You might know Beirut as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’
But it’s not Paris. It’s Beirut, a city with its own distinctive identity from its Muslim-Christian skyline to bustling seafront and, as even a few days reveal, much more. It’s a man blasting Caramela Sexy Lady as he washes his car. It’s the incessant question of ‘taxi?’ and car horns. It’s the smell of spicy home cooking wafting from shuttered windows and balconies draped with washing. It’s families flocking to the Corniche with chairs and blankets to enjoy the sunset. It’s the chaotic minibuses, driving too fast or too slow, juddering to stop as weary passengers flag them down. There’s only one city quite like this and it’s Beirut.
So what was I doing in Lebanon? When I say it was an accident, I'm not joking. I was in Palermo for work. My mum decided to tag along, but flights home were expensive. In the sea of €300+ I found her an €18 flight to Athens. She didn’t want to go on her own, so encouraged me to join. By the time we booked, flights out of Athens had gone up. So, I suggested we escape via three different countries and another continent. You know where this is going.
Our flight left Athens around 2am. Getting the free visa on arrival was simple. We were asked what we wanted to take photos of, what we did for a living and the officer asked to see my tattoos. It was less stressful (and much quicker) than entering the US.
Having read about 'official' airport taxis, I made the mistake of asking a driver to confirm the fixed fare. He called his friend who drove a regular taxi and demanded 100,000 LBP for the trip – four times the 'official' fare of 25,000. We were, as always, travelling on a supermarket-crisps-only shoestring and a bit upset. I haggled until he accepted 70,000 with a ‘welcome.’ I knew this could happen. I still fell in the trap. For your sanity, pre-book with a reputable company like Allo Taxi.
After sleeping late, we had a quick look at the Raouche or Pigeon Rocks. From our point of view atop the cliffs, they looked petite. The boats sailing through below, only specks in comparison, showed their staggering size.
Our next stop was the Shopper’s Supermarket Raouche. On the way up, we noticed for the first time a building bearing scars of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. It’s just everyday life in Beirut but for us, having never seen a bullet-riddled building amongst reconstruction, it was chilling.
Before travelling, Annabelle asked a friend who’d been to Lebanon if it was expensive. ‘California prices,’ he warned us. He also complained that ‘they didn’t know who I was,’ though, so we didn’t take him seriously. We should have taken him seriously. Well, not on random strangers not knowing who another random stranger was, but Lebanon is indeed expensive. Unless you want cigarettes, which are under $3. We left with some crisps, nuts, sugared chickpeas and bottled water. Greece seemed like a bargain.
We made it back to the rocks as the sun set. Deep orange shone like a beacon through the rocks. As it faded, the sky glowed purple. I’d never seen such an orange sunset, let alone a real purple sky.
As darkness fell, tourists dispersed to be replaced by families. Fruity aromas wafted from shisha pipes. A stall sold toys including a Smurf on a motorbike. One man, walking miles up and down, sold flashing balloons to toddlers. Others held baskets of nuts. Joggers passed by again and again. I admired them for pressing on in the stifling 84% humidity.
I spotted the local bus, the 15. Beirut buses aren’t what you might expect. In fact, many people think it has no bus network. Some are private minivans, some are proper buses. The number is usually displayed in the front window. They can be flagged down anywhere on their routes. Likewise, they can drop you anywhere. A fantastic map can be found on YallaBus.com (I recommend printing it out). Short journeys are 500 to 2,000 LBP ($0.33 to $1.30). Sometimes the doors are hanging off, along with a passenger. Sometimes the back is. Seatbelts are rare (or, on the 15, non-existent). Smoking is allowed. Drivers stay on the phone for updates on traffic and schedule.
Now I’ve painted a picture of the most glorious peasant wagons I’ve had the pleasure of taking, I’ll tell you my biggest regret. We were walking along the seafront when we heard blaring music. A car? Then we saw flashing blue lights. It was not a car. It was a bus. It was an over-capacity 15 bus, back hanging off, passengers leaning from the open door, with a full on rave going inside. It was the ravemobile. The real Vengabus. I never got a photo. I never saw it again. That's my biggest regret.
