Beirut, Lebanon

Ever since I saw the war footage during the 1980s, Beirut is one place I’ve wanted to go. Now I’ve been.

Thursday morning I was expecting to catch a service taxi from the Baramkeh bus station in the centre of Damascus. All the advice received said I could leave from there. However, I ended up having to take a normal taxi to a place with a name sounding like ‘San Marie’ on the outskirts of town. Eventually, 3 local men, a Russian guy named Max and myself were in this old yellow American car heading to Beirut. The local trip fee was 500 SYP (10 USD; 1,500 LBP) but Max and I were requested to pay 600.

The distance from Damascus to Syria is only 127 kilometres so a day trip is quite manageable. After exiting Syria and driving through one of the world’s largest no man’s lands we reached the Lebanese entry point, Masnaa. Before granting me a free transit visa (probably valid for 48 hours) the immigration official asked for the pronunciation and origin of my surname. He wanted to know if I was an Arab. Later, after reading The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English-language daily newspaper, I understood why he wanted this information.

Upon arrival to Beirut, Max and I grabbed a taxi from Charles Helou Bus Station to Downtown Beirut. There were soldiers almost everywhere and all the streets surrounding the parliament were either barricaded with concrete blocks or razor wire or check-pointed. The security along with the burning early afternoon sun kept people off the nearly deserted streets. Both the taxi drivers and the cafes surrounding Parliament Square were desperate for customers. The conflict between the Lebanese military and militants in the north and south of the country is not encouraging tourists to visit, particularly so soon after the war with Israel in 2006.

Despite Beirut’s relative insecurity, Downtown is experiencing a construction boom. Huge cranes and the sound of jackhammers were obvious everywhere. The investors must have confidence another conflict will not hit the city or they have money to burn; or both.

Hizbollah have a tent city set up in Beirut’s old Green Line but hardly a soul was stirring. I was able to take photographs there and just about everywhere else in the city. I will post some upon return to Turkey.

Beirut is a fascinating mix of architectural styles: ancient ruins; old French and Ottoman buildings; historic mosques and churches side-by-side; new buildings designed in old styles; and ultramodern skyscrapers. Despite the construction work and the new buildings, evidence of the 1980s and 2006 conflicts was visible everywhere. Many structures, including some skyscrapers were in total disrepair. Other buildings were in use but still displayed the tell-tale bullet holes.

Besides the construction, more evidence of Lebanon’s wealth is seen on the road. From observation, it seemed every second car was either a luxury four-wheel drive or a luxury sedan. The money just drips in Beirut.

Following a mixed fruit juice and a cappuccino in a French-styled cafe within a stones-throw of the parliament, I walked west towards Hamra. On the way I stopped at a food store displaying all kinds of exotic foods I had never seen in Syria or Turkey.

The French influence is almost everywhere In Beirut (and the rest of Lebanon, I guess). The street signs are generally in Arabic and French as opposed to the Arabic and English seen in Syria. However, based on advertisements and other signs, English is catching up fast.

From Hamra I walked to the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East. Here, like everywhere in Beirut, the women were absolutely gorgeous. Beirut has the head-scarfed women but most of the rest were showing plenty of their supermodel-like tanned skin. I have been told that plastic surgery is huge here so not all that blinded my eyes was completely natural. The relative liberalness of Beirut is like an oasis after Syria.

After a stroll along the corniche in the late-afternoon sun I caught a taxi back to Charles Helou Bus Station, tempted though I was to stay another day in Beirut. While waiting for more passengers to share the service taxi to Damascus, several army tanks and jeeps repeatedly passed the bus station. I’m not sure why they were driving around and around but I guess the barracks were driving them to boredom.

Our car for the journey to Damascus was a modern vehicle and not an American classic and we were only 3 passengers. I paid the equivalent of 20 USD and the 2 Arab passenger 10 USD as I was the ignorant non-Arabic speaking foreigner. I enjoyed the extra room this time, though.

One of the passengers was Mira, a Damascus local whose parents live in Beirut. As she spoke some English we managed to converse. Mira mentioned she preferred living in Damascus because the people in Lebanon are “scared”.

The hilly road from Beirut to the Syrian border follows a number of bypasses due to damage suffered to the old highway during the 2006 war. One bridge, in particular, was partially destroyed.

31 USD later and I gained another Syrian visa. The visa process at the Masnaa border was far easier than at the Bab al Hawa crossing between Aleppo and Antakya. At Masnaa the official asked me to change 30 USD (although the bank worker requested 31 USD) and then the same border official did everything else. At Bab al Hawa the identical visa process requires visits to 5 or 6 different places in the immigration building.

I arrived back to Damascus around 10 pm. Jeff took me to the US Marine’s bar where we played pool and chatted to folks from various different countries. One of the Marines was generous with the Bourbon shots although I watched my consumption closely.

When Beirut becomes more secure and comfortable I would love to live there. It is a unique and fascinating city, consisting of one part Dubai, one part Paris, one part Berlin, one part Damascus and a million parts of Beirut.

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2 thoughts on “Beirut, Lebanon

  1. Joe, great article. What was most fascinating about Beirut? I am so intrigued. I plan to be in Turkey and Syria and possibly go all the way to Beirut, which, they say is the Paris of the Middle East. Have you been back since?

  2. Soukshopper,
    The most fascinating thing about Beirut was its whole aura – its wealth and glamour, damaged buildings, political struggle, ethnic and religious divides, etcetera…

    I haven't been back to Lebanon since this report. It's a long way from Australia from where I am now based.

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