Once celebrated as the “Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut has changed today beyond recognition, and has a new title – one that is far less flattering: “Ugly Beirut”. All ties with the French culture have evaporated, except maybe for the French language that is quite common in the country. Will Beirut be able to regain its glorious days after being the victim of wars, recession and political turbulence?
After World War II, the Lebanese capital was nicknamed “Paris of the Middle East”. With its French Mandate influences from architecture, to world-class cuisine, to liberated and fashionable women, to the multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, Beirut fit the part perfectly. The vibrant city’s success progressed in crescendo, becoming rapidly a cultural and intellectual reference, as well as a financial capital. Beirut had hit the charts as one of the most desired touristic destinations at the time.
But then the civil war broke out in 1975, tearing not only the city but also its country to pieces. Beirut became a synonym for urban disaster, political turbulence and violence. The city was ravaged. More than 100,000 Lebanese citizens were killed whilst Lebanon’s population was less than four million, so a good four percent of the population was destroyed with the war. Beirut split apart into mutually hostile cantons. The city remains to this day divided along that line. The eastern half is predominantly Christian, the western half almost entirely Sunni. And the southern suburbs are all mainly Shiite.
Beirut has gone through a sort of renaissance in the mid twentieth century. For decades after the war, it has been rebuilt, despite political instabilities and occasional violence. Today, the West side of the city is more French looking than the other two, and that is because it has sustained the least damage during the war. Nevertheless, East and West Beirut are almost identical if compared with the southern suburbs.
Collectively known as the Dahiyeh, which means “suburb” in Arabic, they are Hezbollah’s “capital” or main base. The following statement is most likely to come across as odd and unusual, to say the very least to some readers. Some others might read it over and over again, and might still not comprehend it. It is only those who have lived in Lebanon that would grasp this seemingly senseless statement. The Lebanese government has no say in in the southern suburbs. It is the Hezbollah party that provides all the infrastructure, security, schools and hospitals for the Dahiyeh residents.
One can safely say without exaggeration that this area in Lebanon is pretty much a country of its own. If you drive down its streets, you will see both Hezbollah and Iran flags but rarely the Lebanese one, if ever. Once known as the “belt of misery,” the area is still until this day a slum. Buildings are built without any attention to aesthetics whatsoever, let alone the French ones. Lebanese architect Assem Salaam mourns the city’s architecture: “When I think of Beirut, I can only picture a jungle of grey concrete that towers”. Indeed, long gone are the days where Beirut was nicknamed Paris of the Middle East.
Until this day, armed conflicts still break out. Beirut’s three parts are the main dispute zones making the West, East and suburbs dreaded flash points. Restoration has however taken place in most of the city, especially in Downtown Beirut. Most of the area has been rebuilt, making room for a new type of architecture with the construction of stone buildings that merge the Ottoman and Parisian styles. As delightful as the new area looks like, it still somehow feels soulless and inauthentic, as if it has been rebuilt forcefully to resemble the old Beirut, as to reach out to its past. “Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman”, pleads the architect.
After the city’s wipe out because of the war’s heavy damages, it seems that the tall new buildings have resurfaced from scratch, giving them fake vibes. These unreal impressions are furthermore accentuated when compared with the rest of the city, which is chaotic and wild. Representative of the Beirut municipality Rasheed Jaekh admits that Beirut has reached a point of no return, and has entered a cruel and vicious circle: “What's happening is very sad, but it's not in our power to stop it.” He expresses the powerless status of the municipality, who can’t do anything to redeem the city’s once praised architecture. “The municipality can only stop construction if we own buildings, but we don't and we don't have the money to buy them. A handful of buildings could still be saved, if only parliament passed legislation that would protect them.”
Citizens blame the Lebanese government for not protecting the city’s cultural heritage and for its careless attitude. Joe Kodeih, resident of Beirut and theatre director whose latest play deals with the loss of the city's architectural heritage, deplores the saddening situation: “for decades Lebanon's leaders have been preoccupied with political wrangling and crises, and issues like architectural heritage have struggled to get attention.” Rasheed denounces the politicians of his country who “have also failed to come up with a comprehensive urban development plan for Beirut, which has resulted in chaotic and disorganised construction.” Citizens are furious with the offhand and unconsidered attitude of the government. Assem alleges that “it’s not the lack of building regulation that is destroying Beirut. It’s the government's total disregard for public good. The real problem is that the existing regulations are set to benefit real estate companies and the government, but not people.”
The semi-destroyed and unsymmetrical buildings have been preserved as a constant reminder that urban civil war is one of the worst catastrophes that the human race can inflict on itself.
The northwest side of Downtown Beirut has been entirely demolished by the war and rebuilt completely. Today, it is the where the Souks of Beirut are located, an open-air mall that mainly targets high-end consumers. The shops, which tend to be too expensive not only for most Lebanese citizens but for middle-class people in general, mainly cater to wealthy Gulf Arabs. On the other side of Downtown, entrepreneurs have set up luxury boutiques: from a Ferrari showroom, to high-end restaurants, to luxury boutiques, all evidently targeting class A citizens as well as wealthy tourists.
This area has clearly imposed itself as being beyond reach. Its renovation is entirely the work of art – or not –of Solidere, a company founded in 1994 by Lebanon's then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Solidere is criticized until today for destroying historic buildings that could have been saved, and for turning an area which was once meeting point of cultures and religions, into a glitzy but soulless area for the rich. “The neighborhood has lost all its character, no-one can afford to live there”, reproaches the architect. Amir Abdel Khalek, a resident in Beirut also refutes the new Beirut that is inaccessible to its native citizens: “There isn't really a place where I can take the kids for a bike ride or a walk…They should build parks instead of building apartment blocks that most of us cannot afford”. So what is the point of such soulless renovations if Lebanese people cannot even enjoy them in their own country?