Being a bus connoisseur I was excited to take one, but when it actually came to it the next day, I was scared. What if the government's travel advice was right and it was dangerous or they tried to rip us off? With so little money and my mum struggling to walk, we didn’t have much choice. So I boarded the 15, shouted ‘Marhabaan! Charles Helou? Alfén? Shukraan!’ and handed over our 2,000 LBP. We found our peeling seats. The bus lurched as it stopped and started, picking up a variety of passengers.
The bus hit empty road. It was now barrelling down the middle of the motorway – not in lane, in the middle – at well over the speed limit. My mum mentioned wanting a cigarette. I told her it was allowed. She was shocked, but soon noticed others lighting up and joined in. The bus screeched to a stop. A man jumped on. He snatched the driver's money and made his way down the bus. I thought he was raiding it. He was actually a sort of conductor. This was regular business.
The bus stopped at a depot. We weren't sure what was going on. Other buses left. We didn’t want to pay again, so we waited. Another tourist boarded. The driver spread his arms to let us know we’d reached Charles Helou Bus Station. It wasn’t scary. We never felt in any danger and there was no attempt to rip us off. It was just a bus.
At the bus station, we met a driver named Moustafa. He told us how during the Civil War, on the very spot we stood chatting, he saw every Muslim in the station rounded up and shot. His eyes welled up as he spoke. We all had goosebumps. On a lighter note, he showed us photos of his wife, children and siblings, many of whom had moved to Dubai.
We walked on to the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. In the early 19th century, a Zawiya (religious school) was built on the site. Plans materialised in the 1950s to replace it with a mosque. After years of legal battles over the land, it opened in 2008.
A cross peered through the minarets. Before the mosque with its intricate architecture, a torn Lebanese flag billowed.
The mosque is free to enter and open to non-Muslims! Abayas are available on a rack outside for women, who are required to cover up. All shoes must be removed. Photography is allowed.
Inside, it was cool and peaceful. The grand chandeliers and red and gold ceiling were stunning. This was my first visit to a mosque. I stood a while just taking it in.
Right beside the mosque was the pristine Maronite Cathedral of St. George. It opened in 1894. However, it was severely damaged in the Civil War. It was later restored and reopened in 2000.
Eerily empty streets surrounded the Roman Baths. Over 2000 years old and discovered in 1968-1969, the ruins are remarkably intact. It’s fascinating to imagine ancient bathers amidst what’s now a modern city. Viewing is free.
There were churches and mosques everywhere in Beirut. I mean everywhere. Just down the road was the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Like its neighbour, it was shelled and vandalised during the Civil War. Restoration began in 1998 and five years later, it reopened. Colourful paintings and inscriptions adorned its walls and arches before an ornate gold altar.
Up steps was Nejmeh Square or Place de l'Etoile. Once a Levantine souk destroyed by the Civil War, it's now home to the Lebanese Parliament. Kids played on scooters, rollerskates and tricycles while adults ate at surrounding cafes. Arches led to the golden streets branching off to give the square its star-like appearance. Past the few occupied shisha pipes outside cafes, streets were, once again, eerily vacant.
While my mum rested on a roadblock (she’s learned to take what she can get as a disabled traveller), we faced an alley leading to the Roman Baths. A boy rode by on a tricycle. Then came the call to prayer from the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. It was haunting as it echoed through the empty streets. I’d never heard a call to prayer before and I was lucky since this one, stood where we were in a city we didn’t mean to visit, left even my mum who’d visited many Arab countries moved by its beauty.
We walked past the equally beautiful Al-Omari Mosque to a comfy wall facing the Beirut Municipality town hall. Flowers in colours of the sun bloomed on bushes before a fountain in the Municipal Park. We had the Mansour Assaf Mosque to thank for our friendly wall, where we could peer through a gate into the sahn (courtyard).
