Beirut: ‘A beautiful mess’

The blue-domed Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut was constructed by former prime minister Rafic Hariri, who was laid to rest nearby after his 2005 assassination.

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Lebanon consists of Muslim, Christian and Druze religions, divided into some 16 sects, forming one of the most multicultural countries in the Middle East.

MCN reporter Abraham Mahshie took a side trip to Lebanon while conducting book research in Spain in May. The following is a reflection on his experiences.

Lebanon has a little bit of everything: upscale restaurants and bars, Mediterranean cuisine, Bekaa Valley wine, nature preserves with thousand-year-old cedar trees and a country and population still trying to recover from decades of war and terrorism.

I had heard of Beirut’s famed nightlife and liberal, multicultural society, but I had no idea what to expect when I spent four days and three nights in Lebanon in May.

The stunning interior of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut features a chandelier and ornate Islamic sculptures in its ceiling.

With much experience in on-the-fly planning, I brought with me the “Lonely Planet Middle East” guidebook and relied on a scattering of contacts made before through journalist friends, social media and Maya, a Lebanese woman who I had fortuitously met at a wedding only weeks prior.

Skype calls with people who had lived in Beirut assured me that Lebanon was now very safe. I took the extra step of booking a room with an Airbnb “super host.” These are the homeowners on the Homestay website who go the extra mile – allegedly – to help guests get their bearings by offering personal tips and travel help.

My super host offered both to pick me up from the airport for $20 (taxis do not use meters) and purchasing a SIM card for me so that I can make local calls (my carrier did not have coverage).

He did neither. But I didn’t need the ride or the phone after all.

The woman next to me on the airplane would not allow me to get ripped off by a taxicab in her country – she insisted that her cousin drop me off at my Airbnb.

Roses form the border of the vineyards at Chateau Kafraya, a winery in the Bekaa Valley, south of Beirut.

We whizzed down dimly lit city streets, through West Beirut – the Muslim sector – where in the median I spotted a sign with Ayatollah Khomeini, the former Iranian leader and backer of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Once downtown, we turned right at Martyrs’ Square, named for those executed under Ottoman rule and later the Civil War’s demarcation line. We continued east toward the hip, trendy neighborhood Mar Mikhael, past brightly lit bars, overflowing with people on this Monday night at about 10 p.m.

About a mile past the last bar we reached Bank of Beirut, the landmark for my apartment, with the city’s largest flag, waving and illuminated on the building top. I stepped out of the car under a weak streetlight and looked at the crumbling sidewalks and under-construction buildings around me. Telephone wires drooped in every direction. With no number on the building, how was I going to find this place?

Just then, my super host yelled down to me from a balcony near the top of one of the buildings. I carried my suitcase up the four flights of stairs (there was no elevator), lights flicking on automatically as I turned each dusty corner, sweating in the hot Beirut night. 

The quandary of – Lebanon’s politics

I woke to light pouring through the curtains of my spartan room, and finally stirred from bed when I heard the click of the power go out and felt the rising heat of a silenced air conditioner. (Power cuts for four hours each day in Beirut, longer outside the capital). 

I caught a rideshare “service” to the French “Paul” coffee shop and paid about $2 – convenient on the dual-economy of lira and dollars – to meet with Maya’s journalist uncle.

What I learned in the next hour, as he smoked a cigarette and sipped an espresso, was that Lebanon had suffered a civil war from 1975 to 1990 that coincided with an influx of Palestinian refugees expelled from Jordan, upsetting a delicate religious-political balance of Christians, Muslims and Druze in the country. 

There was also, of course, the rise of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, the 2006 war with Israel, the 29-year occupation by Syria and the never-ending geopolitical push and pull of Lebanon between the Western powers, Israel and the wealthy Gulf states. Add to that the recent influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees to a country of 6.4 million.

As I was trying to untangle the spaghetti bowl of swirling geopolitical interests and forces in this tiny Mediterranean country, I asked: Why did the civil war happen?

“If you figure that out, let me know.”

He looked at his watch, put out his cigarette, bowed and left. 

Sightseeing with the privileged youth

The Beirut Souks, built on the site of a traditional marketplace destroyed in Lebanon’s civil war, are a modern twist that features upscale European clothing brands.

After visiting the nearby Saifi Institute language school, I sat down at the cool Café Em Nazih with a British security guard in his mid-30s who was studying Arabic. 

