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.