Beirut is Back
Published: April 2009
By Mitchell Owens
In the years since Lebanon's civil war ended, the once-divided city of Beirut has emerged from the rubble as a symbol of the new Middle East.
The sun is brutal, the sea breeze has yet to sweep away the morning's humidity, and the undisputed grande dame of Beirut is far from happy. It's not the heat that's troubling Yvonne Cochrane. Nor is it the recent surgery that's left her dependent on a cane to safely navigate the slick marble floors of her ancestral home, Palais Sursock, a 19th-century Neoclassical mansion on a hillside above the city's harbor. It's the direction in which she feels her birthplace is headed.
"When I was a child, this was a garden city," says Lady Cochrane. "We had the best vegetables in the world, the best fruit." The architecture back then was "extremely light," she says, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown full of elegant stucco houses decorated with "the most delicate columns." An ardent preservationist and the widow of an Irish baronet, Lady Cochrane turns her gaze to a dense stand of trees at the back of her Italianate garden. Like the fabled Green Line—a slash of weed-infested, bomb-damaged buildings that divided Beirut into Christian east and Muslim west during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990—the trees separate the Palais Sursock from everything Lady Cochrane abhors. Gleaming waterfront skyscrapers compromise the refreshing breezes ("Without the sea, Beirut would suffocate," she says). Shiny Range Rovers bully their way down narrow side streets. And there's a multistory Virgin Megastore at the foot of Place des Martyrs, a once-bustling downtown square that is now little more than a cluster of tidy parking lots hemmed in by construction sites. "Beirut," Lady Cochrane says flatly, "has been ruined."
One person's ruin is another's phoenix.
Occupying a hilly promontory that juts like a shark's tooth from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, the capital of Lebanonhas spent millennia rebounding from destructive elements: devastating tidal waves in the fifth century a.d., bombardment by multi-national forces in 1840, famine during World War I. The bombs and fires of the country's 16-year civil war did more than level the heart of the city and fuse ancient Roman glass vases in the National Museum into iridescent lumps, which are now poignantly displayed in a small case at the top of the museum's grand staircase. They also resulted in approximately 150,000 deaths and scuttled cosmopolitan Beirut's reputation as the Paris of the Middle East, the Pearl of the Levant, transforming this 26-square-mile city of sand-colored buildings and umbrella-shaped pine trees into a universal synonym for carnage, a New Age Guernica. Little more than a decade after the bombs stopped falling, however, Beirut is back in business.
Curtain-wall skyscrapers may not be the proper architectural companions for the exquisite villas remaining from Beirut's time as an outpost of the Ottoman Empire and later the centerpiece of the short-lived French Mandate of Greater Lebanon (1920-46), but as far as many here are concerned, the past is history. The worst faux pas a foreign visitor can make is to ask if one of the 2 million residents comes from east or west Beirut. The firm but dignified answer will invariably be the same: "I'm from Beirut."
Tensions still simmer, of course. The Lebanese government is a close ally of Israel's foe Syria, a Greater Lebanon sibling that was instrumental in ending the bloody civil war. So tourists with Israeli stamps in their passports are barred from visitingLebanon, and Syrian soldiers in camouflage are a familiar presence on Beirut's streets. Geographically and spiritually, the city is whole again and safer than it has been in decades. That reunion is further cemented by the shared wartime deprivations of its populace and by the belief of many that better days have come, with more on the way. As oil-equipment executive Radwan Kassar explained over a glass of anise-flavored arak at Karam, a Christian Liaigre-minimal restaurant in the meticulously rebuilt downtown, Beirutis "experienced so many bad things during the war. Now they just want to grow, to live, to create."
Above the fashionable seaside promenade known as Avenue de Paris, the towering Beirut Hilton still stands in all its bomb-damaged ignominy ("It's an eyesore," a disgusted pedestrian said when I stopped to snap a picture of the abandoned hostelry). But at its flanks, bulldozers and construction cranes witness the multimillion-dollar redevelopment efforts of Solidère, formally known as La Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre-Ville de Beyrouth. The organization was founded in 1994 by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and dedicated to the rebirth of the smoldering remains of central Beirut. In the years since, Solidère and Hariri have been dogged by accusations of everything from outright graft to blindly constructing high-rent stores and office buildings rather than addressing the housing needs of ordinary Beirutis (the average income is about $200 a month). Whatever its faults, even Solidère's detractors agree that the company has fueled a surge of improvements. Everywhere you look, construction cranes stretch into the endlessly morphing skyline, blurring the line between what's being torn down, what's being built, and what's just a shrapnel-pocked relict waiting to be revived.
