Beirut: A City Against All Odds

Why Beirut is, hands down, the most beguiling city in the Middle East and a destination driven by adrenaline and optimism. 

Fouad and Zouhair Sahyoun haven’t spoken to each other for well over a decade. Even though there’s just one thin, white tiled wall separating the two brothers from each other, the only thing that passes between them is the smell of chick peas and tahini.

Damascus Street, located right on the old Green Line that once separated East and West Beirut, hasn’t seen serious conflict since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. Yet one battle does continue: a falafel war between the two brothers who, having once worked together under their father, have now split and set up identical stores with identical names, right next door to each other.

Bethany Kehdy, the 37-year-old founder of the city’s first street-food walking tour company, Taste Lebanon, rolls her eyes as our group of native foodies and curious visitors to Beirut passes the two shop fronts, on a sun-dappled Saturday morning. The traffic is thick with battered old Mercedes taxis and gleaming new 4x4s. The city hums and sings with construction cranes, car horns and a sense of puppyish impatience to get on with the day ahead.

Downtown Beirut 

“Do they really hate each other?” Kehdy asks, only semi-rhetorically. “Part of me thinks these brothers might both be PR geniuses. They love this ‘war’ because they both get to go home each night and count their money.”

Phoney or not, the falafel war, with its murky origins, continues apace, to the point where Fouad’s newer store has signs on the front window claiming that his brother’s store is unhygienic and customers should only buy their falafels from him. Bethany, author of The Jewelled Table, a hugely successful cookbook on contemporary Lebanese dishes, decides to be diplomatic and let our group decide which falafel is superior.  It’s a tough call. At both outlets, the deep-fried chickpea ball is impossibly crispy on the outside, and velvety soft on the inside. Wedged deep into the flat bread wrap are hunks of pepper, tomato, cucumber, flecks of onion, tahini and parsley. So often mushy, doughy and only of interest to the nocturnal drunk in other parts of the world, here, at source, each bite of a falafel sandwich is a revelation – robust and textured, all the ingredients work in harmony together and the result is zesty taste of sunshine.

Traditional Mezze
Gemmayze district, Beirut

Lebanon is currently enjoying one of its longest spells of unbroken peace in modern times. With memories of the civil war that decimated the city in the 1970s and 80s fading and more than a decade having passed since the brief 2006 Lebanon war, also known as the July War, with Israel, Beirut is a city that almost physically twitches with life.

Walking through its neighbourhoods with Kehdy is like watching jump cuts from completely unrelated films. One moment we’re at the edge of the sun-kissed Med, with the vanilla-yellow sands of Ramlet al-Baida beach backing onto a wide corniche full of skateboarding hipsters, teenagers awkwardly holding cigarettes and elderly Lebanese men gazing out over the tide.

And yet the next we’re in a warren of back streets, elegiac apartment buildings looming up on either side, the balconies full of dusty rugs, sagging pot plants and sleeping cats. On street level, political Pop Art collages are unintentionally created as posters of rival politicians are defaced, torn down and pasted over and over again, the faces of a million besuited potentates bleached by the sun.

And then, two swift corner turns takes us from this into a manicured boulevard lined with Dior and Chanel outlets alongside hotels like the peerless Le Gray. The grand dame of luxury boltholes in the city, it has a rooftop infinity pool and cocktail bar that perfectly re-creates the mid-20th-century era of decadent joie de vivre when this city really was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.

Beit Beirut

Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Orthodox Greeks, Druze and Jews: all call Lebanon home. And all, as Kehdy shows us as we criss-cross freeways, underpasses and stairwells, have brought their cuisine to Beirut. Stopping at humble shopfronts, we’re served sticky slabs of knafeh, a Palestinian cake filled with akkawi cheese, and we tear at long, folded tubes of Armenian lahmajoun, a distant relation of pizza, filled with pomegranate sauce and pine seeds. And we salver at rose water and apricot ice cream from Mitri Hanna Moussa’s shop, Helwayat Al-Salam, where the oven still has shrapnel scars on it and Mitri himself, who is there scooping out the ice cream, claims he didn’t close for a single day during the 15-year war.

This is Beirut’s ultimate gift to visitors. With Syria and Israel at its borders, Lebanon is, globally speaking, one of the toughest of neighbourhoods. Yet Beirut is a city seemingly determined to try and put aside its differences in the name of peace, food and no small amount of hedonism.

The Al Amin Mosque

For the ultimate sense of the psychological state of the city right now, I head to a semi-ruined, yellow Ottoman-esque sandstone building on the former Green Line that separated Muslim and Christian militias during the conflict.

Now known as Beit Beirut, the building isn’t easy to find and it isn’t often open. Your only option is to persevere, ask directions and hope you’re in luck that the huge front door is ajar. I was in luck. Stepping inside the skeleton of the building I’m faced with bullet holes, blackened ceilings, makeshift barricades and sniper slits gouged into the walls. All this has deliberately been preserved as the first memorial of its kind to the war, in a city where the story of the conflict hasn’t yet been narrated, authorised or even solidified into the rawest of knowns and unknowns.

When the building was being slowly rehabilitated, a huge stash of photo negatives was found behind the rusted, rolling shutters of a long-closed studio on the ground floor called Photo Mario. Around 10,000 passport photos, baby photos, family portraits and postcards were found, commemorating special moments and cherished relationships against mid-20th-century studio backdrops.

As the sunlight flits across and pours into the carcass of the building, these Beirut faces from half a century ago or more stare back at me from their display cases. The faded sundresses, the wide lapels, the sideburns of the people photographed: how many of those people are still around? How many survived the years of destruction?

Yet their memory lives on here. And amid the shrapnel and the bullet holes of this building, these are faces of hope, of expectation and of love. The sound of gunfire has long ceased in this city. But these 1970s smiles, taken in a time before war, still keep on beaming in the pale, morning sun.

La Grey, from £223 per night, campbellgrayhotels.com; Taste Lebanon food tour, tastelebanon.co.uk; The Jewelled Table, £14, amazon.co.uk; YotelAir Paris Charles de Gaulle (for connecting flights to Beirut via Paris CDG airport), from £103, yotel.com; Air France flies from London Heathrow to Beirut via Paris with business class return fares from £1,075 return, airfrance.co.uk