“Don’t study in Beirut, mate. There are too many distractions,” he told me, describing a nonstop party scene that had been draining his bank account for the past four months. “Study in Tripoli. They speak Arabic there.”

I then met up with a new Lebanese friend for the first of two city tours by BMW SUV-driving women, both highly educated, who either did not work or worked very little – something I came to understand was normal.

The Lebanese flag blows from atop the Bank of Beirut, viewed from the nearby rooftop of an Airbnb where Macon County News reporter Abraham Mahshie stayed for four days in May.

We walked through the sparkling new, high-end downtown with buildings designed by famous European architects. Even a traditional Arab souk, or marketplace, that was destroyed by the Civil War was reconceived by a Spanish architect to house international luxury clothing lines.

We took off our shoes and walked through the blue-domed Mohammed Al-Amin mosque built by Rafic Hariri, the prime minister who was assassinated in 2005. Then we visited his tombstone and those of his bodyguards.

“I was in school, 25 miles away, and our classroom shook from the blast,” my companion told me of the power of the 4,000-pound dynamite blast that killed the country’s leader.

The next day, my super host advised me to walk the half a block to the highway that bordered our neighborhood and stand on the roadside to catch a bus to Tripoli. 

These were my instructions: when you see a minibus approach, it will stop for you. Yell to the driver “Tripoli” or “Trablous” in Arabic, he’ll wave you in and charge you $3. I tried this. The first guy nearly ran me over. What I didn’t know until then was the driver will not tell you when he isn’t going your way, he’ll just step on the gas. Eventually, I got on the right bus.

They really don’t speak English in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and main port. Nonetheless, an older Muslim woman wearing a black hijab guided me down the street several blocks, insisting that I keep up even though I had no idea if she understood that I was trying to get to the Levantine Institute of Tripoli on Independence Street.

We passed a giant building-wide banner of the deceased Hariri and Saad Hariri, his son and the current prime minister, popular in this majority-Muslim city.

A 2,000-year-old cedar tree extends its arms over the hillside at the Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve, south of Beirut.

After visiting the language school, I was in another BMW SUV on my way to an ancient crusader fortress, the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, with striking hilltop views of the city. Just down the street, I then visited a centuries-old souk, this time an authentic souk with meandering alleyways leading to different merchant sectors for spices, soaps and every variety of gold cross you could conceive. Oddly, soldiers were posted at nearly every intersection, but my guide refused to ask them why there was so much security.

I departed Tripoli on a real bus with a schedule, ticket, AC and Wi-Fi for about $8

Nightlife, wine country and the cedars

Maya’s aunt and I had drinks and a Mexican-like nacho dish before we got into the topic of Lebanese women.

“They will find you, you don’t have to look for them,” she said. “But, you better have a lot of money. They like to be pampered.”

I didn’t have a lot of money. So, I met up with my British friend for live music at Radio Beirut bar in Mar Mikhael.

We drank almaza beers on the outdoor patio while a tall, dark-skinned Lebanese-African woman with an Afro serenaded with a backup rock band. I felt a little like I was in a modern version of a scene from Casablanca.

I accepted an invitation the next day from my airplane friend to visit the Bekaa valley. As we drove through winding mountainous roads, I noted the towering stone pine trees, rising high and forming an umbrella-like canopy, seemingly manicured in their perfection.

At the Chateau Kefraya winery, which began producing wine in 1979 despite the Lebanese civil war, I sampled an authentic Lebanese mezze, a combination of small appetizer dishes, including kibbeh, or meat pies, dolma, or stuffed grape leaves and mutabbal, or eggplant dip.

From there I wandered through the nearby Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve to see the majestic trees featured on Lebanon’s national flag. The reserve had a short, easy loop with enormous, 2,000-year-old cedar trees with their branches radiating in all directions, low, thick and long. The root structure was vast, the trunk was easily 20 feet around, and the views of the surrounding hillsides were spectacular.

Dinner at Kesrawani Seafood was briefly interrupted at midnight when the power went out and the generators kicked in – it was time to go to the airport for my 4:20 a.m. departure from Beirut.

I felt the cool air from my taxi window as we zipped out of the bustling city, and I tried to process all the contrasts I had just experienced: upscale restaurants, modern European architecture, devastated and crumbling apartment buildings, a multicultural society coexisting but with undercurrent tensions. Then I thought of how one of my Lebanese guides described the city to me: “Beirut is a beautiful mess.”