This is one of the first times in a very long while where I didn’t feel any culture shock when I arrived in a new country/city. Maybe I’m beginning to ‘manage my expectations’ better. I do think that the week we spent in Amman, Jordan before heading to Delhi helped me adjust. I knew that we were coming to visit a once stunning city that had been nearly destroyed by a 30-year civil war, so I didn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it was during the 1960s when it was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.
When I lived for almost a year in Khartoum, Sudan in 1972/1973, I met many friends who would vacation in Beirut, and they all encouraged me to pay it a visit. However, my money was running low and I decided to head back to Canada to work for six months to save some money to travel again, but I met Anil a week after I got to Edmonton, and as they say, the rest if history. Perhaps it was the stories I had heard about what an amazing city Beirut was, that made me follow the struggles Lebanon faced over the intervening years.
Just last summer, Anil and I both read the great book ‘From Beirut To Jerusalem’ by Thomas Friedman (1995) and we were looking forward to seeing the city for ourselves. While we were in Sri Lanka, Anil read another book; one by William Dalrymple called ‘From The Holy Mountain’. He was surprised to learn that this amazing travel writer had spent a great deal of time in Syria and Lebanon following the journey taken by a Byzantine monk in AD 578 through the Middle East. Anil laughed when he learned that Dalrymple had stayed at the Hotel Cavalier, the same hotel we had just booked for our stay based on positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
We were very tired after our two flights, having left Delhi in the early morning and transiting through Amman, Jordan. The three and a half hour time difference set us back a little too, so we just rested in our pleasant room and watched the 2010 Winter Olympics from Vancouver on television. We knew it would be an early night so we stopped in for dinner at Kebabi-ji, a local Lebanese chain for a delicious meal of, you guessed it, kebabs and all the trimmings. We planned to rest up and start exploring the city on foot the next day.
After eating dinner, we stopped into a small shop across from our hotel to buy some snacks and bottled water. I greeted the elderly shopkeeper by stumbling over the words Salam Alaykum (Peace Be Upon You). He smiled at me and explained that while our hotel is in West Beirut, I could greet people with this phrase even though many of the residents and workers in the district are Christian. The man spoke good English, but he also greeted me in French and I am beginning to understand that French is more commonly spoken here that I realized.
At one time, the Maronite Christians were the dominant religious/cultural group and they spoke French. Many left the country during the long civil war and their exodus as well as a lower birth rate for those that remained behind has meant that now the country has a higher proportion of Muslim citizens. The large influx of Palestine refugees has bolstered the Muslim population as well, though it is important to be aware that there are three distinct sects of Islam here, the Sunni, the Shia and the Druze.
I remember being confused when hearing reports of the fighting during the civil war when I heard of these divisions as well as the names of the various militia groups that were the fighting arms of the different political groups. You may also have heard the names like Phalange, Hezbollah, PLO, Amal and Islamic Jihad. I’m just now getting my head around who each of these names represent, but I will never remember all the various alliances these groups made with each other as well as with Syria, Iran, Israel and the US during the long, bloody period of the civil war and thereafter.
Day One – West Beirut
With all this information fresh in our minds, we set out to explore West Beirut on our first full day in the city. The area around Rue Hamra is full of an assortment of ugly concrete buildings and vacant lots full of rubble. There’s not much to appeal to the eye if you look above street level, but there is a friendliness and an energy that is hard to describe. It’s edgy, but interesting. The traffic on the narrow streets is horrendous, but we are on foot so it doesn’t bother us much. It’s a little like a parking lot with people sitting in their cars honking at each other.
We set off away from the main street and walked towards the sea. We had read that a wide walkway has been constructed along the seafront and it’s a favorite strolling spot for residents in the late afternoons and weekends. We were setting off just after breakfast and when we arrived we found dozens of men and women out for a brisk walk or a loping run. People here are decidedly heavier that the residents of Sri Lanka; it appears that we too will have to do a great deal of walking to deal with all the wonderful Lebanese food we are eating and plan to eat.
It was great to get out again and walk in the sunshine and enjoy the wonderful sea breeze. The water was incredibly clear and we were delighted to see a city worker cleaning up the waterfront, picking up the litter from the strollers and the waste that washes up with the tides. We stopped to watch a huge group of feral cats gorging on a feast of raw meat that a young man on a motorcycle stopped to leave for them. They were the largest cats I’ve ever seen in my life, and I can’t believe that his is due to solely to the huge amount of food that was put out for them.
While we were standing watching the cats, another person who had stopped to watch as well, struck up a conversation with us. We learned that he was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada and was visiting relatives in Lebanon for a few months. He didn’t think that he would make the switch to change his allegiance to his parent’s homeland, but he was enjoying getting in touch with his Lebanese roots and missing a Canadian winter in the process. He gave us some good advice on places to see and told us that car rentals were surprisingly affordable, confirming what we had read in the Lonely Planet. He gave us his mobile number and encouraged us to call him if we felt he could help us in any way.
After walking for almost four hours, we returned to our hotel and settled in to watch the Olympic events and try and recover from the jet lag. We find we are waking up in the early morning hours, but this isn’t as bad as it seems because we are able to watch the evening events in Vancouver. It was great to watch the figure skating before walking in the morning and then by early evening here, it’s morning in Canada and we can watch the ski races, biathlon, and bobsledding until we fall asleep. We haven’t really watched any television since we left Canada in September last year, so this is a real treat.
Sitting in our hotel room, watching the Olympics back home as well as the news reports on CNN, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that we’re somewhere else. But then, through the course of the day, we hear church bells rung loudly and the Muslim call to prayer broadcast in the distance, and we know we are in somewhere very special. I don’t remember ever being so conscious of the juxtaposition of these two religions as I am here. In the places we’ve visited before, one of the two world faiths has been predominant.