Despatches from Beirut

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Dust was my first impression of Lebanon’s capital. A grimy dust that hangs in the air and claws at the back of your throat. That and the ear-splitting traffic noise, with car horns buzzing constantly like angry insects. Heading into the city from the airport we passed swathes of characterless apartment blocks, many greyed out and on the verge of collapse – whether through war damage or general disrepair, it was hard to tell. Familiar franchises like Costa Coffee and Krispy Kreme Donuts winked through the taxi windows as we swept past. Yet the cityscape is unmistakably Middle Eastern, with sand-coloured minarets reaching gracefully into the clouds, the Mediterranean-blue domes of mosques squatting firmly on the skyline and billboards laden with intriguing flashes of Arabic script. Arriving in a city like Beirut for the first time always brings a dash of zest to my blood. I couldn’t wait to explore.By the time I made the journey to the airport in reverse at the end of my trip, the city was beginning to be familiar, and I felt drawn back to it even before I’d left. I’d even got used to stepping out fearlessly into the raging torrents of traffic to cross the road. I hadn’t quite got used to the heavy military presence on the streets. Young soldiers in camouflage gear with guns hanging nonchalantly across their chests were everywhere. I witnessed several demonstrations, with pro- and anti-Assad protestors taking to the streets. The locals didn’t seem to give these events a second glance. Yet for me it was a surreal experience to sip a cappuccino in Paul’s Bakery at the corner of Gouraud Street, while across the road in Martyr’s Square reams of barbed wire were unfurled into temporary blockades and the city centre came to a heavily guarded standstill. The demonstrations brought fleets of crouching tanks rolling down the roads and a cold flutter shivering down my spine.

The country’s violent past is always present, often in jarring juxtaposition with a city that has its eye on the future. The gleaming Phoenician Hotel, part of the Intercontinental chain, sits just across from the brand new marina development at Zaitunay Bayand next to a branch of Gaucho’s steak restaurant. Yet standing next to it, overlooking the polished chauffeur-driven cars and their equally polished passengers in heels and designer suits, is the bombed-out, blackened shell of the old Holiday Inn, a stark reminder that during the bloody civil war from 1975-1990, this was part of the Green Line, the division between Muslim east and Christian west Beirut and a virtual no-go zone.

Beirut is often associated with war, terrorism and violence. You can’t forget this: the facts are etched into the landscape. But the city has so much more. In the narrow streets and cosy boutique atmosphere of Gemmayze you get a definite sense of the early 20th century decadence that earned the city its nickname ‘the Paris of the East’. You can party here just as you could in any big city. In the ultra-modern Beirut Souks, packed with international designer brands, in the arty chic of Saifi village and in the expensive marina development you can see a sophisticated 21st century city. You can eat delicious Lebanese foods, drink wine from Lebanese vineyards and sample cuisines from around the world in an array of restaurants. Everywhere the cloying, sickly sweet smell of hookah pipes and the enchanting whine of the muezzin reminds you which region of the world you’re in. Viewing the city from the waterfront district, newly emerging on reclaimed land at the shoreline, it looks like a huge building site. It reminded me of Berlin in the late 1990s, with cranes and half-built, half-demolished buildings everywhere. Yet with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Lebanon behind, the glorious blue of the Mediterranean in front, and the elegant outlines of mosques studding the city, Beirut has a beauty that’s all its own. Despite the dust, despite the horrendous traffic, I’d love to go back.

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