refugee camp that is controlled by different warring Palestinian militias. He did some stories there and every 20 yards you have to get permission from a different faction to pass in. Each faction wants you to sit down, have tea, talk for a while. It’s scary and it’s boring and it’s one of the hardest places in the world to get any work done.
And then we’re downtown. There is this area that was completely destroyed during the Civil War, an area of gorgeous old Ottoman buildings. In the last year they have been completely rebuilt. The buildings are incredible’these grand, wide yellow-stone palaces with delicate archways on the windows. Beirut is certainly very European’there are lively cafes everywhere, great restaurants, incredibly stylish men and women. But it’s also totally Arab, which surprised me. The archways are part of that. The fancy cafes also serve nargileh or shisha or hubbly-bubbly, those water pipes that Arabs smoke. The overall feeling is one of energy and life. The cafes are filled with people laughing and talking. You sort of know you’re in the Arab world’dyou see the occasional hijab, everyone has black hair’dbut you could easily be in Italy or Yugoslavia or something. There are a few grand mosques that have been reconstructed and a few that haven’t been and are complete wrecks waiting to fall down, filled with bullet holes. In fact, in almost every glance, as you look around, you see at the same time some new, grand beautiful building and some old building that has been burned, bombed, bullet-ridden. But it’s clear that the path is in the direction of growth, rebuilding. The city is so rich, at least the part we have been in, the northern part of that bulge that sticks out into the Mediterranean. The restaurants are all steel and glass and very nice wood and have the look of some brilliant interior designer. People around you speak in an easy mix of French and Arabic and English. And they are devoutly non-devout. In Amman it was rare to see women even wearing makeup. Here, we were eating at a great Sushi restaurant and down the bar from us was a young woman with a floppy sweater that revealed her shoulder and a lot more. It was stunning and mesmerizing after Jordan. Someone told me that Christians, of course, never wore hijab, but the Muslim women are the ones who really reveal their bodies, they have more to prove and want to show just how non-religious they are. Of course, there are places in Lebanon where people are quite devout and dress even more conservatively than Amman. But not on the north coast of that bulge.
I guess the most disappointing thing about Beirut is that it doesn’t feel very surprising or unlikely or exotic or dangerous or any of the things that the name Beirut congers. The Lebanese friend I’dm visiting kept pointing out remnants of the war. We were walking along the water, on the corniche, this long boardwalk. We crossed the street and on one side there’s a brand new inter-continental hotel that is as luxurious and fancy and filled with gold and marble and steel and glass as any new hotel in the world. Across the street is the St. George Hotel that is just a bullet-shot hulk that looks ready to fall down. My friend said this is exactly the place where people from Muslim West Beirut, like him, would cross to get into Christian East Beirut. We’re just walking on a sidewalk, passing a parking lot, it doesn’t feel like anything. He said he used to spend ten hours in that exact spot waiting to get across the border. There would be Christian militiamen and Muslim militiamen and then every once in a while there would be a sniper somewhere shooting and you’d have to duck for cover until the sniper got bored. Every few feet some new militia guy would search through all your bags and check your papers. He said that now it feels pretty normal to just walk along the sidewalk here, but for the first five years after the war, he would pass this place in complete disbelief. I asked why he would bother with all that. He said it was worth it because parts of East Beirut were much calmer, much more pleasant. It was all ruled by one militia, so it was relatively calm, whereas West Beirut was a battle field of different militias. Just down the block from where the border was, he points to a theatre building and said that’s where Terry Anderson was kidnapped. It looks so normal, just a middle class neighborhood in a European city. It’s very hard to imagine armed militias driving around and the feeling of fear everywhere. We’re staying in the apartment building he lived in throughout the war. He pointed to the building right next door that still has bomb damage near the top. He said he heard the bombings and the gunshots all the time throughout the civil war and the Israeli invasion. But he’d go to school as normal, he’d go out and play. It was very rare that he would stay inside.
We went to the American University of Beirut. It is such a beautiful campus, built in the 1860s or something and rebuilt after the civil war. It’s all gorgeous buildings in yellow stone with Ottoman archways and design. It reminds me a bit of the University of Chicago or other gothic schools, but with a brighter, more fun architecture. It’s not that gray stone or foreboding gargoyles and gothic overhangs. The campus is a garden, there are trees everywhere and these terraced gardens that go down a hill towards the Mediterranean. It really is lovely. I’dve been thinking that I want to study Arabic soon and I assumed I’d do it in Amman, but now I’d like to study it here at the AUB. My friend says it’s a bad idea, because everyone here speaks English and I won’t learn Arabic. Also, the city feels so European, it almost seems like a waste of time. I might as well study in Amman, where I’dll really be immersed in Arabic culture. But I love Beirut now, after a little less than 24 hours. I want to study here and get to know it better. My friend told me how important the American University is, that it’s the best school, by far, in the Middle East; the first world-class university. His family owes all their success to the school. His grandfather, a peasant, sold all of his land so that all of his children could go to the AUB and all of them did and became professionals and now his family is comfortable. When he was a kid, he’d come here and play around the big oval green at the center of campus. Only one of the buildings was destroyed, though there are plenty of buildings right around it that still bare the scars.
