All Eyes on Beirut
As grand mansions, sleek bars, and newly restored hotels rise from the rubble of a once war-torn city, travelers are returning to this former Mediterranean playground
When you fly down the eastern Mediterranean coast on a clear night, there is nothing to suggest that this place has suffered more, or more recently, than anywhere else on the shores of this most battle-scarred of seas. As the plane tracks the soft line of the surf, the resort town of Jounié, streets aglitter with bars and clubs, makes way for the bright ribbon of highway and then, suddenly, the hill of Achrafieh rising out of Beirut to greet us.
The lights hold the heady allure that they do in every other great Mediterranean city, a complex brew of the familiar and the strange, of cosmopolitan ease and the promise of new worlds just over the horizon. And then suddenly the lights are gone and we drop into blackness.
This black hole is where Beirut's Central District used to be, before a 15-year war quite literally shot its insides out. When I first came to the city after hostilities officially ended in 1991, there was little to suggest it could again become what it was said to have been: a verdant neutral zone where East and West mingled in the pursuit of pleasure and profit. The churches and mosques were still standing; so, too, were the grand hotels along the seafront and the splendid palace from which the Ottomans administered this corner of their empire. But each of these had had its innards scooped out, its faÁade ravaged as if by a pox, its doorways bearded with weeds.
Lebanon's was a particularly nasty war. British reporter Robert Fisk, its best and most constant chronicler, wrote that it prefigured Bosnia in its sectarian viciousness and ethnic cleansings, and in the often shameful involvement of the West, as myriad factions fought to exhaustion. Where it seems to differ from Bosnia is in the peace. The Lebanese may be unable to forget those 15 years, but they seem prepared to lay them aside, to pledge themselves to some kind of life beyond that time.
What is happening today in Beirut is the best evidence of this. The task of rebuilding the 445-acre Central District went to a private company, Solidère. Solidère's first designs for the new Beirut smacked more of Orlando than the Orient, a reflection, it was widely remarked, of the less-than-subtle touch of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a portly billionaire who made his fortune building big for the Saudis.
Much has changed since then. Lady Yvonne Cochrane, a Beiruti who led the attack against the philistines from her splendid old mansion high above the city, concedes that "the whole idea of Solidère was anathema. But they are the only ones preserving buildings in Beirut, and the restoration work is of very high quality."
So it is. After years of work, the green netting draped demurely over 265 buildings is coming down. The edifices beneath are emerging from their makeover like debutantes for the new season, dressed elegantly in the luminous cream-colored sandstone of the Middle East.
Past the bulldozers and construction crews, it becomes clear that this part of the city will be on a human scale, studded with parks, promenades, and marinas, and open to the sea and the mountains at every turn. It will also be open to its own past. Startling remnants of Canaanite Beirut, including a monumental entrance and steps, and the port and ramparts of the Phoenician city Berytus-- whose recent uncovering is one of the war's few gifts-- will be left open to the air. If these ruins are presented with the same verve as the newly landscaped Roman Baths, they will be sights worth seeing.
Beyond the traditional center, the story is less cheery. The streets are a snarling stew of cars. The building boom that took off unlicensed during the war has continued legally in peacetime, spurred by the belief that thousands of exiles would return en masse and that Beirut would swiftly become the region's Hong Kong. The hills above the city, once lush, are now carpeted in concrete.
But tens of thousands are still homeless, and luxury apartments sit empty all over the city. The government is borrowing heavily, at high interest rates, to pay for the city's reconstruction. And with the momentum toward Middle East peace slowing since Netanyahu came to power in Israel, the inflow of capital for job-creating investment is still a drip rather than a flood. The economy is stagnating.
The long-term prospects are worrying, too. Syria has 35,000 troops in Lebanon-- though, in Beirut, they are all but invisible these days-- and controls much of the country. Israel also holds a swath of the south, despite talk of a pullout, and there is an ominous feeling among many Beirutis that the Israelis will not permit Beirut to reemerge as the region's financial center, that they will find reason to invade yet again. For the moment, though, the peace holds, and life goes on much as it does in any other city along this sunlit coast.
In response to the return of normalcy, the tourists are coming back, almost half a million of them in the first 10 months of last year. They are Arabs and Europeans mostly, but there are fond hopes that Americans will start coming again too, now that the U.S. State Department has lifted not only its ban but the subsequent advisory on travel to Lebanon.
Beirut, hastily climbing into its party dress, is just about ready for them. Old hotels are being gussied up, and new ones are rising from barren land: a Marriott and an Inter-Continental are here already, a Four Seasons is on its way. Even the battered snipers' nest that was the Phoenicia is being refurbished.
Many of Lebanon's treasures were looted during the war, but not those of the newly renovated National Museum. Maurice Chehab, director of antiquities at the time, hid roomfuls of artifacts behind false walls and poured concrete over his prized statuary. When peace came, they were dug out: the crypt of the sarcophagi is almost shocking, 27 anthropoid figures laid out in a row, as if in a morgue. They might have been wheeled in yesterday.
