Jack Serle

Happy birthday to me, Beirut I love you yet I have to leave you

In Kurdistan on January 6, 2012 at 8:08 PM

Leaving Beirut and H. behind I make my way to Rafic Hariri Airport for an 8.45am flight to Erbil via Jordan. Getting out of bed at 6am is never easy, not least when you have to leave someone else in it.

F. my taxi driver is surprisingly charming given the hour. And the fact that when I arrived in Beirut the previous week he waited for three hours at arrivals unaware that I had hopped in another cab and boosted into town.

Unfortunately his charm cannot contend with the fact that I am awake before dawn on my birthday.

Airport security in this part of the world is a little more stringent than Europe. One whinges about the truculent staff manning the metal detectors at Heathrow. They ain’t got nothing on the pursed lipped little dictators in charge of Middle Eastern airports.

I reach the gate having been patted, prodded, scanned and scrutinised three times. Each time an officious man with a pugnacious attitude does his best to give me a steely look down his nose. A height disparity means each can only look up mine.

To my impotent rage my 8.45 flight gradually becomes an 11am flight. Staff in Beirut assure me the connection in Jordan would wait.

It did not wait. It left and I was left grasping my passport on a bus to an airport hotel to kick my heels for twelve hours.

A view of a scrubby patch of ground and cloudy sky from a hotel bedroom

The glorious view from my Amman hotel room

Twelve hours of cursing Royal Jordanian Airlines for delaying me. Cursing them for seemingly being incapable of taking off or landing in fog. Cursing them for taking me away from Beirut only to deposit me in transit.

*****

Thanks to a Lawrence Durrell character fleeing Alexandria and the writings of Robert Fisk, Lebanon intrigues me. Not enough to visit before now although that may have more to do with its occasional flirtations with stability.

A wide stair case lit with sodium yellow street lights and small white Christmas decorations

This brief foray unfortunately was never going to incorporate the rest of the country, just Beirut. Next time the Beqa’a Valley, Biblos and Baalkbek will be on the cards.

Beirut has a reputation for being a party city. Hedonism takes different guises for different people. Sweaty, sticky debauchery for some. Septum scorching, Peruvian marching powder for others.

Red soup or yellow soup sir? Would you like rice or bulgur wheat with that? Shawarma, sir? It’s meat, I wouldn’t pry into the provenance too deeply if I were you sir. Cuisine in Kurdistan is not exactly a riot of flavours.

So in Beirut more than ever I prefered bibulous excess with a healthy plateful of waistline stretching gluttony.

Good cold beer, tabouleh, falafel, fattoush, and some rich Lebanese wine were what I was after in Beirut. With a handful of chicken livers cooked tender in molasses and lemon juice too.

*****

Arriving at our residence for the week one things strikes me above all others. It is a church. You can tell it is a church because it has a large, blue neon cross on the roof and it is called Eglise de Sargesse.

H. arrived several hours before me to make good with the hotel reservation. Having ensured the room booked was a double while in London it was with some surprise that she was informed that the men they sleep in that building and the women they sleep in that building.

A problem n’es pas? But a problem overcome after a quick phone call to the establishment’s leading lady. It appeared that H. met with Mother Superior’s approval, the keys were handed over without further ado.

H. does not have a naturally shifty look about her but security guards and airport officials tend to take a dim view of her presence, given the number of line calls she’s had. It is surprising the Beirut sisters would be so trusting.

Ours not to reason why my dears.

These lodgings, the Foyer Sargesse, are spacious and clean if Spartan – hardly a surprise given received wisdom on sky pilots’ tastes.

Beirut is a ranging city spread across hills stretching around a bay. The Corniche remains a must see. Its views across a hazy winter Med are I imagine not its best. Still, an excellent place for a pre-dinner stroll.

In Gemmayzeh the bars are small and smoke filled, cut into the hill side behind. In fact most places here are pretty smoky. Even at the airport No Smoking signs are purely decorative. One Gemmayzeh bar has the claim to fame of being the only non-smoking bar in Beirut. But only on a Wednesday.

Perched on one of many Beirut hill, Gemmayzeh is old and showing signs of wear and tear. Recently refurbished I am told, it oozes decrepit charm.

Without wanting to sound too much like a fawning interloper, it is rather wonderful. The buildings while not necessarily beautiful are full of character. But look closely enough and you see the tell tales of the city’s turbulent and bloody past pockmarking walls.

A yellow house with bullet holes in the render

Security in this part of the world is so often parlous. In Beirut the years of peace are not many since the tragic and horrific civil war. Elections are coming soon and rifle toting, combat clad men litter the streets. You are hard pushed to tell the difference between the army and police.

