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Photo: Robert Seger

Places

Food, friends and fun – a guide to Beirut

A bit of Paris, a bit of Berlin, a bit of the Orient. Ancient, yet young, posh and bohemian. That’s Beirut.

Ask a local about life in this vibrant city and the likelihood is that “Party, party, party,” will be the standard response. Having lived in a region of endless conflicts, Beirutians have developed a refined, never-ending joie de vivre. Family and friends are everything and so are parties – always with food – and lots of it.

“We need to go out. Everyone does, regardless of age. We would be bored to death just going home after a day at work. If you post a suggestion on WhatsApp, people will join you straight away,” our guide Cedra Makhlouf says.

And there’s certainly no lack of options for things to do in Beirut. In the fashionable area of Mar Mikhael, an old neighborhood that’s become one of the hippest hubs in the city, winter or summer there’s always a party going on and people enjoying themselves in the laid-back cafés, restaurants and bars.

Which brings us neatly on to the subject of food. Moderation is not a word often used to describe Lebanese dining. The table is always loaded with countless numbers of appetizers, such as tabouli and fattoush salad, eggplant in tahini, eggplant in fattah, labneh cheese, pastries, breads and dips. It’s a common amateur mistake to eat until sated, only to realize that it was only the cold mezza being served and now it’s time to clear space for the hot appetizers. This second set of appetizers is then followed by the main course, which may, for example, be a selection of grilled meat. And just when you think you’re done, it’s time for dessert. In seconds the table is as abundant as before, and the show gets better and better, as waiters bring forth huge bowls of colorful fruit and trays with custards, cakes, dates and sugared fruit, while Zhuraat tea made with herbs and flowers helps with the digestion.

“We eat with our eyes. It’s about hospitality and laying the table with the best you can afford. You taste a little bit of everything. Food reflects our love of life,” Makhlouf explains.

Even during wartime this craving for life endured and people never stopped going out.

“If there was a battle in the South, we went to the North,” Makhlouf adds.

Women from Beirut are known for their elegance. The beauty parlors are always busy and the top end brands sell well. Men and women wear designer shoes and carry the finest bags.        

The cheerful city life, colorful staircases and eye-catching graffiti that covers the walls mask a past filled with wars and invasions as long as anyone can remember. Maybe that’s why the Lebanese have grown to love and appreciate their country so much.

“Lebanon is always in our hearts, wherever we are.” – artist Rudi Rahme. Lebanese artist, poet and sculptor Rudi Rahme puts it poetically.  

“Lebanon is like a rose with thorns around it. It can be trampled and its petals can be torn, but the scent will never die,” he says, holding a sculpture in his hands.

“I have called it The Torch of the Alphabet. The Phoenicians gave the world its first alphabet and even though every civilization has been through our country, still the wars haven’t discouraged us. On the contrary, we’ve fought back, but with pens and culture. We have big dreams. And Lebanon is always in our hearts, wherever we are.”

 

On the beach, facing the seaport and Zaituna Bay, stands a monument of a man holding a bag in his hand. The Lebanese Immigrant is a monument raised in memory of the fellow countrymen who were forced to leave the country during times of hardship. The statue still serves as a meaningful place for many immigrants who return home for a visit. 

The first immigrant fled the country by boat to -Mexico in 1861. Today, there are big Lebanese populations in Brazil, the United States and Europe. The number of Lebanese citizens in the country is only 4.5 million but when adding the number of immigrants with -Lebanese origins around the world, the number increases up to 15 million more.

Although downtown Beirut has been restored and -rebuilt, pock-marked walls, ruined buildings and empty lots serve as enduring reminders of the civil war that separated Christians in east Beirut from Muslims in the west from 1975 to 1990.

Beirut-born Artist Rasha Kassir takes her creative inspiration from the city.Rasha Kassir is another artist born in Beirut. She couldn’t think of living anywhere else. 

“During weekdays I work and meet friends in bars and cafés, but on Sundays I go out into the countryside to hike and have lunch. Faraya Mountain is my favorite. Within an hour you can enjoy the most beautiful scenery, but despite my love of nature, it’s the city and its life that I draw my inspiration from. Nature is never a motif in my art, it’s only the city.”

Kassir’s city isn’t always light and cheerful. Her childhood memories are completely different. She went to a Catholic school in downtown and saw all the changes that Beirut underwent during the past decades. 

“I remember my childhood in Beirut as dark and bad. Everything changed, even the people changed. After the civil war things improved, but after our Prime Minister Hariri was killed in 2005, everything fell apart. Now we’re back on top again!

“The people here are hospitable and kind. A person you don’t know will invite you to his home, and if you need help, there’s always someone offering a hand.”

Beirut is a city of many layers. At Place de l’Etoile you could be forgiven for imagining you’re in Central Europe – enter the huge Mohammed Al Amin mosque though and everything changes. The red ceiling and its gigantic chandelier open a window into a completely different world. History is present everywhere you go. There are excavations portraying the Roman city, even though the archaeological findings date much further back in time to the Neolithic period, around 6000 BC.

In the evening, the Raouché promenade on the seafront is busy with walkers, joggers and people having coffee. The pigeon grotto down on the water takes on a new hue as the sun sets, and as daylight expires its final breaths, thousands of city lights come to life. Beirut doesn’t slow down for long though. People are just going home to get dressed – they’ll soon be on their way out again.

Last edited: March 26, 2018

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