From our wall, I could see an I Heart Uruguay sign. Baffled by nothing at this point, we wandered over. Turned out it said ‘I Heart Uruguay Street,’ which is a revived nightlife centre in Beirut. A fountain by the sign mirrored statues and Lebanese flags.
I could see something else interesting from there. It looked like another ruin. I didn’t want to make my mum walk further than we needed to, but since it’s not every day you go to Beirut, she agreed we should check it out. It turned out to be the Ancient Tell Area, one of Beirut’s oldest settlements dating back to 2,500 BC. Known then as Biruta, it was a small town where ships sheltered and traded goods. As two harbours formed to extend Biruta’s trade reach, this fort became its administrative centre. During Roman times, it was renamed Berytus and its centre moved to the Forum, below what’s now Nejmeh Square. The fort retained its strategic position overlooking the harbour and became a castle. It was shelled not in the Civil War, but by Russian ships in 1827 and British ships in 1840. Modernisation left these remains. It's free to view.
Streets framed the Al-Amin Mosque as we looked back. We passed another fountain where couples chatted before arriving to our destination, the Beirut Souks.
Escalators led up to the Souks. Before the Civil War, shopping in Beirut was dominated by the Souk al-Tawileh, Souk al-Jamil and Souk al-Franj located here, the latter being Lebanon’s biggest fruit and vegetable market. However, like so much of Downtown Beirut, shops were set alight and blown up during the war. Downtown became a ghost town, which – ironically, despite its expensive reconstruction – it still is with its empty streets. The Souks finally reopened in 2009. They’re not the ‘traditional’ souks you might expect, but a modern shopping mall packed with international chains like Armani, Louis Vuitton, Lush and Puma. There’s something melancholy in 75% of what was once the shopping centre of Lebanon now accessible only to the rich; but it was, at least, busy. Families and workers with laptops packed the Starbucks, cinema and open areas, where kids played football and rollerbladed.
Amongst modernity loomed one reminder of the Souks’ history – the crumbling L’Orient Le Jour building, once the HQ of Lebanon’s French-language newspaper. Its bullet-scarred shell watching over a kids’ football game was both unsettling and striking in its jarring depiction of how life goes on.
Behind the Souks were colourful windows of the Al Majidieh Mosque. There was also a lovely view of the hills from a nearby balcony, where people escaped the noise.
We walked back through the Souks. Between designer stores was a contrasting art display – the first Beirut Image Festival. There were fascinating and hauntingly beautiful exhibits from both the Arab world and elsewhere. My favourite was The Scooter of Douma by Syrian photographer Hasan Belal. Instead of addressing only the Syrian conflict, it explores the little known issue of having no transport – and how the citizens of Douma tackled it by modifying old scooters to carry families. You can see some of the photographs here.
The Souks’ corridors led us to Imam Ouzai Square. There, we found an unassuming domed building was Zawiyat Ibn Arraq; the remains of what was once a hospice, built by religious authority Mohammad Ibn Arraq Al-Dimashqi in 1517. After his death in 1526, it became a zawiya for his followers. It was incredible to see so many old buildings still intact.
Past the square was what we’d been looking for – the I Love Beirut sign. One does not accidentally go somewhere and not commemorate it with a photo at the I Love This City I Didn’t Mean to Visit Sign. The photos look empty, but we were actually part of a crowd waiting over 45 minutes for a group to finish taking selfies.
Once we’d got our photos and my mum had rested at Starbucks, the sun had set. Families still filled squares and eateries. The Al Majidieh Mosque’s minaret was illuminated green. CosmoCity’s rainbow lights were vibrant on the Souks’ polished floors. The distant hills twinkled.
The walk back to our hotel was about 3.5 miles. A few 15 buses still sped by. My mum said no, she wanted to walk along the coast. So we set off. In a square before the mosque, kids careered down ramps and couples talked on steps.
