chickpeas, coffees, rollies, puppeteers and the bombed out Holiday Inn – first impressions of Beirut

It’s Saturday. I woke up to the sound of a generator kicking in and the builders downstairs. “Welcome to Beirut!” Mahmoud commented. Every day, we have power cuts that last 3 hours. That’s when a cacophony of generators takes over, we reach for candles and lighters; laptops and phones should always be charged in advance.

In the 3 days I have been here, I must have had a good 15 coffees, smoked 6 rollies and 2 cigarettes, sampled 8 meals with chickpeas and turned at least 5 coffees, 4 cigarettes, a few funny cigarettes and other meals down. It seems that all the people around me care for are food, coffee, and cigarettes. And my feeling welcome and comfortable. It’s fabulous!

After a cardamon cappuccino at Younes, Mahmoud and I walked around Hamra, today. Its main artery is Hamra Street, which writers and actors such as Naguib Mahfouz and Omar Sharif used to walk, back in the days, when Beirut was a village, subsequently a vibey place and eventually labelled the Paris of the East. Hamra Street until a few years ago also used to have 14 cinemas.

Hamra, a very leftist and communist neighbourhood during the civil war, was relatively peaceful and safe. The PLO was based here, before it had to be evacuated and Arafat, who was kingmaker in Lebanese politics until then, relocated to Tunis.

I tried to get lost in Beirut today, but found myself in front of my block of flats again, after a long walk down Hamra, til I saw the Mediterranean, walked along the Corniche until I got to the Beirut Central Business District. The Corniche is the local prom. Runners zig zag between those who walk, kids cruise around on bicycles, men stand on the rocks or the walls of the Corniche and fish. The only tidal pool I spotted was exclusively frequented by men.

Everywhere I go, I discover the most beautiful old buildings, some in use, many empty and run down but the potential makes you dream – and weep. Many of these French and Ottoman palaces and houses have already been destroyed and sadly, heritage seems not to feature high on the city’s agenda. The property prices are such that they get bought and destroyed to make way for slick, soulless new office blocks and flats. Rafic Hariri, the former president who was assassinated in a car bomb in 2005, is credited with the pacification of Lebanon and his contribution to ending the civil war (1975 to 1990) and the reconstruction of Beirut. He was, however, also the founder of Solidere, the construction company in charge of this massive building project and made insane amounts of money. Needless to say, the reconstruction of Beirut and housing situation will be one of the first articles I plan to dig into. Can’t wait to be making friends with the building/political “mafia” – every sect has a mafia boss. It made me think of Maputo.

Next to Phoenicia, a fancy hotel/restaurant, where copious amounts of $200 Cuban cigars are sold and consumed with business meals, (I hear), is the Holiday Inn. Built in 1973, it never got to be used as a hotel – it became a heavily contested site in the war and prime position for snipers. An eery feeling to walk past it and see the gaping holes caused by mortars, shells and grenades and other deadly devices. I was told not to take pictures. But it’s a building, so I did.

Opposite Sanayeh Park, I discovered Khaled’s bicycle repair shop. His father ran it for 45 years, it’s been going for 72. Parents who come to Sanayeh Park across the road from him, rent small bicycles for their kids. He has a huge amount of bikes standing around, some look like they too have survived the war… displayed on a shelf on top is a vintage trotinette and old tricycles. I tried to imagine the little boy or girl who first was given this at the time of the Ottoman Empire and rode around the park with it, visualising the father with a big moustache and fez, and harem pants, keeping an eye on them,…

Given that the tap water is not drinkable, I bought my first big (5 litre) bottle for the house. From a fruit and vegetable trader whose stand was decorated with German flags. “Berlin, Essen, Dortmund, Stuttgart, Turkiye”, he said, when I asked. And “tschuess”, when I left. I’ll go back – his bottles are not the usual Nestle numbers my flatmates have been buying.

Hearing a lot of Arabic all the time starts to feel normal and I hope that one morning I will wake up and talk. I try my best to keep up with the coffee, tea and red wine drinking going on, but not light up every time someone next to me does.

I’ve been invited to various meals, last night a sumptuous dinner, to tag along with Les Amis des Marionnettes to their puppetry performances in a small village on Tuesday (I will be in charge of taking pictures), as well as to Palestine, to a friend of Mahmoud’s in Ramallah. But all that, during my first 3 days. That is when hospitality is offered to everyone, even your enemy. I wonder what will happen today…

And I look forward to bumping into someone I know, the way I used to in Cape Town all the time.

p.s. not yet ready to talk about Arabic ablutions.


About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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