One of Solidère's latest ventures stands across a magnolia-lined avenue from downtown: Saifi Village, a New Urbanist-style neighborhood of winding cobblestoned streets lined with apartment buildings, town houses, and shops, done in Arabic and French-colonial style. (Beirut-born Reem Acra, the celebrated New York wedding-gown designer, recently bought an apartment here, which she's busily decorating long-distance.) Though Saifi Village appears not unlike the densely woven, mixed-use cityscape seen in pre-war photographs, critics complain that it and the shopping arcades of the city centerhave about as much soul as a theme park. Philippe Starck, who is collaborating on a hotel-and-entertainment complex just south of downtown, has dismissed Saifi's neo-traditional romanticism as "the architecture of what was." The critics have a point: buildings in Beirut can be numbingly pristine. One particularly egregious example is the Maronite Cathedral of St. George, an 1890 landmark that was gutted during the war. Today, along with hundreds of acres that surround it, the cathedral has been restored to film-set perfection, right down to the installation of creamy marble so lustrously polished, so free of any flaws, it might as well be Corian.
Still, to many observers, brand-new is better than scorched rubble. "The important thing is that Beirut is being rebuilt," explains Annabel Karim Kassar, one of the city's top architects (and wife of entrepreneur Radwan). "Give it ten years and the newness will wear off," adds the Paris native, whose firm is involved in transforming the battle-scarred souks a few blocks east of downtown. Right now the site is just a thicket of reinforcing rods and freshly poured concrete, but one day it will be a 360,000-square-foot, $100 million retail destination with a major department store (rumor has it, Galeries Lafayette), a gold and jewelry district, a children's museum, restaurants, an IMAX theater, and a traditional souk of about 200 shops. Kassar also devised the harem-hip décor of Marrakech, a striking Moroccan restaurant that's entirely underground, reached by a room-sized round glass elevator furnished with banquettes.Aboveground is the elevator's sculptural machinery, designed by architect Bernard Khoury. Beirut's answer to Ian Schrager, Khoury also came up with the idea of setting a nightclub, B-018, inside a former military bunker.
As any cabdriver navigating the disconcertingly sign-free streets will tell you, the Lebanese economy remains unsteady, burdened by more than $30 billion in debt, thanks to loans from abroad. The $3 billion annual payments dismay Lebanese high and low, but it's nonetheless apparent that local and foreign investors are banking on Beirut's future. Luxury hotels are sprouting along the waterfront, such as the Monroe, where the retro-chic lobby is decorated with a constellation of George Nelson starburst clocks. The once-genteel, now-gritty neighborhood of Gemmayze, a couple of blocks north of downtown, is slowly becoming a SoHo by the sea, as colorful cafés like Adam and Food Yard open on Rue Gouraud amid dilapidated 1950's apartment buildings and hole-in-the-wall spice shops. To underscore the city's rebirth, Solidère has approached some of the world's great architects, including France's Jean Nouvel, the mind behind Landmark Riad Sohl, a $150 million mixed-use complex going up on a landfill near downtown. Prada-clad Muslim beauties in color-coordinated hijabs (head scarves) lunch at People, the recently opened restaurant at the upscale Aïshti department store ("the Barneys of Beirut," Reem Acra calls it), where executive chef Franck Paulmier serves up nouvelle cuisine in a glass-walled penthouse with all-white décor. Another hot dining room is the Khoury-designed Centrale, with prime seating beneath angular tented pavilions on a garden terrace. And the dozens of raucous bars and moody nightclubs lining both sides of Rue Monot are the best in the Middle East (the happy-hour margarita ritual at the Tex-Mex restaurant and bar Pacífico is a society darling). But take note: nobody would dream of showing up until 11 p.m. or heading home until three or four in the morning, often with new friends in tow.
"Beirutis are very social," says Amer El-Masri, a 23-year-old bartender at Zinc, a seriously cool restaurant and lounge housed in a remodeled Ottoman villa in Achrafiye, a largely high-rent residential neighborhood that has its share of places to eat (like the opulent Al Mijana), fast-food spots, and antiques shops. "You sit down next to somebody at a bar and the next thing you know, you're going to dinner with them."
So, who's scooping up the latest Manolo Blahniks at the department store Aïshti and packing the dance floor at the B-018 disco?Not many Americans; at least, not yet. U.S. tourism in Lebanon, historically the most laid-back and secular of Middle Eastern countries, has all but disappeared in the last two years. But visits are up from Gulf Arabs, who are attracted as much by Beirut's party-hearty reputation ("Even during the war, people went out and had fun," says Rawya El Chab, manager of Adam restaurant) as they are by its brand-name blandishments. Downtown outposts of Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Bulgari, along with blue-chip jewelers like Aziz & Walid Mouzannar, have made the city a must-stop for oil-emirate sybarites.