As a reaction to the economic climate, and the demolishing of what once was a lively city with personal imprints and architecture, a new wave of trendy areas has emerged. The nostalgic capital is giving birth today to laid-back, bohemian and lively neighborhoods that are redeeming the sins of the government and upmarket side of Beirut.
Amongst these areas are Badaro and Mar Mikhail. Unlike other areas within the capital that, in the name of postwar progress, demolished Beirut’s cozy and narrow streets and replaced them with high-rises, Badaro and Mar Mikhail have managed to preserve some of Beirut’s architectural legacy. With old-fashioned buildings, less concrete and more green space, the memory of Beirut which was almost entirely erased and dusted and being brought back to life. But most importantly, the people are “what makes the area exceptionally attractive”, states Thea Jebne, a local bartender in Mar Mikhail. Badaro and Mar Mikhail distract the Lebanese citizens from their despair as they stared at the city’s skyline that is dotted with skeletons of half-finished high rises. Instead of having on every corner a construction site, open-air restaurants and cozy pubs populate the sidewalks.
The new urban vistas are charming. On a sunny day, Badaro and Mar Mikhail areas are pleasantly musical, and filled with joyful people conversing over a refreshing beer and a delicious meal. The narrow streets of these trending areas have successfully captured once again the hearts of the Lebanese citizens, as well as visitors. Tourism is one of Beirut’s primary industries and most relied on. However post war and internal political conflicts resulted in tumbleweeds blowing through the hotel lobbies. Governments all over the world issued terrifying travel warnings about the city. During the last two summers, the tourism seasons were quasi-null, and diners and nightclubs closed down because they don’t have enough foreign customers and the locals don’t have enough money, “Badaro and Mar Mikhail are responsible for Beirut’s comeback today and the tourism map”, acknowledges Fay Hechme, a resident in Beirut.
Amongst the hot spots in the vibrant Badaro area, is the latest hotel to open in Beirut, called The Smallville. Conveniently located in the heart of Badaro, just a few meters before the National Museum, a tall modern building to the left stands tall amidst the area's old buildings. The hotel mixes luxury, simplicity and style in its urban design created to impress. “The luxury it offers is clients surpasses the traditional and materialistic definition of the term”, explains Lara Talhouk, manager at the hotel. The Smallville offers its residents a new type of luxury, with a philosophy behind its birth to create a fun, engaging and memorable destination where stylish urbanites can congregate to relax, eat, drink, socialise, visit and live.
The interior merges vintage pieces of design with innovative modern interior. From an ancient chandelier to quirky surreal design elements, The Smallville is far more than a mere soulless hotel. It is a project that tells the story of Beirut with love, having overcome countless tumults. It is also very much affordable with a long dessert buffet offering a wide choice of delicacies all day long definitely worth trying with an unbeatable all you can eat price for 20,000L.L/person, which is the equivalent of merely 7 pounds. Other diners and pubs that must be on your hit list if you go to Badaro are Orient Express, Kissproof, and Bodo.
Although Mar Mikhail lacks of any trendy hotels, it makes up for it with her wide variety of delicious restaurants and vibrant pubs. The French restaurant Sud, meaning South in English, blends together dishes from Spain, Italy and the South of France in an idyllic setting. Other must taste eateries are A Cote, Smoking Bun, and MJ’s Burgers. Vibrant pubs that are not too loud or too dead guarantee a pleasant evening of delightful conversations and interactions with unique and mellow cocktails, such as Train Station, Vivienne and Garage Street.
At a point when Beirut’s economy was at its worse shape, and when construction in Lebanon had reached an alarming stage where Beirut’s architectural memory has almost been entirely erased, and just when all tourism prospects nearly faded, the Middle Eastern capital witnessed a sort of rebirth. Badaro and Mar Mikhail certainly achieved the plan of giving Beirut a new pair of lungs for it to live again, through the creation of a fresh, innovative open space offering authentic and personal experiences to clients.
After years of mourning over impersonal high-rises and jungles of grey concrete, generic blocks and vertical placeholders that tower over what used to be the city’s cultural heritage and legacy, the city has regained its soul. Beirut has gone through from being an aggressive and inhuman capital, to a vibrant and lively one with the trendy upcoming areas. Beirut’s exquisite Badaro and Mar Mikhail neighborhoods uniquely blend the historic with the new. They embody a singular balance between privacy and neighboring activity. Residents enjoy an oasis of calm and comfort without being too far removed from the fun and action. It's a private-but-convenient way of life characteristic to Badaro and Mar Mikhail, one of the rare neighborhoods that manage to be dynamic and up-and-coming and alive while still retaining the welcome quiet of Beirut's quaintest streets, lined with glistening trees and stunning historic architecture.
Despite Syria’s military occupation, despite Hezbollah’s war against Israel, despite the invasion of Beirut in 2008, despite the global economic downturn that has dragged on for years, and despite the civil war burning next door in Syria, the city made this progress. The young generation’s hopes are high for their city achieving a decent comeback. Thea says that the lively and upcoming areas “are pumping blood in Beirut’s weakened heart”. Beirut, whether it’s the Paris of the Middle East or not, is once again becoming a great city, and a popular place for travelers, having progressively managed to regain its lost glory.