For about 10 years I’ve had a bizarre fascination with the city of Beirut in Lebanon. People often ask me what appeals to me so much about Beirut. Most people find it surprising that I would develop such an intense liking for a city I had no prior connection to. I agree, it is a little strange.
I always have trouble identifying a simple answer to the question, probably because there are many inter-linking reasons. I thought it was about time I put some of these reasons in writing.
When I started learning Arabic in 2005 I also started finding out a little bit about Lebanon, specifically Beirut, and was fascinated by what I discovered. I fell in love with it, before even having visited. I eventually got the chance to visit in 2011 and went again in 2012. Here are seven reasons I love Beirut, in no particular order.
1. The fascinating recent history
A lot has happened to Beirut over the past hundred years. Often a country’s most interesting history happened hundreds or thousands of years ago but in Beirut it’s all still fresh. What I love about the story of Beirut is that in recent decades it has gone from a glamourous and prosperous city, through a 15 year civil war and out the other side, to thrive again.
2. The food
As someone who doesn’t enjoy meat, the Lebanese cuisine has many delights to offer me – falafel, hummus, fatayer (spinach and cheese pastries), babaganoush (roasted aubergine dip), flatbread, fattoush salad. And baklava.
3. The nightlife
Even back in the 60s Beirut was famous for its great nightlife and these days it’s no different. There are big expensive flashy clubs, like Sky Bar, which are kind of ridiculous but great for people watching. There are also loads of great little bars and restaurants in hip districts like Gemayze and Mar Mikhael. People have a sophisticated approach to partying. They somehow manage to keep it classy. Their culture is a perfect mix beween Middle Eastern and European.
4. The people
My impression of Lebanese people is that they are friendly and welcoming and generally very beautiful. Many Lebanese people seem to have an appearance which is a perfect mix between European and Arab. It’s common to find dark-haired olive-skinned Lebanese people with blue or green eyes. There is also something very appealing about their attitude. They’ve lived through wars and bombings but they don’t seem to let this bother them. They just get on with life and stay positive.
5. It doesn’t feel touristy
Because of Beirut’s mistakenly bad reputation, it’s not an obvious tourist destination. I hate feeling like a tourist when I visit a foreign country but in Beirut you really have no choice but to do what the locals do. Lebanon is a coastal Mediterranean country, just like Spain or Italy or Greece and has everything that those countries have to offer. For those in the know it feels like a ‘hidden gem’. Maybe it’s lucky that its civil war throughout the 70s and 80s stopped it from becoming over-run with ‘Brits abroad’ package holidays. Only one airline flies directly to Lebanon from the UK and the flights are pricey. You can get to neighbouring Cyprus or Israel on Easyjet but Beirut stays satisfyingly exclusive.
6. The language
People in Beirut have this wonderful way of speaking where they can sometimes be heard using two or three different languages in the same sentence. Every educated person in Beirut speaks at least two languages fluently (Arabic plus either English or French). They drop words from all these languages into every day speech and I love the way this sounds.
7. There’s a feeling in the air
For me, Beirut has an atmosphere to it which is a mixture of warm, sunny, laid-back glamour with just a faint hint of danger. I don’t know if that’s all just in my mind but I find it a really exciting place to be.
So there you have it – my case for why Beirut really is an amazing city. I hope you can see why I love it.
And finally… I think there are tough times ahead for Beirut, and the whole of Lebanon, in the next couple of years. I had always entertained the possibility of living there one day and learning Lebanese Arabic fluently but in the present climate, I’d give that a miss. With ISIS knocking at their door from neighbouring Syria and other terrorist groups active, I really hope Lebanon can defend itself. It’s a tiny country – half the size of Wales. Population-wise it’s about two thirds the size of London. They have already taken in about 1.3 million refugees from Syria, which has had a big effect on a country with a population of only about 5 million.