Monday, January 31, 2011

BEIRUT rises again

At a time when media dictates what to see and how to see it, I wanted to form my own opinion over a city which has been in the news as far back as I can remember. In the past, Beirut has been synonymous of wealth and riches when it was known as the "Paris of the Middle East" but more recently has had an apocalyptic image linked to both religious and political wars, terrorism and prone to harbor Hezbollah militants. As the playground capital of the Middle East, Beirut has always enjoyed being the center of attention.

Entering Beirut from Damascus

Beirut (Beyrouth) sits on a triangular coastal plain along the Mediterranean
To this day it attracts a wide variety of visitors coming to bathe their body and soul into its vibrant embrace. No city on Earth is quite like Beirut. Its people are loud, cultured and have a distinctive approach to life. After all who can predict the future in a city constantly shaken by events decided outside its borders ? Beirutis have adopted the "here and now" attitude which has shaped their destiny. They are like San Franciscans with earthquakes in that regard. They are prepared for the worst but live for the best of what the present has in store. Trapped in the middle of an international political stage where it is forced to witness its own demise, Beirut is determined to overcome all the hurdles thrown on its path by destiny.

The Raouche Corniche is a visitor's magnet where luxury hotels overlook the Mediterranean Sea

















With 20 years in the making, Beirut is progressing towards a brighter future. The signs are all around the city. The old center, destroyed by years of war, has risen again and is flourishing. With ottoman inspired architecture blended with modern designs, the new downtown area is a crowd pleaser. Restaurants serve a multitude of cuisines, with of course the culinary delights of Lebanon being the prime choice, sidewalk cafes and shops catering to tourists. Souvenir shops are also available for the mug of choice or the red, white and green T shirt with a cedar tree on it. 

Place de l' Etoile or Nejmeh Square in the new downtown area
City Hall

One striking recurring feature of the Beirut skyline is the number of construction cranes present. There are in every neighborhood it seems. Construction is in high gear. No real estate crisis here ! It must be because people rely on cash more than credit cards. And there is also the added advantage of being able to use more than one currency in the country. Everywhere one can pay with Lebanese pounds or US dollars which make it very convenient. The major drawback is that when you pay in US $ and get Lebanese pounds back it is virtually impossible to know if you got short changed or not. 

Not once have I felt unsafe or on the verge of danger. Surprisingly, I actually never felt safer than in Beirut. The presence of military and Police all over the city gives the visitor a sense of security without being oppressive. 



The Raouche Pigeon Rocks































I decided to rent a bicycle for the day with Bike Beirut and peddle my way through various neighborhoods to have Beirut unveil herself to me. Armed with a map, I asked the hotel clerk to suggest places I should avoid if any. He quickly pointed at an area and made a big cross over it. "Don't go there" he exclaimed. This area is not for tourists. It is a refugee camp for Palestinians and Hezbollah supporters". I took notice and went on my way. I started my journey taking the corniche close to Ain Mreisseh Sq. I soon discovered a Starbucks and decided to have a coffee and croissant. I also found a mug for my collection. I kept going passing the Beirut lighthouse (now a military post), the extensive Saudi Arabian resort complex at Manara and arrived at the Raouche corniche facing the famous Pigeon Rocks. A tour bus just unloaded a crowd of Iranian tourists, all dressed in black. As they start descending and invading the pavement in front of me I dismount and start walking with my bike. The belvedere from which the rocks can be viewed is now crowded with people and I decided to keep going and come back later when the traffic dies down. I noticed a dirt path that leads to the bottom of the cliff to see the rocks up close. Praying God to not let me get a flat on this treacherous venture, I zoom down the hill to the bottom, right in front of the rocks. Its peaceful and empty of people. Just a few fishermen and I. I savor the moment before continuing.


Verdun neighbourhood  

































The path leads me to a long stretch of beach where more Iranian tourists are admiring the view. All the women are in black, wearing the traditional shador, a long robe covering their entire body including their hair, while the men are in western clothes. No one is paying attention to me. They are all busy chatting with each other and seem to be in their own time capsule. Nobody cracks a smile. At that moment I feel invisible. I think to myself "Will they actually take a swim in that outfit ?". I bike on to the neighbourhood of Verdun, named after the famous French battlefield. As I turn the corner of a street, I am face to face with the canon of an artillery tank pointing right at me. I am instantly taken back wondering why is a tank at the corner of a street with a young soldier ready for action. The young man on top of the tank wears a big reassuring smile on his face signaling there is nothing I should be worried about. The area around the tank is similar to some districts of my hometown of Marseille, at least the building style from 1950's France and the way the streets are arranged. At that moment, I felt a sense of deja-vu, imagining I am visiting my grandmother on a sunday afternoon, ringing the bell at her door, right in front of me, number 83. 

Ras Beirut


































So familiar it all seems. I feel at home in a city I have never visited before. This is Ras Beirut or West Beirut, the Muslim area of Beirut which has witnessed wide destruction and fierce infighting during the early part of the Lebanese civil war in the mid 1970's. I look for minarets but can't seem to find any. I scan the air for the call of the muesin reciting the takbir but the atmosphere is only filled with traffic sounds. It's now passed my lunch time and I decide to find a nicely shaded place to eat a quick sandwich made by the hands of some street vendor. In the middle of my search, I stumble upon a mouth watering display, all sweets ready to be devoured. Needless to say I left with a few extra inches on my waist but not to worry, I will burn it off in the next hour riding. 

AUB





























I pass by AUB, the American University of Beirut and decide to pay a visit to the campus. A beautifully manicured and inviting campus welcomes me. A distinct laid back atmosphere with a hint of seriousness takes me back to a famous California college called Berkeley. Indeed this is a serious school with a serious program. Founded in 1866, this university attracts local as well as international students, counting a respectable size of American students. The big draw to this school, besides being in Beirut where the climate is mild year round, is the rock bottom tuition fees. Undergrad students expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 per year. The Graduate programs do not exceed $17,000 per annum making it a definite choice for anyone counting pennies these days. All this for a US recognized diploma. Not bad if you ask me. Beats going to the University in Cairo right about now. What is going on in Egypt is dramatic but needs to happen if things are going to change. France, the UK and the US all had revolutions which led to greater freedoms. 

Al Amin Mosque and St George Maronite Church side by side































I finally reach Martyr's Square. In front of it stands an impressive newly completed mosque (2007) dedicated to Mohammed Al Amin, an Islamic scholar, teacher, religious and political leader. It was built by former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005. Hariri is also widely credited for reconstructing Beirut after the end of the civil war in 1990. I found my way back to the bike rental shop by circling around the downtown area and ended up stopping in front of the Grand Serail, the seat of power of Lebanon. I drew out my camera from my pocket and I immediately had an encounter with a young man, gun in hand. "I am sorry sir but pictures are not allowed here" he said in a soothing yet commanding voice. "And why is that may I ask ?" I replied politely. He continued by explaining to me that Lebanon didn't need or want another martyr prime minister. He proceeded by smiling and asking me where I was from. "I am from France but I live in America" I replied. "Super" he said and quickly asked me how I liked Beirut. "I love it and will be back".


The Corniche in Beirut