Travel

Switzerland of the East

May 10, 2010

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Switzerland of the East

I was less than eager to discover the Arab world. My previous experiences in Egypt and Turkey put me off visiting countries where Western woman are demeaned. Nevertheless, I boarded a plane last weekend headed for Beirut. I figured it was a safe bet. If a country exists where the natives are used to foreigners, Lebanon is it. In addition to the number of foreign refugees, Lebanon has been occupied by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks, and the French, among others. I had further hopes for my experience given the level of education and literacy in Lebanon, which stands above that of many of its neighbors. 

The Lebanese are very hospitable and friendly. That there are only about four million people living in Lebanon gives it a small town feeling. Puttering about the capitol, one quickly realizes that despite political corruption and stereotypical Middle Eastern posturing, the Lebanese are rich, sophisticated people. In particular, Lebanese Christians have a fondness for travel, food, art, design, architecture, and the intellectual. 

The great disappointment, however, is the architecture. Beirut is a panoply of unfinished or bombed-out concrete edifices littering an otherwise pleasing coastline. The sheer number of these unsightly buildings is evidence of the fact that good taste is subjective indeed. Fortunately for those with even a remote sense of design, peppered about these virtual disaster areas are a couple of nice buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as other hidden gems. Beach clubs like Le Sporting bring one back to the 1950s, before the civil war and the Israeli bombings destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. 

“Prices are high, very high actually, with not a bargain in sight. People drive fancy cars and wear designer clothes very casually. But one can still find little wonders from another epoch like Deep Music, a hole in the wall in Hamra where a Marxist music lover sells cassette tapes of famous Lebanese singers.”


Nevertheless, Beirut is a stylish place. Hip bars, restaurants, and cafes blanket the city center. New buildings, shopping malls, and developments are taking root, all the big designers have boutiques and opulent hotels abound. Dozens of cranes dot the skyline, a good sign that Lebanon is prosperous despite its more recent set-backs. It seems like every wealthy Lebanese family is building a skyscraper. Politics are such that developers try to outdo each other. One family has managed to have the flight path moved just to get an extra few meters on top of their tower. Unfortunately, building codes are practically nil, and without a preservation society, the situation is somewhat out of hand. Prices are high, very high actually, with not a bargain in sight. People drive fancy cars and wear designer clothes very casually. But one can still find little wonders from another epoch like Deep Music, a hole in the wall in Hamra where a Marxist music lover sells cassette tapes of famous Lebanese singers like Fairuz and Fouad. 

I was fortunate enough to be invited by a Lebanese friend who helped organize a series of cultural lectures and performances over a 10-day period called Home Works. Every afternoon and evening we attended a different talk or concert in various venues around the city. One night, in a theater that looks more like a concrete blob than an old movie house, we saw some very modern Flamenco that was perhaps slightly pretentious, though a spectacular insight to the state of the art.  A few miles down the road at B018, we had drinks in an amazing subterranean bar with a retractable roof that looks like a submarine or a spaceship beneath a disk-shaped car park. It is perhaps the coolest bar I have been to, built on the site of one of the worst militia attacks from the civil war. 

As there is not much to see in town for the average tourist, these functions and chic destinations made for an unusual cultural experience, as well as a touristy day visiting the ancient Roman ruins in Baalbek to see the temples of Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus. The road to Baalbek is not much different to the coast, and concrete monstrosities trash much of the countryside, but a glimpse of snow-capped mountains and the enigmatic Baalbek stones made the potholed journey worthwhile. A few blissful days were spent at the beach near Saida a few hours north of the Israeli border. Lying in the sun eating lots of hummus and other Lebanese delicacies, I looked out in the distance towards Greece and was struck by the marvelous cultural diversity spread about the Mediterranean. 

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