Flashing pharmacy signs told us it was still 32°C with 78% humidity. Hours of walking in the heat, with only a little water, were finally getting to my mum. We sat on a wall while we got her rehydrated. Fortunately, I still had some crisps from Athens in my bag. Food helped a bit. A man paced up and down nearby. He approached to tell us ‘here not good.’ I had no idea how to explain in Arabic that my mum felt faint, so we walked on to a new wall near the Phoenicia Hotel. Stay hydrated, kids!
In daylight, we might have noticed the ravaged carcass of Beirut’s iconic Holiday Inn. In darkness, we had no idea it loomed in the shadows.
With my mum feeling much better, we walked until we found a small shop selling drinks and snacks. Men played cards on plastic tables forming a makeshift café. Opposite was a supermarket. I bought a jar of mushrooms and baba ganoush (which was actually mutabbal) to put in the wraps I got from our free breakfast. It was better than sugared chickpeas.
As roads opened to the sea, sudden crowds were familiar – joggers, cyclists, chatting friends and couples, kids on scooters and segways, parents with picnic baskets and men with flashing balloons. Looking back, the distant hills wore a glimmering shawl.
The new lighthouse in Manara was a hopeful marker of our progress. When we saw the illuminated ferris wheel at Luna Park, I knew my mum could do it!
Even I was glad to see a bed after all our walking!
After our free breakfast and a stop at the supermarket, we got back on the 15 bus. I sat by an open window to take photos. No need to pay for the open-top bus! Well, not that a touristmobile would come this way, but I love seeing 'real' life like this.
Traffic was bad. We weren’t far when my mum said we’d been on the bus for over an hour. Just like home! Our local bus also takes an hour to get that far.
My mum was about to throw her cigarette out the window, since we were on a highway with no pedestrian access, when I warned her there was a man in a mask standing there. He looked lost. I hope he found his way.
My mum was sure we needed to get off the bus at the Dora-In Café. I wasn’t so sure. But we’d been on there for two and a half hours at this point, so we thought well, even if we’re a bit off, walking the rest of the way might be quicker. ‘Taxi?’ a man asked as we stepped off. I thought ‘mate, if I wanted a taxi, would I be riding the peasant wagon?’
But I think he had the right idea. Past cafés and garages was open highway. There was no shade. Since I only had GPS and no internet, I could only guess the distance was about a mile (it was actually 2.5 miles). We veered down an alleyway to avoid the sun. A dog chased us away. At the next corner, turning onto a palm-lined street, was yet another building torn apart by the Civil War. This one, its outer stripped to reveal stairs and smashed ceilings, was the most imposing yet.
Beside us, a taxi driver stopped to repair his car. White buildings climbed the surrounding hills.
A few streets later was another marred building. Unlike its abandoned neighbour, this one housed an office where, behind window grates, bullet holes sat above picture frames. Even the tree outside, like a resilient sentinel, was scarred.
We weren’t entirely sure where we were going. I assumed this road somehow led back to the highway. It did, but pavements tapered off. Pressing ourselves against the wall, we inched along, hoping to find some kind of pedestrian access. There wasn’t any. We resigned ourselves to finding the road we started from. Side streets looked like they led back. We hoped they did. Still, as the afternoon sun cast golden rays over fading paint, these streets were raggedly beautiful.
We found the highway... only to discover the pavement soon ended there, too. Shade receded. My mum panicked that we were lost. I was worried she might overheat again – and, with her limp and losing time on the bus earlier, that we’d run out of daylight. We pondered just coughing up for the next 15 bus we saw. It was our best bet. We joined three men waiting on a sliver of pavement serving as our bus stop. Unmarked buses passed. There was no 15.
A 2 bus approached. I yanked the crumpled YallaBus map from under my 2L bottle of water. That would do. Waving to flag it down, I ran over. This was a nice bus. It had seatbelts and tickets! We actually overpaid – the fare was 500 LBP, not 1000 – but the driver returned the change with a smile.
The bus struggled up a hill. Our surroundings looked pretty and I could see the Sursock Museum on Google Maps, so we asked the bus to stop.