We’re going out to dinner tonight. We tried the two hottest places in town but they’re booked up. We have reservations at both for tomorrow night, so we can take our pick. We’dll spend the day in the mountains outside of Beirut, maybe going to some beautiful cave or to some old Ottoman palace. It is raining like hell, which colors everything and makes me feel tired.
We did go out. It’s now the next morning. We had spent most of our time in the downtown area that is more built-up than other parts of the city. Last night we went to this other area where all the dance clubs are. There are so many buildings that are destroyed wrecks from the war. They, too, stand next to newly developed buildings or buildings that never were destroyed. It’s very odd being in a nice city, a beautiful city, thriving, good economy, and seeing these wrecked buildings. Some are just skeletons’dyou see the vertical and horizontal concrete support structure and that’s it. Others look pretty normal for the first few floors and then burned out on top. And then some weren’t bombed or burned, they just have bullet holes everywhere. Those bullet hole ones are the least destroyed, but they’re the ones where you can feel the energy of someone just pumping his gun into this thing trying to kill someone, just doing it for fun, you don’t know. The older buildings, like the mosques or Ottoman buildings, look like someone poured acid on them from above, like they’re melting. They’re of stone but they seem like sand castles on their last legs, like the surface of the stone has been blown away, which, of course, is exactly what has happened.
Despite all the burned out buildings, it just doesn’t feel like a city that is recuperating from war. So much so, that I’dve been forgetting that I’dm in an Arab country and shouldn’t be talking loudly about Israel and how I’dm going to Israel shortly. Several times, my Lebanese friend has said, Watch It. Quiet. Walking down the street, in a restaurant. We got in a cab and I was talking on a cell phone with someone saying I’d see her in Tel Aviv in a couple days and my friend nearly lost it. He told me later that the cab driver was obviously a former militia fighter and probably would not take particularly kindly to someone in his cab talking casually with Israel. In Amman, in Jordan, in a country with a peace treaty with Israel, I felt it all the time and I wouldn’t talk about Israel in public. I’d use the old favorite, Dixie. But in Lebanon it feels ridiculous, like not discussing Vienna when you’re in Naples or something. It just doesn’t make any sense. But this country is very much not at peace with Israel. To call there, my friend had to call his office in New York and have them patch us through, there’s no direct way to call Israel from Lebanon. Even though it would be a short flight from Beirut to Tel Aviv, I have to go to Amman first and wait there three hours before going on to Tel Aviv. And I have to keep the Tel Aviv ticket hidden as I go through the airport. What makes it so ridiculous’dit really feels ridiculous’dis that Beirut feels so much like Tel Aviv. Beirut is actually grander’the buildings are much nicer and bigger, the streets are wider, the architecture more delightful. But there is such a similar energy to the cities. There’s this going out, dancing, eating, loving life feel that I don’t think any other Arab city has as much. We went to dinner at this great Italian place’danother one that was clearly designed by some brilliant and particular interior designer’dand looking around the room it just felt like Tel Aviv. These good looking dark haired people having intense conversations over great food (Tel Aviv has only recently gotten great food, Beirut has had it since the French took over after World War I, my friend tells me). Then we went dancing and’das you do in Tel Aviv’dwe walked from place to place trying to pick the one that’s just right. Half of them wouldn’t let us in, because we were three men and they only want parties with at least half women. One place’dpretty empty, actually’dplayed ear-splittingly loud Arabic dance music. The next’dcompletely packed’dplayed ear-splittingly loud Spanish music. That place was a lot of fun and we danced there a while. Then we went to another place that played ear-splittingly loud French ‘d80s music. And the whole time, I felt like I might as well be in Tel Aviv. In fact, I told my Lebanese friend that the main difference is Tel Aviv really does feel more Middle Eastern. The bars and clubs all have a vaguely Middle Eastern feel, with a lot of stone and archways. In Beirut, the bars and clubs are resolutely European. My friend and I agreed that when peace comes, if it comes, Beirut-Tel Aviv will be the cultural, intellectual, artistic, gastronomic, business axis of the Middle East. They are so ready for each other. Walking around, eating, dancing, these people are ready for each other. Any Beiruti would feel instantly at home in Tel Aviv and any Tel Avivi would love Beirut. In fact, we agreed that Beirutis have a lot more in common with Tel Avivis than they do with any other Arabs. And Tel Avivis have a lot more in common with Beirutis than they do with other Israelis. Mark my words: in ten years (or will it be 20? 30?) Tel Aviv-Beirut will be seen as these twin cities of fun and commerce and art. And it’s here, much more than in Jordan, that the whole conflict seems completely idiotic.