I fall even more in love with Beirut as I travel around with an architect who finds ways to poke fun of and challenge and amuse the upper class.
I know I’dve written ad nauseum about how strange it is to cross the border from Israel to the Arab world and vice versa, but there it is, it’s just strange. I got up in Tel Aviv yesterday, packed, called a cab. The cab driver asked me where I was flying off to. I told him Beirut and he jerked his head back and then laughed and said, I’dve been to Beirut. He meant as a soldier, of course. I asked him how he liked it. He said he actually liked it a lot. The Israeli soldiers would get R&R in Beirut. He said they’d go to regular restaurants and everyone was very friendly to them. The food was good. He didn’t like how some of the Israeli soldiers treated the locals. Nothing violent, but they would try to cheat them. Like at one point during the war, Israel devalued the Shekel, so 500 shekels were suddenly just 5 shekels. The Israeli soldiers would give Lebanese money changers old 500 shekel bills (now worth 5) and tell them they were new 500 shekel bills. So, basically, they use a dollar to get $100. He said that was bad, but they had a great time, because they all were so rich in Lebanese money they’d go crazy, going to bars and clubs and stuff.
I was so tired in Israel this whole week. I think because it’s the place I’dm most familiar with, the place I’dve been the most, my body just kind of collapses after all the travel. I was so tired, I thought I was getting sick. I also felt a little down, a little mopey. But the second my plane landed in Amman, I felt this energy, this excitement, and I felt really happy. I felt like I was back to having adventures and discovering new things. I think Israel feels enough like home that I lose the manic high of travel when I’dm there. But it’s not enough like home to really replenish me. So, until I can get back to Brooklyn (a ways off, I signed on for another few months of this), I think I have to just keep going at a manic pace. However excited I was when I landed, though, I got bored pretty quick when I had to sit in the Amman airport for five hours. Oh well.
I landed in Beirut, and then I just felt so excited, so alive. So happy. I just couldn’t wait to get out into the city. I went to my hotel, showered, and walked around for a while. I’dm in a pretty dull area. It was the grand shopping district but the war killed that and now it’s quiet at night. But I got in a cab and went to Centrale. That’s the bar and restaurant I wrote about last time I was here. I pitched a story about it, the pitch was called The Coolest Bar in the World, and so I was going to interview the architect and co-owner of the place. He showed up and at first it was all a bit stiff, me asking him questions about the bar, shoving my giant microphone in his face, him answering them. But then, I don’t know if it was the steak tartar or the two whiskeys, but we suddenly just hit it off really well and I turned the tape machine off and we were talking so fast and excitedly. He explained his whole approach to creating these bars and restaurants in Beirut. He’s done several. He says there is this tiny very rich bourgeois society that goes out to eat every night at these expensive restaurants and does it like a big performance piece. Everyone dresses just so, enters the place with great ceremony and because the Beirut wealthy are such a small society, everyone knows each other and is checking each other out. (One friend of mine told me you simply cannot leave the house without make up and perfect clothes, because you will definitely run into someone and they will definitely tell everyone if you looked like a bum.) At the same time, there are desperately poor people in Beirut who, obviously, can’t afford to go anywhere near these fancy restaurants. And on top of that, the restaurants and bars, including Centrale, are mostly right along the old Green Line, which divided West and East Beirut and which was the most dangerous part of the city, where snipers and bombs made sure that anyone who entered this part of town would be killed. So, to recap, you have this bourgeois society dressing up to eat fancy meals in gorgeous restaurants while they’re surrounded by desperately poor people and the memory of massive death. Bernard plays with these themes in different ways. He says it’s not that he is very clever and figured out these themes. What he loves about being an architect in Beirut is that these powerful contradictions and ideas thrust themselves on to you.
At Centrale, Bernard, created this one gigantic table (I wrote about this before) that everyone sits around in huge-backed chairs. So it feels like a conference of cardinals or a meeting of the UN Security Council or something. (The restaurant cut the big table in half, and now half the place is just regular sorts of tables, because nobody was willing to sit at the big table.) The dining room’s ceiling is like three stories above the diners. It feels like you are in this grand cathedral. He deliberately wanted to make it all seem absurdly overblown, absurdly important, because, of course, going out to eat in Beirut feels incredibly important, so why not take it to the max. Built in to the ceiling is this big steel tube and the bar is in that tube. To get to the bar, you take this glass circular elevator with comfortable chairs. So, you sit there, on view to everyone, rising above everyone.
