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August 3, 2012 7:57 pm
Shortly after I first arrived in Beirut in 2008, I was sitting in a café in the Hamra district – a studenty, religiously mixed area in the west of the city – when I got a phone call from my mum. She was alarmed to hear that the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah had blocked off the airport road in protest at a government decision. Although Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, for my mum’s generation, Beirut is inseparable from images of masked gunmen and shattered buildings. “You have to stop worrying,” I told her patronisingly. “The people around me are drinking lattes, for goodness sake.”
A few hours later, the café was reverberating with the sound of rocket-propelled grenades as Hizbollah and its allies fought pro-government militias for control of west Beirut.
Latte service was only disrupted for a day or two, but I had gained my first insight into what the Lebanese know only too well: that even in peacetime, Beirut’s sophisticated, western brand-studded surface conceals violent and unpredictable forces.
The undercurrent of chaos is, I suspect, part of the appeal for the waves of foreign journalists, students and flâneurs who have swept through here in recent years. There is something exhilarating, at first, about living in a city where pretty much anything goes, and the living is spontaneous.
But as a sad-faced architect fighting the property developers’ destruction of Beirut’s Ottoman heritage once told me, only visitors love the chaos. For long-time residents, it’s a nightmare.
Because no one really won the civil war, no meaningful acts of government can take place without a consensus among the bellicose leaders of Lebanon’s sects and factions. In practice, this means the eternal jackhammer of an under-regulated construction boom, rolling power cuts, snarling traffic jams and some of the worst internet service in the world. If one experience were to define my four years in Beirut, it would be the quest for a reliable connection, trailing power cords and swear words through the wireless cafés of Hamra after mine has conked out just before deadline.
The laisser-faire approach does mean, however, that Beirut is one of the easiest places in the Middle East to set yourself up as a journalist. When I first moved here I was an unaffiliated freelancer, only rarely required to come up with accreditation documents – unthinkable in most Arab countries. Moreover, the average Lebanese has relatives on three continents, and nearly everyone speaks English or French as well as Arabic; many speak all three.
I have always lived in Hamra. In the Christian east of the city, you can get high-ceilinged apartments for less than a characterless Hamra pad. The city’s best food is in the east as well, from the spicy sausages in pomegranate molasses served in the Armenian quarter to the sublime kibbeh nayeh (raw meat with bulgar wheat) of the Abdul Wahhab restaurant. Hamra, on the other hand, is blighted by brash new bars springing up almost weekly. Nonetheless, I feel the kind of tribal attachment to it that I used to for north London. It’s not so much an urban district as a village, in which you come to know every tailor, key-cutter, butcher and greengrocer.
When I first started working for the FT, I was writing about a scandal over Hizbollah’s alleged involvement in the assassination of a popular former prime minister. The story was a Molotov cocktail of sensitive issues: sectarianism, Syrian influence and Israeli espionage. From the moment Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in Tunisia, however, the manoeuvrings of Lebanese politicians seemed less important. Suddenly, my days were spent trying to Skype people in Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen as my colleagues and I wondered where it was all going to end.
Most of the journalists in Beirut these days are using the city as a listening post from which to cover the turmoil in Syria, as it is so hard to get visas there. The horror “next door” (as locals refer to it) feels simultaneously close and very far away. Swimming in an open-air pool the other day, I found myself thinking how bizarre it was that mortars were falling around 50 miles away from all the perfect beach bodies and bottles of rosé.
At other times Lebanon feels like an extension of Syria. Damascus has watching, listening allies all over the country, and the Syrian activists that come to Beirut are familiar with the invisible boundaries of its political geography. One road will be considered safe to meet in, while another just metres away will be a no-go area. The Lebanese themselves are nervous – more nervous than I’ve ever seen them before – about the conflict spilling over here.
There is a fair amount to do when the news relents. Art house films play in the Metropolis cinema in east Beirut, while trendy galleries display work from artists around the region. In the mind-bendingly humid summers, the key is to be in the water as much as possible. But on sweltering days when a power cut knocks out the AC and I have just heard some suspicious clicks on my phone call, I yearn for temperate, functional England.
Yet at times I wonder how I will cope with living anywhere else. I have been corrupted by Lebanon. The economy is fuelled by a service industry aimed at preventing people with a certain level of income from doing anything for themselves. For US$3, you can get a glistening bowlful of tabbouleh delivered to your doorstep. I’ve pretty much forgotten how to cook.
It is fashionable among Middle East aficionados to decry Beirut’s shallowness. But away from the manic hedonism of the nightspots, the pleasure Beirutis take in the small things in life is infectious. In the evenings, old ladies take fold-up chairs on to the seafront to gossip and smoke water-pipes, while young men slip in and out of the water beneath the railings. Beirut is, despite its problems, a great place to live. I hope it stays that way.
●Weather (in winter)
●Food (Lebanese restaurants abroad do it no justice)
●Weather (in summer)
●Slow, unreliable internet
What you can buy for ...
$100,000 A 100 sq m two-bedroom apartment 20-30 minutes’ drive out of the city, such as the mountain town of Aley
$1m 300 sq m, a balcony and parking spot in somewhere like the elegant east Beirut district of Achrafieh
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