Lethargic in Lebanon

By: Sandstorm

Jan 10 2009

Category: Middle East

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Last week, I was pleased to be back on familiar turf after a four-day stay in Beirut. It was a rather subdued experience, I have to say.

My father (who is half Lebanese / half Italian) was in the country on business and, being eternally enraptured with the Middle East, and having always been curious to see Lebanon’s capital city, I asked if I could go along too.

Beirut has been touted as the resurgent party city for years, and true enough it does have a thriving club scene and lively nightlife.

But it’s one of the only international cities I’ve visited that I’ve been completely unable to form any kind of emotional bond with.

Not that Beirut hasn’t fought to become the Middle Eastern Riviera it once was, but its tragic history seems to have robbed much of the city of its atmosphere, charisma and personality.

So much of it is new – the relentless sound of construction is the most prevalent noise in Beirut (preceeded by the thick traffic) – and looking from one bland, yellow-tinged apartment block to another, I longed to see something different.

It didn’t have the ancient, mystical charm of Cairo or the languid, resort vibe of Sharm el Sheikh, nor the glitzy home-from-home atmosphere in the luxurious Dubai.

I can’t really find the words to describe it – the place just lacked something.

By and large, it’s a friendly place. But there’s a sense of underlying tension and, with the army presence in the city and checkpoints around every corner, it was hard to completely relax.

Like any Middle Eastern country, there’s a sharp rich and poor divide. The wealth of some of Beirut’s residents is tremendous and the new beachfront apartments built to cater for them are amongst the most alarmingly opulent I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile, within a ten minute drive lies a Palestinian refugee camp where residents exist in the most heartwrenching squallor imaginable – something I found extremely hard to reconcile.

I would’ve liked to visit the camp to offer my help – although I’ve no idea what I could’ve done – but was advised it was too dangerous.

Shopping and partying revolves around one area – Downtown Beirut – which, in all fairness, has held on to some exquisitely old buildings and has a luxury feel which, in parts, even reminds me of London’s Old Bond Street.

Looming large over the Rue Moutrane in Downtown is Aishti’s, the Middle East’s answer to Harvey Nichols, where designer clothes are shockingly around four times the price of those in the UK.  

One jewel I did find though is an achingly cool concept store called Kitsch, where you can buy Lulu Guinness purses and Hunter wellies and other pretty things then sit down in a cute coffee shop and have the best cupcakes in the Middle East.

One thing that’s undeniable though, is the astounding quality of Lebanese food (fish restaurants in this city are phenomenal), and one of the best places to eat is People @ Aishti’s, the store’s topfloor (and top whack) eaterie.

It was a light, bright garden-style space bustling with busy, chatty and expensively dressed ladies meeting for indulgent lunches.

I had fattoush (salad with flatbread croutons) and smoked salmon carpaccio followed by the most perfect and moreish Parisian mushroom risotto, and then UNBELIEVABLE almond and honeycomb ice cream.

It was utterly heavenly, but I left feeling enormous – and that’s another thing. Lebanese women are not only incredibly beautiful, but for the most part are perfectly manicured and styled – which doesn’t do wonders for one’s self esteem, I must say.

Three things really surprised me about Beirut, however. Some of the native Lebanese population is astonishingly fair-haired and blue-eyed, whilst some are much darker in skin tone and hair colour. It makes for a really interesting aesthetic diversity that I’d never have expected.

Secondly, in the middle of the stifling city, it’s easy to forget that Beirut is right on the breezy coast and bordered all along by the sparkling Mediterranean sea – the most expensive residences in town (one of which I was lucky enough to visit) are right on seafront, overlooking the vast ocean. When you look out across the sea, you suddenly don’t feel like you’re in Beirut at all.

Lastly, whilst you can top up your tan on the bright, sandy beaches along the Corniche, you can drive an hour out of the city up into the ski resorts of Mount Lebanon and be cruising down the piste – all in the same day! I’ve come across very few landscapes that offer such diversity, particularly in a country as miniscule as Lebanon.

During my time there, tensions were mounting between Israel and Hamas.

There was a growing concern that Lebanon may potentially get involved, and seeing a stream of violent images on television made me rather desperate to get home.

I couldn’t even relax on the plane – the only time I actually breathed a heavy sigh of deep relief was the moment we landed in Heathrow.

Beirut, although beautiful in places, was not the experience I’d hoped for.

I’d love to return to the country again, and am still utterly fascinated by it, but next time I’d be far more interested in seeing the Lebanon’s more ancient areas – the ruins of Baalbek and the vast rural vineyards of the Beqaa Valley.

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