He took me to this other club he designed. It’s called BO18 and is on the site of what was once a Palestinian refugee camp. In 1976 (long before Sabra and Shatilla) a Christian militia group massacred most of the camp. The place was left abandoned until the club was created. The club is built underground, because Bernard wanted to honor the fact that the camp had been razed to the ground during the massacre and hadn’t been rebuilt. He wanted to keep the memory alive of that horrible event. But it’s not a pious memorial by any stretch. (The name, B018, comes from this chalet Bernard lived in in a suburb of Beirut where he used to have parties in the basement all the time. The basement apartment’s number was B018.) When we approached, it was hard to know there even was a club there. There’s just a staircase into the ground. But we happened to come just when the roof was being opened, it’s kind of like that scene in It’s A Wonderful Life where the swimming pool opens. The roof just pulls apart slowly and you see the club beneath you. We were walking on the roof, Bernard explaining that no building contractor would work on the project because it was too complicated. So he got a guy who welds oil tankers to weld the roof together’dit looks very cool’dand a guy who makes garbage trucks to do the hydraulics. When you walk down into the club, the first thing you see is a wall between the staircase and all the people and a very narrow horizontal window, a snipers window. The militia that massacred the Palestinians said they had to do it, because there were snipers in the camp. So, this snipers window is there to remind you of that but also, as Bernard said, now in Beirut the upper class snipes with their eyes. Inside the club, you sit on these wooden benches that look a bit like coffins, but can be opened to reveal very comfortable velvet-cushioned seats. At the bar, there are also these very high backed grand chairs with wings around where your head would be, which are overblown and super-serious looking, when you’re turned to face the club, but completely private, creating your own private space, when you’re turned away from the club.
We drove by, but didn’t enter, a Japanese restaurant he designed, called Yabani. On the street, all you see is this glass tube poking up out of the ground. In the tube is a big round elevator with comfortable couches in it. You enter that elevator and the hostess is there waiting for you and takes you down to the restaurant. When you go down, the circular bar surrounds where the elevator lands, so you’re on display to everyone drinking there, watched by everyone. At the end of the night, the elevator stops working and becomes a VIP lounge, so someone can reserve it for the late evening and sit, higher than everyone else, on display all night.
I don’t know if I’dm conveying how exciting it was talking to Bernard and getting this tour. Maybe it was partly the booze, but it was just so fun being with someone who is actively wrestling with these social and political issues and creating these grand places that express his ideas. I asked him if his designs are all a big Fuck You to the Bourgeoisie. He said not at all. It’s a critique, but he knows that he’s one of them and benefited from being one so much. He’s not rejecting high society or accepting it wholeheartedly. He’s just trying to show what is actually happening. I was having so much fun I was just writing the pitch in my mind to the Architecture magazine I write for. I’dm hoping they let me do some kind of profile of him.
After the tour of his places he asked if I wanted to go to a dinner party that he was desperately late for. So we went to this unbelievably nice Oriental style mansion where all his friends, mostly architects, were sitting over coffee and desert. It was so much fun. It was all these good looking incredibly smart people who were having a great time. There is just something about Beirut. And every few minutes someone is saying that: There is something about Beirut. At least Beirut high society, that is so fabulous. In Amman, I felt like I was having the same conversation over and over with every person I met. Here, I feel like each conversation is totally surprising and different. People are well educated and well traveled and are deeply engaged in the issues that come up living in a war-ravaged country. And they’re so damn nice. Everyone I’dve met is so welcoming and friendly and excited to talk. And funny, too. It’s not all serious discussion. Little of it is, in fact.
After the dinner party, I went back to Centrale to find some people to interview for my story. I came across this couple, she’s from here but lives in New York, he lives here. We talked for three hours or something. She kept talking about how she met the first Israeli she ever knew just recently in New York and they’re now good friends. Whenever we’d talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she was very careful to mention how horrible the Israelis have been treated by suicide bombers and how afraid they are and how she understands that. Her boyfriend was a very good guy, but much less sympathetic to the Israelis. They told me that it really wasn’t that bad growing up during war. It was scary every now and then, but for the most part, it was fun, actually. Families got very close, because they didn’t have anything to do but sit around and talk. As kids they would make up silly games and that was fun, because they didn’t have TV or anything. Neighbors would watch out for each other in a real way. And the nightlife, somehow, kept on, especially just north of Beirut in this Christian enclave. They would go up there and party and get drunk and everything. They also said that now they are getting to know Beirut. They grew up here, but there were massive parts of the city they never saw because they were too dangerous, including the part we were in right then. So, as adults, they were getting to know the city of their childhood for the first time. They said that to get from my hotel to Centrale, a five-minute cab ride now, would have taken six to ten hours during the war. And there was always a chance I’d be stopped by a militia from the other side and be killed.
I have spent today relaxing and walking around and trying to figure out some way I can convince my editors to let me move here. I want to get an apartment and spend a few months here. I just love this city. People told me I could get a good place for 500 bucks and I could study Arabic at the American University of Beirut and I feel like I already have so many friends here. I’dm going to try to make this happen. I don’t know of any other city that feels so rich and also so accessible. It is completely safe, by the way. I feel absolutely no fear and I’dve talked to so many people about that and they tell me there is no reason to be afraid.