Though you’d be forgiven for thinking that Beirut’s unnaturally elevated levels of high velocity lead pollution might over time have driven its population to seek a healthier atmosphere elsewhere, that’d be to discount the local, irrepressible ability to celebrate life, love and Lebanon.
As one of my many taxi drivers freely expounded: “Saudis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, French and even Germans all come now, spend their money. Beirut is open for business.”
It’s 10pm — early to be hitting the town by Lebanese standards. Among the boho chic of Beirut’s Gemayzeh, the band at Bar Louie are still finding their level, giving their soundman the old one, two. The bar may be one of Rue Gouraud’s originals, but here’s proof that Almaza beer has refreshed parts that politicians have failed to reach.
I’m soon engaged in the kind of conversation that, the world over, is still the preserve of lone male drinkers and barmen.
“The trouble is not our generation. It’s the older ones. They don’t see Lebanon from the outside, they see it only from within,” says 27-year-old Mike.
“I am a property broker and a barman. I am a Muslim, my wife is a Christian. I have one child and another on the way. I have two works and love to spend money. I don’t need this religious and political shit, really.”
I ask Mike whether business has improved since the election of a new president.
“A little, yes. But I was born into this. I live like this and I’ll die like this.”
Throughout my stay this sentiment was almost as commonly and genuinely expressed as the mantra-like ‘Welcome to Lebanon’.
“I’ve been to the States and UK but in Beirut it’s possible to have the best bloody time ever — guaranteed,” Mike declares, and after another Almaza the band finally hits a groove and within moments I’m Walking In Memphis.
I’d seen Beirut in the hopeful times of April 2006, and again, when the Lebanese might have despaired, after the Israel and Hezbollah war that July. Even then the streets were packed with bon vivants living each day as though it might be their last.
The physical destruction wrought in the southern suburbs was nothing compared to the economic damage that ensued with political deadlock and 15 failed attempts to elect a new president.
As Downtown restaurant maître d’ Ali recounted: “It was the between time. So what if there’s an MK [Israeli plane] overhead, people just get on. It was what happened afterwards that was worse. Of 133 restaurants in Downtown, 123 closed. A big problem for us — we have staff, they have families. Only those with out-of-town branches to subsidise could stay open.”
A few yards down the road, bar Torino Express is packed with hipsters. Not hard, considering Beirut’s relative density of intriguingly beautiful people combined with a joint the size of an ample single garage.
Conversations drift like the cigarette smoke, combining Arabic, French and English into a uniquely Lebanese blend. I catch the accent of a couple of Americans.
“What the hell are you guys doing here?”
They smile and laugh in that uniquely generous American way. Turns out, the guy has Lebanese blood but this is his first visit.
“We expected conditions a bit better than how the media play it, but not like this. Everything works. It’s so European.”
They speak a half-truth, for certainly half of Beirut does seem remarkably European — with an edge. A beautiful Lebanese woman drifts confidently towards a premium position at the bar. She’s wearing a hat slightly too weird but it doesn’t seem to worry her. She orders a Wahad white wine — a reminder that Lebanon, though an Arabic country, is far from an Islamic state. She lives in the mountains. Ah, those blessed hills of Mount Lebanon.
“Not far, close to here. I work in Hamra. You should come down there sometime,” she says.
The barman, unprompted, delivers another beer. “I read your mind,” he says, looking me in the eye. Truly, Beirut is a dangerous place.