A Talking Tour of Beirut

Why You Shouldn't Pretend To Be a Canadian
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 9 2005 4:21 PM

A Talking Tour of Beirut

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The ski slopes at Faraya are just 45 minutes from downtown Beirut (click on image to expand)
The ski slopes at Faraya are just 45 minutes from downtown Beirut (click on image to expand)

Beirut nightlife may be an entertainment or even a hobby for the locals, but for the rest of the world it is a phenomenon, perhaps even an obsession. You've seen the conceit in newspapers and in travel guides: "Beirut is back! After years of war, the town is partying hard and reminding everyone why it was once the Paris of the Levant!" Bizarrely, I've arrived just as the counternarrative hits. A recent New York Times article claimed that the locals sip one beer all night long, and the bartenders don't know how to mix drinks. I'd get mad if someone called my drinking buddies beer-nursing cheapskates, and as an American journalist, I'm hearing some complaints.

I know that Americans traveling in the Middle East are sometimes advised to say they are Canadians, but if you are lying about where you are from, you are not really talking or listening to people, you are protecting yourself, and you might as well stay at home with a good travel book. Moreover, when the Eagles' reunion concert DVD comes on at Bar Louie in Gemmayze, and Mo the bartender tells you how much he loves "Hotel California," you want to show how your American heart swells with pride. "Me, too, Mo," you say. "And, by the way, are you called Mo the Bartender after the character in that popular American cartoon The Simpsons?" "Dude," he explains, "it's short for Muhammad—and I also go by Miguel." He probably came by that name because he makes one of the best mojitos I've ever had—no matter what the paper of record says about Beiruti mixologists.

Skiing in Faraya-Mzaar (click on image to expand)
Skiing in Faraya-Mzaar (click on image to expand)
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Gemmayze is close to Monot, a street paved with bars, which is especially appealing to the younger set. "Have you seen the way people dance on Monot?" asks Tony Chakar. Tony is an architect who teaches at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux Arts and works with artist Walid Raad ( this article describes a current show of Raad's in New York City) in the Atlas Group, a brilliant Beirut-based collective that uses multimedia to write the history of the Lebanese wars. (My article about the Atlas Group is in this issue of Artforum.) "The young people dance hysterically," Tony says. "They dance on tables. There's a club on Monot called 1975, where the bartenders wear fatigues and serve behind barricades. These people are dancing on a mass grave."

Tony is in his late 30s, and like most Lebanese his age or older, he's seen enough of barricades. What worries him is that the younger generation wants to repress the war altogether. "My students say they find it too depressing to talk about the war, but what happens if it's never discussed?" As Tony notes, there is no public art commemorating the war, even though virtually everyone has some sort of intimate affiliation with the country's recent violence.

The war and the Syrian occupation continue to take a toll on Lebanese women in particular. Beirut nightlife is famous largely thanks to them, but this is a hard town on women. Because the economy is so bad, and so many younger people, mostly men, are forced to emigrate to find work, the ratio of marriageable women to men, my friend Rouba explains, is something like 4-to-1. "That must make the women totally crazy!" I venture. "Of course," she says. "And it must make the men act like total jerks," I add. "Oh, do you think so?" Rouba asks—sarcastically, I think.

Lebanon's gay scene is more public than most predominantly Muslim countries, but it's still somewhat closeted, which is why most of the bars prefer to be called "gay-friendly" rather than gay. I stumbled into a great gay-friendly bar, Walimat Wardeh in Hamra on Makdessi Street, and even before Munir, the owner, told me so, I knew it was gay-friendly—not just because an insurance regulator is being pretty gay-friendly toward me, but also because all the men are singing along to Fayrouz recordings. She's the voice of Lebanon, a somewhat tragic and beautiful Billie Holiday type, and you can't help but hear Fayrouz in the morning in Beirut—every morning, everywhere—but to hear her at night, sung loudly and drunkenly by men, strongly suggests you are in gay-friendly territory.

The bartender at Solea, a small Spanish restaurant on Monot, speaks such perfect Castilian that I ask if she is from Madrid. No, she explains, she's native Lebanese. Her name is Zeina, and her late father was a Druze who met her mother, now the owner of the restaurant, when a touring flamenco troupe took her to Beirut. Zeina's father followed her mom to Spain to bring her back, a very romantic story that Zeina, who is an actress, tells well. She's on her way to Cyprus in the next few days to finish shooting a movie about romance, idealism, and ideology. "It's called America," she explains. "And I play Erica. I'm Erica." It's strange to have someone whose fourth language is English explain a pun to you, but she misses some of my jokes as well. "I can't hear out of my right ear," she explains. "When I was a kid, there was a shell that exploded close to our house, and my hearing was damaged. Then, a few weeks later, I went swimming, and when I came up, I couldn't hear at all out of that ear, but I was afraid to tell my mother. Things were very hard during the war for her with my father dead, and I was terrified she'd be angry."

Zeina spent most of the war in Jounieh, a small fishing town about 20 miles up the coast where many Christians moved during the war to get out of Beirut. "Everyone knew my father was a Druze," Zeina says. "But it's not like we were advertising it."

I spent New Year's in Jounieh, the popular local nightspot before Monot. (Full disclosure: Lebanon's Tourism Ministry arranged for a discounted hotel room with a beautiful view of the sea and, less happily, of the area's very large red-light district on Maamaltein.) Maamaltein, Zeina tells me, used to be a beautiful street right on the beach. I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Chez Sami, one of the best seafood places in the country, with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, but after dark the street noise was so bad that it confused the poor roosters behind my hotel. When they started crowing around 2 a.m., I ventured out into the night.

It is a remarkable fact of globalization that the vast majority of the world's female foreign sex workers are from the former Soviet Union. At an Arab "cabaret," you can sit with a woman for $25 a half-hour, but I am much too embarrassed to do so, and I save face by asking four girls to sit with me. I am a pasha—"Lee Basha," the waiter calls me when he brings drinks for me and my friends. All of them are from the former Soviet states, so we talk about Russian things. Only Eva from Siberia prefers Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, which is why, when the half-hour expires and all the rest get up to leave, I ask her to stay and speak some more.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.