The bus from Damascus to Beirut first slogs its way up to the Anti-Lebanon mountainside, then creeps through the long stretch of “no-man’s land” between the Syrian and Lebanese border posts, before winding along the roads surrounding Lebanese ski-resorts and snaking its way back down to sea level to this troubled capital.
Along the mountain roads there were several army checkpoints, the soldiers huddling near to their wooden cabins in between stopping vehicles. I had grown used to the frequent sight of guns displayed by Syrian police, army and mukhabarat, but here, things seemed to take on a different dimension. The checkpoints here seemed fiercer than their Syrian counterparts; arriving into Beirut, there was a tank positioned under a flyover. But then Lebanon has a much more troubled, recent past. It was only three and a half years ago that the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War gripped the south of the country, and southern Beirut was targeted. The evidence of fighting in the capital is visible nearly everywhere. Bullet-holes pock-mark buildings, whilst other still stand derelict, bearing the scars of shelling, presumably from the Lebanese Civil War.
But the city is undergoing huge amounts of construction; Downtown has been completely renovated, and the shell of the Holiday Inn, which was under heavy sniper fire in the civil war, is now flanked by other hotel giants.
Before I had come here, I had heard people speak of another war with Israel being “imminent” — it is only a month away, I had been told — but that doesn’t seem to stop the investment. Talking with more people in Lebanon, there are those who say that “Israeli troops are massing on the Southern border, and they have called up their reservists”, but then others who say that this talk has been going on for a year or so. “There will always be an invasion next month.” (Neither Hezbollah, nor Israel, would be particularly keen on a war right now. If one comes, it is likely to be due to Israel’s strategy on the Iranian nuclear issue, and Hezbollah’s ties with the country.)
On many counts, Beirut does seem to have it all. The city sits on the Mediterranean, is flanked by mountains (with ski-resorts less than an hour’s drive away), and not far north from the capital is some renowned hiking. Downtown & Achrafiyeh are definitely Western-facing; the old souk district is awash with occidental brands and shops, the clock-tower in the Place d’Étoile bears the Rolex brand. The student population around the Hamra & Ras Beirut districts create a little niche of cool little cafés, and in Gemmayzeh there are some very nice bars. The cuisine is divine. People are friendly, although a little too m’as-tu vu for my liking in certain districts. After having spent the last few months in Damascus, I felt much more comfortable in the bustling, populaire Muslim quarters.
Despite the mass of concrete, I find the city has an aesthetic charm.
Basing myself here is not inconceivable…