A love letter to Beirut

The Lebanese capital has been stalked by pain, but one encounters boundless optimism when walking through her streets as a tourist.

The last time I wrote about this city was in 2004.

The opening line was: “Behind the new and grand facades lay the hints of a bloody and violent past”.

I was in town interviewing Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal. Things were tense, from landing at the airport to the interview. 

But landing in the city now as a tourist, not as a journalist, I can’t see those hints of its past or feel that tension.

You can still see them of course. Shell marks, bullet holes, memories of the dead, the posters on the walls. 

But today I have different eyes.

Eyes that are looking for something different, beyond politics, beyond the nervousness these streets have felt over recent years.

It’s like being blind and suddenly getting the gift of sight.

The light is so bright, it almost hurts your eyes.

Without politicians, without journalists, without diplomats vying to tell you what they want you to hear, about what doom and gloom is about to fall, the city suddenly opens up.
The streets bustle in the summer heat, a baby boy, hair all tussled and blonde, wobbles in front of his parents. 

A young woman stops in front of a shop and gazes at the dresses whilst a young man looks on.

Ordinary scenes that could be played over in New York, in London. 

But this is Beirut. Pain has stalked this city.

The streets today though tell a different story. A story of a city that has bounced back more times than it cares to remember.

And this time it’s back, and it seems bigger, bolder than ever. Hotels are sold out, bars are standing room only, cafes spill out onto the streets.

It’s amazing to see. The hotel manager at my place of rest assures me that this could be the biggest year for tourism in a decade.

The facts and figures aren’t in yet, but, on anecdotal evidence at least, he may well be right.

There might be another reason for why this city buzzes so. As Arab revolutions erupt around it, this place is an oasis of calm.

Of course, Lebanon has its problems – the constant threat of war and political crisis. But on this bright sunny day sitting in a cafe watching the city do its thing, those problems fade as quickly as the cigarette smoke.   

As a journalist, you typically land in a country in crisis, go see the worst of it and then leave worried about those you have left behind, the poor souls who live there.

As a tourist, it’s quite the opposite. You land in calm, see the best the country has to offer, and leave happy that such a place exists.    

In Beirut, I have now felt and seen both crisis and calm.

As I write this I’m thinking about the opening lines I wrote all those years ago. I’d change them today.

“Behind the new and grand facades a new spirit of optimism is writ large,” I wrote. 

“Beirut, yalla come” would be my next line.

I won’t win any literary prizes, but at least its honest.  

Like all vacations I get the feeling this one is going to be over way too quickly.