It's not all flash, though. The junk shops in and around Rue Basta serve up a satisfying smorgasbord of Victorian opaline lamps, funky mid-century light fixtures, and Art Moderne furniture. Over on Rue Abdel Al-Ras in Hamra—a leafy district that has been home to the American University of Beirut and its gloriously neo-Gothic buildings since 1866—is XXe Siècle, a sunny two-story gallery where pioneering young dealer Souheil Hanna showcases mint-condition furniture and lighting from the 1940's and 50's. Maria Hibri and Hoda Baroudi's design firm Bokja keeps the bohemian set happy by upholstering old furniture in vintage textiles and selling it at invitation-only exhibitions (Hibri also co-owns Aloha, an elite flower shop with outposts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai). A couple of blocks from Hotel Phoenicia, a 1960's-swank landmark near Avenue de Paris that was restored in 2000 with wincingly bright crystal chandeliers and acres of gilt, Artisans du Liban et d'Orient sells sophisticated updates on local handicrafts, including filmy caftans that any Paris couturier would envy, modern chairs made of woven reeds, and sleek polished-steel occasional tables.
Sure, the shopping's great, the food is top-notch, but what really keeps Beirut from becoming just another storied tourist trap is the reclamation of its pre-war soul. Whatever their religious, ethnic, or political background, Beirutis are just as likely to send visitors to check out the hand-embroidered bed linens made by Muslim widows (sold at Ashghalouna, a charity shop and tearoom in the Zarif neighborhood) as they are to recommend similar wares made by refugee Palestinian Christians (you can get them at Al-Badia in Hamra). Even Lady Cochrane admits that though the buildings and gardens of her youth may be gone, the cultural cohesion of Beirut still survives. She proudly points out, "I have a Muslim daughter-in-law and an American daughter-in-law." Small wonder the proprietors of the Hard Rock Café have emblazoned a particularly resonant Beatles phrase on the building's façade: "The time will come when you see we are all one." In Beirut, that time is now.
In Beirut, most people speak English, and there's no need to exchange dollars for Lebanese pounds. U.S. currency is accepted throughout the country and dispensed from ATM's.
WHERE TO STAY
Albergo Hotel DOUBLES FROM $275. 137 RUE ABDEL WAHAB EL-INGLIZI; 961-1/339-797; www.albergobeirut.com
Hotel Phoenicia InterContinental DOUBLES FROM $265. RUE MINET EL-HOSN; 800/327-0200 OR 961-1/369-100; www.ichotelsgroup.com
Monroe Hotel DOUBLES FROM $165. RUE JOHN F. KENNEDY; 961-1/371-122 www.monroebeirut.com
WHERE TO EAT
Al Mijana DINNER FOR TWO $50. RUE ABDEL WAHAB EL-INGLIZI; 961-1/328-082
Adam DINNER FOR TWO $50. RUE GOURAUD; 961-1/560-353
Centrale DINNER FOR TWO $85. RUE SAIFI; 961-1/575-858
Food Yard DINNER FOR TWO $50. RUE GOURAUD; 961-3/477-336
Hard Rock Café DINNER FOR TWO $40. RUE MINET EL-HOSN; 961-1/373-023
Karam DINNER FOR TWO $45. RUE SOUK BAZERKANE; 961-1/991-222
Marrakech DINNER FOR TWO $60. RUE DE DAMAS; 961-1/212-211
Pacifico DINNER FOR TWO $44. RUE MONOT; 961-1/204-446
People DINNER FOR TWO $60. 71 RUE EL-MOUTRANE; 961-1/994-994
Zinc DINNER FOR TWO $40. RUE SEIFEDDINE AL-KHATIB; 961-1/612-612
B-018 FORUM DE BEYROUTH; 961-1/580-018
Al-Badia 78 RUE MAKDISSI; 961-1/746-430
Aloha RUE MAMA; 961-1/700-008
Artisans du Liban et d'Orient 44 SOUK AN NAJJARIN; 961-1/998-822
Ashghalouna RUE FARIS NEMR; 961-1/366-758
Aziz & Walid Mouzannar RUE WEYGAND; 961-1/999-950
Bokja RUE MAMA; 961-1/700-008
XXe Siècle RUE ABDEL AL-RAS; 961-1/742-020
This article was published before the war in Lebanon. As always, please consult the US State Department's Travel Warnings and Advisories before planning travel abroad.