Category: Lebanon

Dissenting Opinion: Beirut Is Not Cool

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!

Cool kids in the Place d'Etoile in the rebuilt downtown

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.

Beirut cool...in shades of pink

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 balconies, each a little theater

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?

Beirut in Books

Astute followers of this blog will know that it has gotten terribly out of step with reality. I am not currently in the Persian/Arabian Gulf at all, but in Lebanon. I’ve been reading a lot, trying to get a grip on things–Lebanon feels more foreign to me than I expected it to. So in lieu of travel stories, this week I’ll share my reading list.

Jasmine and Fire, by Salma Abdelnour

Without the subtitle (“a bittersweet year in Beirut”), it sounds a bit like a torrid romance, and I suppose I was expecting some bodice-ripping or other high drama, so it took me a little while to get into its groove.

But in the end I was glad for it not to be a high-drama book (as so much else around here is intense). Instead it’s a low-key sort of travelogue and a meditation on what it means to be at home somewhere. And the reason I jumped at reading it (the publisher offered me a copy–it’s officially released tomorrow) is because I know Abdelnour as a food writer, so I figured that angle would be good too. And in that respect especially, it has been a great introduction to the city–Abdelnour uses food to explore Beirut, by heading off on a walkabout to the famous shwarma place, for instance, or trying out the odd processed cheese (Picon) she used to like as a kid.

Abdelnour left Lebanon with her family as a child, early in the civil war, and in the book she returns to Beirut and the apartment her family has kept, to see if she feels like she fits in better here than she did back in the U.S. Each chapter covers a month, and it glides along easily, in the present tense.

What was odd about reading it is that it was eerily in sync with what I was doing at the time. Every time I cracked open the book, it was like reading my own notes: Wait, I just walked that exact same route through the city! I just went to Tell Arqa and Akkar! I just ate that eggplant fatteh at Al Balad!

So I could write a blog post about this stuff…but you could just read this lovely book. To make it a bit easier, I’m running a giveaway of Jasmine and Fire: enter on my Facebook page.

Jasmine and Fire is very much about present-day Beirut. But I’ve also read a couple of books about the past–where the picture of the city grows a lot murkier.

Bye Bye Babylon, by Lamia Ziade

This is a short graphic novel about the good old pre-war days. Or it is at first: colorful, somewhat childish watercolor illustrations show tan ladies by the sea. But that Beirut is gone within a few pages, and the rest of the story is the author’s childhood recollections of the war–the images and the language are simple, but the story is concise and all too brutally clear.

What I found gripping was almost incidental. At one point, Ziade details all the various militias and their insignias, with slightly comical drawings of typical militia members (one machine-gun toting woman wears an oh-so-seventies rainbow T-shirt). I knew, abstractly, that many of the militias and political wings established during the war still exist in Lebanon—but seeing them laid out here, and illustrated, made me realize it concretely: Phalangists, Lebanese Forces, Amal–I’ve seen their flags in various parts of the city and around the country, marking turf. The fact that all these groups still exist—after doing such barbaric things during the war (which are detailed in this book)—is more unsettling than I’d had time to consider, especially when juxtaposed with the otherwise glossy image Beirut has now.

A World I Loved, by Wadad Makdisi Cortas

I’m only halfway through this, but I’m liking it a lot—Cortas was a passionate educator who ran a prestigious girls school in Beirut, and this is her memoir. Like Bye Bye Babylon, it’s also deeply nostalgic, but it doesn’t candy-coat anything. It also starts in an earlier era, during World War I, when the Ottoman empire was dismantled. Reading these two books in succession is not exactly comforting—I’m getting a strong sense of how deeply wrong things went in the colonial era, and how that still echoes everywhere. It’s the kind of thing you learn in grad school—colonialism is bad, sure—but it’s not until you’re actually in a place, and see that people have been working over the same problems for decades, and still are, that it really sinks in.

What I’d really be interested to read is a memoir by an active militia member during the war. So far everything I’ve seen is by innocent bystanders. But I know the war’s real participants are still around. When I was standing in front of the shell of the Holiday Inn, listening to a tour guide explain the building’s strategic significance, a man drove by and shouted out his car window, fist raised in triumph, “I fought in that building!” Where’s his story?

**Remember: Go enter the Jasmine and Fire giveaway on my Facebook page!

Buy This Book: Day of Honey

For weeks, since I read Day of Honey cover to cover in a big, delicious rush, I’ve been mulling over a lengthy proper review in my head. Great books about the Middle East are so rare that they deserve splendid treatment.

But I finally realized that’s not going to happen. I already lent my copy to someone else, and gave three more copies to friends. All the details are slipping away. But here’s the essence: Annia Ciezadlo writes about people in the Middle East like they’re real live individual human beings, not political pawns or members of the “Arab street.”

Ciezadlo was a reporter in Iraq not long after the war started, then settled in Beirut just before Israel’s war with Lebanon began in 2006. The book covers her time in both countries, with the added complication of basically being on her honeymoon with her Lebanese husband (also a reporter) when she first heads to Baghdad.

Even with all the chaos around her, Ciezadlo focuses on the still points, the regular daily rituals people go through even when–especially when–everything else is going to shit. This naturally leads to food–the seemingly simple grilled fish Iraqis treasure, the beautiful preserves the Lebanese live on in wartime, and, where the book gets more personal, what Ciezadlo’s mother-in-law teaches her to cook in Beirut.

Day of Honey is also one of the best-written books–on any topic–that I’ve read in years. There’s so much wit here, and sharp observation, and hilarious turns of phrase (why yes, those freelance mourners who crash funerals and chant the Quran–they are “a kind of squeegee men of mourning”). I’d quote more, but, as I said, my book is lent out. Instead, read this review in the New York Times, which is densely packed with some of the finest lines (though certainly not all).

A note about the cover: Don’t judge by it. One of these years, American book publishers will understand that not every book about the Middle East needs to be covered with children and flowers to make it less scary.

And here’s another link to buy the book, just for good measure. And please tell your friends.