Lebanon Day 2 – Beirut

Not buying water earlier in the day before the night before this morning after had been a big mistake. Dying of thirst, I’d gulped a can of Heineken before going to bed, slept in my Embassy Hotel room with the TV and all the lights on, and woke up feeling muddled, puzzled and generally worse for wear.

I stepped tentatively out into a bright, crisp Beirut late morning, and went to a nice place called Rodeo for a salad and a coke in a bid to feel human again. It took most of the day. I only started to come round after another epic walk, where I got to Downtown and back. Downtown is an incredible place – completely rebuilt, an area full of designer boutiques, hideous modern art sculptures, french street names, cafes full of men and women drinking coffee and chugging nargileh (water pipes), beautiful people milling around everywhere dressed to the nines, buildings that smelt new, streets you could eat a kebab off. Incredible. The clock tower is sponsored by Rolex. Somehow, I didn’t expect all this….opulence, soulless though this particular area of Beirut is. Soullessly opulent, then. The presence of fully armed soldiers, the odd tank, and countless undercover security guards mingling with the crowds, the constant fizz and crackle of their walkie-talkies cutting through the din, only added to the excitement….I was in a beautiful, dangerous world now.

I walked around, admiring the huge Christmas tree, where families were posing for photos, everybody smiling, happy, enjoying the Christmas time atmosphere. Christmas decorations were all around, and the buzz suddenly made me want to end my holiday prematurely and get back to England to go shopping with my mum. I walked around to the Mohammed al-Amin mosque, which looks quite a bit like Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, though a younger and impeccably groomed version. From here I walked to the Place des Martyrs, an area that is a regular host to demonstrations, and around here is the Martyrs statue, riddled with bullet holes, a grim reminder of all that was destroyed during the Civil War. I needed a coffee fix after all this, and through the bullet holes of the Martyrs statue I could see the promising and slightly nauseating pink and yellow sign of a Mister Donuts, so I headed in that direction, leaving this symbol of an unwanted history behind, as all in Beirut have tried to do. I walked all around Downtown, back along the Corniche as night fell, the waves of the Mediterranean still crashing heavily onto the rocks and occasionally over onto the path, soaking people to the glee of those hanging around just for that purpose. The fishermen didn’t seem to notice, holding their rods with grim determination.

It was already time to head out again. I was going to head out to Gemmayzeh, one of hot spots of Beirut nightlife, but instead hit the dingy yet atmospheric little bars of Hamra, student-friendly and cheaper than most places around. I started in a place called Dannys, where I sat alone at the bar and supped a rum and coke. The barman poured the rum so that it filled at least three-quarters of the glass, and topped it up with no more than a splash of coke. That’s another good thing about Beirut. Free pouring. No rip-off single shots here. Measures aren’t measured. You can get suitably inebriated after just 2 or 3 drinks here. Measures are more than generous, prices cheap, people have more fun. I noticed a big difference with that most conservative society I live in, Singapore, as I had whilst clubbing last night, where people party but never let themselves go unlike here, where people seem to drink and party with gay abandon as though tomorrow will never come. The barman, who looked like he’d just stepped off a Fashion TV show, winked in that friendly Lebanese way, and gave me some peanuts to go with my drink.

A group of local ladies and gents were at the corner of the bar, and got my attention by buying me a shot of tobacco-infused vodka. Just because I was on my own, and they wanted me to enjoy myself. The Lebanese are friendly like that. One of them, Dino, came to talk to me, and she was very warm and friendly. I enjoyed the chance to talk to someone in a more relaxed setting than a club, and, together with her friends, we got progressively more drunk. I told her my thoughts about the attitude of the Lebanese people, in particular those from Beirut. “It seems like you really have a lust for life”, I offered, not meaning to quote an Iggy Pop song and hating how cheesy I’d just sounded. She didn’t seem to get the reference. “Well, we have to. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It could all go wrong again any day. Politicians are threatened, people are murdered almost everyday…things are happening here that don’t make international news….but we all know we’re sitting on a timebomb….so I suppose we want to enjoy ourselves before it goes off” she answered, matter-of-factly. Crikey. What an existence. What a place to be. She told me a lot of interesting things about Beirut and the surrounds, and I felt suddenly informed. Beirut seems the kind of place where, if one hangs around, you could start to get under the skin of this place and really enjoy it. I wondered what it would be like to live and work here.

My new friends all left, as they had to work the next day, and so I ordered a last drink to accompany me. I returned to the Embassy, which was just down the street. Just like in Damascus, I didn’t feel threatened walking the streets alone. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here was a place where, all day, I was walking with my ipod headphones in. You wouldn’t do that in a lot of ‘first world’ cities I’ve been to. I turned my TV and lights off before I went to bed this time, and made sure I had a 2 litre bottle of mineral water next to me for good measure. I’d had a lot of good measures tonight, and the water was going to be the one that determined my fate the next day. A fantastic day and evening. 🙂

Author: Neil

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