I saw a pink building. It turned out to be an overpriced café, but you know I love pink anyway. Many buildings were colourful and decorated with vibrant street art.
A steep hill led down to Gourad Street in Gemmayzeh. We never made it to Mar Mikhael, but after getting lost on a highway, this was good progress. There were countless pretty alleyways to explore.
At one turn were the St. Nicholas Stairs. With 125 steps, this stairway is the longest in the Middle East. It connects Gourad Street, or Rue Gourad, with Rue Sursock. We were actually looking for the ‘let’s think positive’ stairs, but we were happy with these!
We reached the end of Gourad Street. The Al-Amin Mosque was cloaked in gold mist. We were tired and hungry. So, we found a nice wall outside a restaurant and tucked into our crisps and Gerblé rice cakes. There were times we wished we could’ve afforded sit-down meals, but sitting on walls and roadblocks with our snacks made for many amusing memories.
It was almost time to get the bus back. On our way, we decided to explore some colourful streets near the mosque. Starting on Said Akel Street, this was Saifi Village, one of Solidere’s reconstruction projects. Though the pastel streets were pretty, they were empty. In their midst was a Civil War relic now used as a gallery.
While we’re on yet another photo of a damaged building, I’d like to share a story that stuck with me throughout our trip. Though Lebanon wasn’t on my bucket list it is, ironically, on Annabelle’s. When they bought their first house, a smiling neighbour rang the doorbell to ask if they needed any help moving in. Her name was Nasim (نسیم). Having been homeless for over a year, Annabelle had only a suitcase, sleeping bag and two guitars and was embarrassed to let anyone in. Nasim insisted. Sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, Nasim explained she, too, was left homeless by the Lebanese Civil War. She’d lived in Oakland, working at a cousin’s restaurant, for nine years. Realising Annabelle had nothing to cook with, she invited them over and cooked a delicious three-course meal. They went home with a tray of baklava. From then on, Nasim was their surrogate mother. Despite her bad knees they painted, wallpapered and hauled furniture upstairs. Every morning, freshly-baked maamoul waited on Nasim’s windowsill. They raised funds for her mosque’s homeless scheme. When Annabelle’s mental health declined, Nasim was there, whether it was midday or 4am. Many nights were spent watching movies, listening to Annabelle’s new songs and admiring Nasim’s photos of home – some of her only surviving possessions. They hoped to visit Lebanon together. Sadly, being 41 years Annabelle’s senior, she passed away before they could. This visit was at far too short notice for Annabelle to join us, so each night I sent them photos and we talked a little about Nasim.
I suppose that’s one reason the remnants of destruction struck such a chord with me. I thought of Nasim left homeless, her husband killed; how she must have been traumatised, yet still threw herself into helping someone in need. I wish she could have known she’d live on in Annabelle’s most beloved memories, to the extent I thought ever so fondly of a lady I never met while walking the streets of her hometown.
Couples sat around the blue fountain in Charles Debbas Park. At the end of Ariss w Kanafani Street, the sun began to set behind the mosque.
We walked by Martyrs’ Square. Originally in tribute to the martyrs protesting Ottoman rule in Lebanon, the square represented unity through hardship. However, during the Civil War it became the city’s dividing point, marking the Muslim west and Christian east. Its surroundings crumbled. The square was rebuilt after the war, but the statue’s bullet scars were left untouched. It’s now the site of many protests, where people are united once again.
Despite YallaBus having saved us once already, I was a bit nervous about finding a bus back after dark. Passing the Souks, we waited on the coastal road. Sure enough, a 15 bus showed up. I love YallaBus. I’m not joking.
You know how the first bus was like, speeding down the middle of the motorway? Well, this one struggled along at about 2mph. Can’t complain for 1,000 LBP. Plus, the music playing was bangin'.
There was one other reason behind us being so cheap. Let's just say our trip took a whole different turn the next day. Click here to read the next and last part!
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