As a child of the 70s, who grew up in the 80s, Beirut has all the magical allure of the forbidden that China did. And, rather as on our first day in Kunming, I looked out of our 32nd storey window and thought, “My god! I’m in China!” so too, on landing at the airport, I felt a wash of genuine excitement.
I’m, seriously, in Beirut!
And it’s not a bombsite.
It’s rather lovely.
It took me about 5 minutes to fall in love with Beirut, a place that, rather tragically, given the two countries are not just not on speaking terms but technically at war, reminds me immensely of Tel Aviv, which I visited a lot in my 20s.
It took Z a bit longer.
He’s not a fan of early starts, plus he’s watching our purse strings. As in, “Jesus, Mum! We’d be living like kings on this in Bali…”
And, let it be hereby announced, Beirut is exxy. As in Jordan and Israel, you’re looking at Western prices. But, unlike in, say, Amman, you’re actually in a vibrant, multicultural, tolerant, international city which justifies paying Western prices.
Sorry, Amman. But, as Z said, “NEXT!”
And, also unlike Jordan, I was geared to front up some cash…
Now, being a) male and b) only 11, Z’s not nearly as excited as I am by the prospect of walking around without worrying whether one is inadvertently exposing some clavicle, some shoulder, or even a bit of calf…
I have every respect for Islamic standards of modesty, and I’m not oversimplistic about the hijab – though if another man (and they’re always, always Islamist men) tells me “It’s entirely a woman’s choice!” while 9-year-old girls walk past covered from hair to ankles, I may do him violence – but, god, it gets wearing after a while.
Frankly, at my advanced age, I’m not actually going to be exposing that much flesh anyway. My tummy was a beautiful thing 20 years ago, and not bad a decade ago, and I could rock hotpants with the best of them.
Now, I’m at that age where I realise why older women used to bitch about their knees, I fully comprehend the meaning of “bingo wings” and, frankly, I’m not prepared to invest the effort to turn that flab around.
We arrived at our hotel, after an absolutely painless cab ride from the airport (an Iraqi chap advised me to go up to the first floor and pick a cab that had just dropped someone at arrivals, where they will take you for $15, whereas the chaps downstairs that snatch at your bags like harpies want $40), and I negotiated pricing with the receptionist.
She’s a lovely girl. Bleached tight ringlets tumbling over her bare shoulders and down into the most impressive cleavage, framed by a rather skimpy yellow floral print frock.
I look at her shoulders. Her cleavage. Her blowsy warmth.
And then I look at her cleavage again.
And I think, “Beirut! I think I love you…”
Z? He’s like, “This place is really expensive. And she’s trying to rip you off.”
I’m like, “Dude! This is the Middle East. We’re negotiating. Plus! Look at all the shops and restaurants right on this street! Plus, they have the room prices on a sign in the front, which must be some kinda law…”
Frankly, having already shed my shoulder scarf at the airport, and being about to shed my long cardi, I am already contemplating donning a skirt and vest top. And perhaps even some heels?
We’re round the corner from the American University of Beirut, its bougainvillea visible from our balcony, and the streets are full of pretty young things wearing – well, pretty much what they like, really.
It is hard to express how very, very refreshing this is.
I am genuinely psyched to explore Beirut. It feels like a world of possibilities.
Even if, as we walk down the street to set out and I see a gorgeous young Beiruti rocking some tight lowride jeans, and I say to Z, “Wow! Look at her jeans! I think I might get some like that! If I can afford them!” he says, harshly but fairly, “But they wouldn’t look like that on you, Mum. They’d look like Liz Lemon’s dungarees.”
Gentle reader, I promise you a picture post on the beauties of Beirut. That won’t be now. My Mac, and with it my photos, is recovering from a beer-related incident in Beirut’s Apple reseller.
But here are a few points about Beirut. A city in which, like Tel Aviv, one has to get used (I’m British) to the prevalence of soldiers and the sheer bizarreness of a cosmopolitan, mainly liberal city
Lebanon strikes me as one of the very, very few countries in the world – outside Thailand, China, Italy and France – in which it is almost impossible to have a bad meal.
