Most people had the exact same reaction when I told them I was going to Beirut. “Why?”
I never knew what to say, and I still don’t – other than why not.
If why not is not enough of an answer, consider the many other reasons to visit Beirut. The people are incredibly welcoming and positive. The food is delicious. And there’s that surprisingly wild nightlife… But I must admit, many sections of the city have a melancholy eeriness to them. Entire buildings have been abandoned completely. Bullet holes grace the sides of most walls and statues.
It’s December 31st 2011. The year is about to change. I’m staying at a five star hotel, in a deluxe suite, and the view from my balcony is of dilapidated buildings with no glass on the windows. There are people living in all the windowless apartments, mostly families with young children. I feel weird sitting on the balcony drinking champagne and listening to music, but I do it anyway, because champagne and music have rarely harmed anyone.
Beirut has been under hard times, but the future looks hopeful. The beautiful Corniche recently got a great facelift, making the oceanside promenade a lovely place for a sunset walk and admiring the serenity of the rocky and somewhat desolate surroundings.
To the west of Place des Martyrs and the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque there’s a beautiful new quarter, centered around the lovely Al Nejmeh square. There are restaurants and cafés on the narrow cobblestone alleys. The area has a calm mediterranean atmosphere. But there are hardly any people anywhere.
The nearby Beirut Souks shopping complex is a shiny new center of western glamour, filled with Jimmy Choo shoes and $10 coffees. Searching for a more authentic experience, I headed back to Hamra. The contrast between the new side and the old is very strong and somewhat unsettling, but if you’re looking for some nighttime adventures, Hamra is the place to be.
I’m standing on a nondescript and somewhat shabby street when I hear Rihanna blasting through speakers somewhere nearby. I follow that sound until I find my bliss – a narrow street, lined on both sides with small bars, one after the other. Most bars only have a few seats, but that’s not an issue – as the evening progresses, everyone flows onto the streets until there’s hardly room to breathe. And I mean that in the best possible way. Everyone is with everyone and everyone seems ecstatic.
I meet locals who tell me about a great bar on the outskirts of the city, B018. I follow them to this old underground bunker with a retractable roof. It rains all night so the roof doesn’t open, and there are weird guards with flashlights checking the dancefloor for any illegal activities, but it’s the best time I’ve ever had in an active warzone.
The year changes to 2012 on a fire escape on the side of a tall building, watching the fireworks.