Beirut, Lebanon's buzzing capital

 

Beirut preparing to celebrate the new year in 2002 : an owner of an old Benz has come to the rich Achrafiye neighbourhood to sell party gear.

 

Beirut, Lebanon's buzzing capital
"Forget about museums and mosques for a while", said our guidebook ! Beirut is a city to concentrate on good food and great nightlife. But this was not always the case. For the two of us the city's name remained synonymous with anarchy. A city where foreigners would be abducted for several years before being freed. A city where ambulances would scream through empty streets flooded by sun. But we did forget about old stones for a while and experienced the buzz of this city that must be similar to that of Hong Kong. Now you'll know why we came here to celebrate New Year's Eve ! 

 

New Year's Eve 2002
A few pictures to let you know why we came to Beirut for our New Year's Eve party ! The group of friends had chosen this particular restaurant (that had only opened days before) because it belonged to the company they were working for and they would be allowed to party as they wished to. A few minutes after midnight, people were dancing on the bar and champagne was used in Formula 1 podium style !

 

 

 

 

Beirut, before & after the war
Today Beirut is a vibrant capital and the most westernised city we have been in since our departure from Hong Kong last April 2001. Trying to put their past behind them and true to their reputation, "Beirut people do their best to eat well and enjoy life imbuing the place with a buzz that is absent from almost every city in the region" (LP). The wish to enjoy life must partly be explained by the very difficult years of civil war the country has known. Between 1975 and 1990, religious factions in Lebanon were at each other's throats. But it was even more vicious than that : with the military interference of the French, American, Syrian and Israelis, supporting one side and sometimes switching sides during the conflict, the Lebanese had money and arms to fight someone else's war. As a generation that has never had to deal with war, we had the naive idea that a civil war was fought using lighter weapons than a "real" war. 

 

 

We have seen movies and real pictures of real wars but nothing prepared us for the shock of seeing what kind of physical damage a war can do to buildings.  

 

 

Beirut's central district 
The city's downtown, close to the harbour was one of the worst hit during the war with many buildings plainly obliterated. Those too badly damaged have been leveled and the area used for car parks. It is on one of those newly "made" car parks in the Hamra neighbourhood (where the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf spent his youth) that we parked and slept in Troopie. Since the beginning of the 90s, reconstruction has started and no expense seems to have been spared. This to such an extent that the place looks a little artificial, some people even calling it a leisure park. If it wasn't for a pedestrian walking, the picture below right could nearly be the picture of an architect's scale model.

 

Beirut's reconstructed Central District

 

Beirut, a city of extremes
In Beirut, we have seen new multi-million dollar apartments right next to badly damaged buildings squatted by poor people. The latest Mercedes Benz 600 SEL is seen next to unburstable Benz models of the 60ies and 70ies. Many university students go to their classes driving their own BMW 5 series or Ford Explorers. In the streets, 8 year old children still try to sell pencils or chewing gum instead of going to school. Never before have we seen extreme wealth so close to poverty as in Beirut.

 

Car & camping in Beirut
We liked Beirut and its people so much that we decided to stay longer than planned. We met a fellow Cruiser 70 series driver Nicolas who took us home for a shower and took us to his excellent Toyota mechanics. We also finally managed to make up for lost time and finish our website up to Turkey by making the most of the comfortable arm chairs at Starbucks Coffee ! 

 

 

   

Making the most of Beirut's wealth & proximity to the sea : sushi " volont" at the Commodore Meridien (left), getting hot water for a shower and going to the movies at the same time (centre)

 

We are doing well !

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