Lebanese food is amazing, with a fondness for sweet-tart flavours like pomegranate and lemon (a winner with spicy sausages — I’m serious!), a welter of spices, and – a controversial statement this, and one I may have to recant when I hit Israel – almost certainly the best hummus in the Middle East.
Beirut is a walkable city. The districts in which one would want to spend time – East Beirut, West Beirut and downtown/Solidere – are only a few miles across, and there’s always something to see in the streets.
Public transport is simple – get on the big road and jump a minivan. Which is fortunate, since cab drivers are as rapacious as those in Jordan and much less negotiable than those in Egypt.
There are boutiques all over the shop. Nice boutiques. In which one could imagine wanting to buy stuff, particularly if one were a UK size 8 (US 4) and shopping on Daddy’s Black Amex.
There are a gadzillion bookstores, with international news in English and French.
Most Beirutis speak French and/or English in addition to Levantine Arabic (sufficiently different from the pidgin Egyptian Arabic I’ve acquired as to make communication rather difficult), and tend to communicate in a charming blend of languages a la Timorese and Singaporeans.
At this time of year, the city is full of flowers, including that cliché of flowers on the razor wire, and some absolutely lovely public gardens, such as the one that frames the old Roman baths.
The corniche, with its views across the Mediterranean into the hilly suburbs, is dazzling.
Beirut is architecturally fascinating. There are vestiges of the colonial buildings which gave the city its name, the Paris of the East, and some wonderful modern buildings going up, bomb sites and pre-Roman sites side by side, mosques and cathedrals cheek by jowl: it is eminently, eminently, moochable.
There are fab museums. Outstanding art galleries.
And, as Z puts it, “You know what, Mum? Nobody has tried to scam us here. Not once.”
And, nobody has.
Beirutis, like the Cambodians, who also inflicted genocide on each other over a period of decades, have a natural warmth and kindness. (Yeah, I know. Go figure.)
In both Egypt and Jordan, I came to dread the phrase, “Welcome to [insert country]…” because it was, 95% of the time in Egypt and 80% of the time in Jordan, going to lead to either a scam, a sales spiel or begging.
I’ve heard the phrase “Welcome to Lebanon!” just the once, and it was from a guy in Starbucks, where Z was getting his Frappuccino fix, which is AOK.
But I have felt genuinely welcome in Lebanon.
People are open to conversation – very open – but they do not pressure you.
I am as invisible on the streets as I’d expect a decently-clad woman rising 40 with a child in tow to be anywhere in the civilised world. (Should I also be invisible in the bars, of course, I will be right back here whining about that…)
It feels, to be honest, like a place that combines the best of the Arab world and the Mediterranean. Z can invade a parking attendant’s cabin to play with his kitten and receive just a broad grin of approval. There are a zillion and one places to go for a coffee and read the paper.
There are women here. Unaccompanied women. Not with a friend. Not with a husband. Not with their kids. Just walking the streets, sitting in restaurants, sitting in coffee shops, sitting in bars. Not even waiting for someone! Just… On their own!
I was going to say I felt safe here. But I suppose I ought to qualify that a little.
We arrived on Monday, the morning that there was a major shootout in the southern suburbs, the camp district which stands to wealthy central Beirut with its bikini beach clubs as Rio’s favelas do to Ipanema, a week after things went rather pear-shaped in Tripoli, and the day before a major kidnapping by the Syrian border.
Yeah. I’m beginning to think I have a jinx.
Still, Central Beirut feels safe. It feels calm, unlike Alexandria felt when we left. But Lebanon as a whole is notably less safe than it was the day before we arrived.
Hey-ho. Shit happens. And, like Tel Avivers, who partied in their gas masks during the Gulf War, Beirutis keep calm and carry on…
Now, after our experience in Jordan, which is also the size of a postage stamp but takes abhorrent amounts of time to get around on public transport (with Jordan’s substantial foreigner tax, it cost us almost $50 and 6 hours to cover under 100 miles one day), I had decided we would roadtrip Lebanon in our very own car.
And so, with a week to go before Z returns to the UK to see his dad and I head to Beirut for a bit of bar reviewing then Dahab for some work time in a zen place, that is exactly what we’re doing.
Even if some of the places I’d have liked to see appear to be off the menu this week…