*****

Down Town is home to top-end fashion boutiques and glass sky scrapers testify to the growing wealth of this small nation.

It has been said that the burgeoning number of glass clad buildings in Belfast are a sign of changing fortunes in that ravaged city. One hopes the growing number of glass and glitz structures in Beirut signals the same.

But Down Town is not for me. Not even the night time city scape. The wealth of this strip of the Levant comes from services I am told. Financial services, retail and hospitality: Lebanon is a place to keep your money, no question asked, and a place to spend it.

Perhaps rather than the unimaginative calling Beirut the Paris of the Mediterranean it should be the Geneva of the Mediterranean.

Gemmazeh and Hamra are more up my street. Hamra is home to the American University, among others, and is a buzzing venue for Lebanese and international youth.

English, more than French among the young, is spoken widely. While Arabic is number one and I imagine French across the country is number two, English is a growing tongue. More often than not with an American twang, Beirutians do like to try it out on a genuine Anglophone.

*****

In Hamra H. and I enjoy a fine meal accompanied by a lovely local, a recent returnee from the London Diaspora. Her linguistic skill exemplifies the polyglot, cosmopolitan Beirut. With a French, Arabic and English blend she charms and infuriates the waiter into giving us prime service. Better than the Lebanese pop star sat inside.

Cafes, bars and restaurants abound in this city. By far the most enjoyable spot, one most frequented by H. and I, is Leila’s. Reputedly the oldest café in town, it is modern and bright with an all-day menu of delights. The salads, falafel and chicken livers are all excellent. So too the baba ganoush.

The food across the stay was excellent. But none, no plate or snack, was better than that cooked by R’s mum. R., a friend from Erbil, helped us celebrate the New Year in style. Starting with a meal with his whole family and ending with vodka fuelled nonsense in Hamra.

Stuffed courgettes, stuffed aubergine, more better baba ganoush, humus, pizza, prawns, potatoes, artichoke hearts, the list goes on. All wonderful and all in vast quantities.

With our food consumed and ready to go R.’s mother stops us in our tracks.

“But, sweet,” she says gesturing at the cleared table. A vast fruit salad, more than a gallon, had appeared beside a monstrous tiramisu.

*****

Driving at speed along a main road in Beirut is a luxury the traffic is so bad. Doing it in the front seat of a big four by four in the presence of a tipsy man wearing a feathered mask is most pretty odd. Sipping beer and toasting the police as you pass is downright bizarre.

R. knows his streets and he knows his police. And they don’t care. Approaching a police car in the outside lane and flashing your lights to overtake would be suicidal in the UK. Doing it suckling on cold lager would be punished with transportation to Kinshasa.

In Beirut they really don’t care. Security forces they may be they do not go in for honest police work.

This was the tone for the latter stages of New Year’s Eve. Drunken and howling with laughter we bounce from one spot to the next.

Having left a glitter and empties strewn flat we wind up in Jackie O’s in Hamra. A wonderful little bar full of wonderful little Lebanese. Its vodka and tobasco shots are something else. Rather endearingly it is over the road from Oscar Wilde – where I sip champagne two nights later celebrating an early birthday – and next door to one of the Kennedy family.

*****

All this and more could have been my evening’s entertainment. Yet Amman’s airport hotel and a few hours footling about, napping and frequenting the bar, are what I get for my birthday.

It could be worse. I am schooled on how my generation must seize control of its economic future from the grip of the banks and politicians by a deeply cool painter. I read up on child soldiers. But all the while Beirut is thrumming and throbbing.

A paradoxical place. The people are relaxed, welcoming and always up for a chat yet the city honks and bleats in grid lock traffic, all rushing at a frantic pace. It is bliss perched on the edge of the eastern Med. I am told there exists a small number of English-language publications. Perhaps in want of an Anglophonic muckraker. Inshallah this will be the next place for a nascent hack to find some employ.

All images authors own, all rights reserved

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  1. Great piece, I’ve been curious about Beirut for a while now and flight prices are getting more reasonable so it’s an option now. Had to laugh at your description of intense Middle Eastern airport checks, my foray through Amman airport security was a baptism of fire. The most perplexing thing was the scanning of the bags just before you *leave* the airport…

  2. Hey Sarah, thanks for your comment. Really get yourself to Beirut when you get the chance, it’s such a lovely city. Although I would go in the spring if I were you. The rain in the winter is pretty torrential. It was a taste of home after dry Kurdistan but minus an umbrella it meant we had to hop from doorway to doorway to get home. As each of the doorways serendipitously lead to another bar that wasn’t so bad I guess.

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