Beirut

Beirut

The devastating explosion in Beirut last month was one event in a long line of traumas that the city has had to endure. The civil war seemed to bring Lebanon to our TV screens every night during the late 1970s and 1980s, and Beirut became a byword for death and destruction. Back then, I was developing an interest in Middle Eastern countries and Lebanon was top of my list of places to visit when things settled. I finally took the plunge and bought myself and a friend tickets to Beirut in 1999.

We were based in the mostly Muslim area of Hamra on the west side, where we enjoyed some nice cafes and a vibrant atmosphere. Nearby there was the pleasant campus of the American University of Beirut. A short walk took us to the seafront Corniche and a small stretch of beach. Families had picnics and smoked hubble bubble pipes. A Muslim couple offered us coffee as we sunbathed one afternoon. We visited our first ever Hard Rock Café in Beirut, and we were told that the Beirut McDonald’s was the only one in the world to offer valet parking. The Smugglers’ Inn had a good vibe to it, and it had more character than the Duke of Wellington: like most British pubs I’ve been to abroad it was pretty dull. The Lone Star Café by the university offered Tex/Mex food, margaritas and live music. Great stuff.

Many building had shell holes in their walls. There were none of the souks found in most Arab cities, as much of the city centre had been re-built and modernised after years of shelling. It reminded me of Milton Keynes. Christian East Beirut felt European, a bit like Paris. It had all been very relaxed, and everyone had been really friendly. Some people were too trusting. We were sitting at a table outside a bar in East Beirut when some women started talking to us. We said we were intending to try out the Zinc Bar that we’d earmarked from my guidebook. When the group of women split up to go home one of the young ladies offered to drive us to the bar. She didn’t want to visit it herself; she just dropped us off and drove off home. I always regret not telling her to never pick up strangers; we could have been anybody.

Byblos harbor

Byblos harbor

We got out of Beirut a couple of times by bus. Byblos proved to be an attractive town with a nice harbour, good beaches and a pleasant and relaxed shopping area. It reminded me of Greece.

Soon, we were the ones taking risks with strangers. We went to Tripoli by mistake. It was as busy as Beirut but more workaday. When we struggled to find a bar I asked someone on the street. He pointed to a building. We went up the steps to the first floor and entered a long, almost bare, room.  Seedy-looking blokes shook our hands. We said we were looking for beer. They showed us into a smaller room where a man was lying on a bed watching Chelsea v Milan on TV. He had a picture of President Assad of Syria above the bed, which I took as a bad sign. Various men flitted in and out trying to talk to us, but no-one spoke good English. We couldn’t work out what kind of place this was: was it a drug den, or were the girls coming up later? I suggested we show interest in football and girls, lest they get any cute ideas.

Cans of Heineken arrived; clearly brought in from outside especially for us. The bloke who seemed to be running the show told Adam this was a gambling den. Anyway, we finished our lager, gave some money, and after a decent amount of time bade our goodbyes. It was friendly to the end, but we were glad to get out.

I’ve always wanted to return to Lebanon, but for ten years I was held back by an Israeli stamp in my passport. I’m free to go now though, so a belated return could be on the cards soon.