Clearly, there are more satisfying Beiruts to ferret out than "the next Hong Kong." Climb the hill to the mansions of the Rue Sursock and find the sumptuous city of Beirut's "notables." Stroll the Corniche from the St. Georges Yacht Club and breathe the salty glamour of the prewar resort. Pace the lush grounds of the American University of Beirut and encounter Lady Cochrane's "garden of the Middle East." And then there is Hamra, just over the hill. As chic in its day as the Faubourg St.-Honoré, it is now a slightly tawdry mix of nineties postmodern and sixties retro.
Here at 63 Rue Abdel Aziz, Saleh Barakat runs perhaps the most interesting of Beirut's increasingly numerous contemporary art galleries. With peace restored, he says, the freedom and money of Beirut have once again made it "the ultimate place to exhibit in the Arab world." To illustrate this, Barakat pulls canvas after canvas from his storeroom, stark works from Syria and Iraq.
By contrast, much of modern Lebanese art is thinly derivative. The people love their landscapes, though, and with reason. "In Syria, nature has more or less one color," says Barakat, "the yellow of the desert. In Lebanon, the mountains can be white with snow. Then there is the green of the conifers and another green below that, and then the blue of the Mediterranean. We are overwhelmed by color." This reminds me of something wine maker Serge Hochar told me: "The joie de vivre you find here is due to the microclimate of the country. The feeling of being in Lebanon is exceptional. You can't be precise about it."
The zest of the Beirutis is certainly part of that feeling. Beirut reputedly has the world's highest per capita consumption of both cigars and silicone; even the lowliest cabbie will drive nothing but a BMW or a Mercedes, however ancient. These are show-offs on a world scale, but also extrovert, welcoming, and with almost superhuman stamina for a party.
They partied through the war and they have been partying seriously since it ended. Now, as gilded young exiles flood back, the city's nightlife has come alive again. The area around Sodeco-- on the old Green Line between eastern and western Beirut, it was the scene of some of the most bitter fighting-- is littered with bars and restaurants: Zinc and Babylone are among the best. Beirut's answer to Terence Conran, Beshara Nammour, owns several-- including the beautiful Lebanese spot Al Mijana.
Around the corner on Rue Monot, Pacífico serves Tex-Mex and Creole food under big, old fans. Camille Chahwan, its young co-owner, spent much of the war in Europe. "People feel that Beirut is coming back now," he explains. "You go away for three or four months and you feel the change. It's really happening fast."
The Beirutis are rebuilding not just a city, but a life. It will not be easy. As the peace process clunks along, there is an awareness here that everything they raise up might yet be ground into the dust once again.
"Beirut is a vessel through which others pass," Saleh Barakat tells me as I leave his gallery in Hamra. The Beirutis have outlasted the Romans and the Ottomans and countless others. And they will doubtless still be here when whoever comes next goes tramping off into the distance. In the end, living is what Beirutis do best.
Beirut Marriott St. Elie Blvd.; 961-1/840-540, fax 961-1/840-345; doubles from $165.
Le Vendôme Inter-Continental Ain Mreysseh; 961-1/369-280, fax 961-1/360-169; doubles from $225.
Le Bristol Rue Mme Curie; 961-1/351-400, fax 961-1/351-409; doubles from $115. A grand old hotel with a wonderful rooftop bar.
Beirut Commodore Hôtel Rue Commodore; 961-1/350-400, fax 961-1/345-806; doubles from $160. A favorite of reporters during the war.
Summerland Hotel Jnah Summerland; 961-1/858-000, fax 961-1/856-666; doubles from $195. The only one with a pool and a beach.
Prices do not include 21 percent tax and service charge.
Restaurants and Bars
Zinc 37 Rue Seifeddine el-Khatib; 961-3/873-333; dinner for two $60.
Babylone 33 Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi; 961-1/219-539; dinner for two $50.
Pacífico Rue Monot; 961-1/204-446; dinner for two $50.
Al Mijana 245 Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi; 961-1/328-082; dinner for two $70.
Le Rabelais Monte Accaoui, Immeuble Andraos; 961-1/330-648; dinner for two $100. French haute cuisine at moderate prices.
Le Chef Rue Général Gouraud; 961-1/445-373; lunch for two $10. A homey and welcoming place near the old souk.
Burj Al Hamam Antelias Hwy.; 961-4/411-030; dinner for two $70. Uninspiring modern interior but superb Lebanese food.
From the capital you can take day trips to the palace of Beiteddine, high in the Chouf mountains, or to Baalbek, with its 72-foot-high Roman columns. But it is in Byblos, just an hour away, that Lebanon's rich history comes together.
The Old Town of Byblos is dominated by a fine Crusades-era castle and defended by stout walls. Inside lies the detritus of 7,000 years: Phoenician streets, tombs, and storehouses alongside Egyptian-style obelisks and Roman colonnades, and a tiny, perfect Roman theater. The old fishing port, built by Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, is a jewel. You can view it at leisure from the Byblos Fishing Club, a restaurant/bar run by 80-year-old Pépé Abed. It is a virtual monument to "the good old days" before the war, when every star from Bardot to Brando paid Pépé a visit. Pépé also has a museum filled with ocean treasures, and a trove of stories about his sexual conquests (he claims to have had an affair with Ava Gardner, among other celebs).