Be Beirut

Martyrs’ Statue, Beirut

Really enjoyed my return visit to Beirut earlier this month. I don’t really like cities, but Beirut is always memorable.

At the time I tweeted: “Beirut is a great place to try & figure out how cities self-perpetuate (and prosper) despite lacking sane central authority.” That’s what it felt like: more than any other city I know, Beirut feels like a collection of individuals thrown into the mix together and jostling along working things out day by day. To a know-nothing journalist, floating along as an outsider for a few days, I got no sense of collective endeavour or sense of community. It felt directionless – and that was compounded by the megalopolitan redevelopment of the downtown area, where vast areas of what was central Beirut – damaged beyond repair in the civil war – have been bought up by the Solidere corporation, bulldozed and are still in the process of being redeveloped for upscale residential and business use. They form a ghost town of quiet and luxury amid the rambling disorder of the city all around.

To get a handle on how things have changed since I was last here, several years ago, I joined Be Beirut – the city’s only guided walking tour (and the only such initiative anywhere in the Middle East, to my knowledge). I loved it. Led by Ronnie Chatah, we walked for five hours through West Beirut to the shot-up Holiday Inn, then into the Solidere’s ‘central district’ to end, poignantly, at the small garden dedicated to Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir. Ronnie really knows his stuff: his explanations at various stops were fascinating, from tales of the old civil-war days around the cafes and cinemas of Hamra, to the Armenian Haigazian University, the Magen Avraham synagogue (currently under restoration), the Hariri-built Al-Amin Mosque – all very engaging.

Two small criticisms: five hours is an hour too long, and since the company does a separate culinary walk around Gemmayzeh and Achrafieh, our tour did not go into East Beirut at all – a serious omission. That aside, this was a perfect reintroduction to what was, for me, a half-remembered city. (And, in case you were wondering, this is not a sponsored endorsement: even though I was on assignment I paid my own hard-earned cash to join the tour…)

More from me on Beirut later.

8 Comments

  1. skippingstones

    I love Beirut and Lebanon! That tour sounds interesting and I look forward to hearing about the rest of your travels.

  2. Jenny Woolf

    Off topic but thanks for your link on my blog ( shredding the Banyan Tree in Bahrain.) Have to say I really enjoyed reading it. I don’t know whether it accurately reflects what the hotel is really like. But if it is true, then top marks to Timesonline for publishing it.

    Think I’ll put your blog on my blogroll – it’s very interesting. Although the bedroom at the top looks a little bit austere. Can one not be quite alone in luxury?

  3. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Jenny – but yes, off topic! Feel free to email me… FWIW, that article doesn’t come close to reflecting either the hotel or Bahrain.

    As for the picture in my page header, it shows the interior of one of the cabins at the Ajloun Forest nature reserve in northern Jordan. You can be quite alone in luxury if you prefer, but I’d rather be in a cabin in Ajloun!

  4. Anonymous

    I’ve been on the tour twice and it’s not actually five hours (it started at 3:30 and finished at 8:00), and it’s not all walking, there are plenty of stops, so it’s not as tiring as it sounds when you say “Five-hour walking tour”.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thanks for your input, Anonymous. Just to clarify, the tour I took (3 January 2010) started at 2:00pm and finished at 7:10pm – though yes, we weren’t walking the whole time and there were several stops to rest. Maybe they’ve altered the itinerary since January? Please let us know, BeBeirut people!

  5. timewilson

    I love Beirut!

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