Beirut is cool! If you’ve picked up a travel magazine once in the last decade, you’ve probably read this at least once. Beirut has been the international equivalent of Portland, Ore., a subject of travel editors’ endless fascination.
After six weeks there, I appear to be the only person who thinks the opposite, and I’ve had a hard time writing this post to say so. (And I like Portland!) I don’t blame Beirut, I don’t think–I blame the hype.
I went to Beirut in 1999, and it was a haphazard mess of terrible infrastructure and jerks in armored Mercedes. According to the papers, though, Beirut’s come a long way, baby!
Guess what? Beirut is still a mess. Ostentatious wealth still rules, and people have to haul water–not like in rural Africa, but anyway, in 5-gallon jugs up stairs because the power is out so the elevator isn’t running.
Added misfortunes since ’99: the internet is some of the slowest (and most expensive) in the world, and crude plastic surgery has become wildly popular among a certain set. (Women look startled, strained, flotational–if you don’t want to feel like you’re having an acid flashback, don’t go anywhere near a mall!)
Sure, it would be a buzzkill to mention these details in a “Beirut nightlife is sizzling hot!” story. But it’s slightly disingenuous to ignore them altogether. All of these things (except the plastic surgery–not sure what that’s about) are indicators of a much more troubling reality, and the simple fact that Beirut is still scarred by war–and so are Beirutis.
This is not a “cool” city mainly because Beirutis do not keep their cool. They are, to generalize wildly, jumpy and aggressive and filled with road rage, and the instant there’s bad news, they retreat to their apartments with a week’s worth of food.
I completely understand why this is, and I would probably be pessimistic and anxious if I lived there too. But as a visitor, you have to be willfully blind to ignore the harsh truth behind the art-book stores, the Gemmayzeh pubs with their reggae-Gypsy-funk-Oriental DJs, and the massive, glittering malls.
That truth is: it takes a long time to get over the trauma of war, and it won’t be happening anytime soon in Lebanon.
Most travel stories nod to the various wars, to heighten the drama of the phoenix-like rise of the capital: “Beirutis, scarred by decades of war…”; “Beirut, once marred by civil war…” etc etc. But the implication is that’s all done–Beirutis are back to boozing and beach-lounging, and it’s all good. The checkered past just gives a little frisson to the decadent present–all the bullet holes add cachet.
But Lebanon’s 1991 Amnesty Law let the perpetrators of civil-war horrors slide back into society, even politics. Lebanon has not signed on to the international Mine Ban Treaty. And any peace in Lebanon is precarious with Syria next door, not to mention Israel–and Hizbullah’s unending “resistance” to it.
I’m not complaining about the poor infrastructure and the bad drivers per se–that I can handle. I have a harder time with partying in the face of obvious psychological trauma. I had a similar reaction to New Orleans after Katrina–a wonderful and interesting place to visit, but it’s wrong to pretend the city is “back” and hopping when a stranger on a streetcorner will, unprompted, in a shaking voice, tell you how he lost his home.
Beirut does actually have all the charms touted in the travel stories. It’s small, so you can crash the “scene” in a week. You’re on the Mediterranean, which is lovely. Women dress in every possible way. (Though cleavage is often deployed in the same aggressive way as the plastic surgery–ow, my eyes!) Its place on the International Hipster Circuit is established thanks to cool bars, good coffee, contemporary art and a visible gay scene.
Beirut is cosmopolitan in a way that most of the rest of the region is not. First-time visitors to the Middle East are usually happy to find the place and people so relatable, which is no small thing.
What do you think? Is it dishonest to push one aspect of tourism to a troubled place, and ignore the trouble? Is it helpful to normalize a place by touting it as a hot destination? Have you had a similar experience in another destination? Do you love Beirut because or in spite of it all? Am I cynical grump who should just shut up and go surfing in Liberia?