THE BEIRUT DIARIES – NEIGHBOURHOOD HOPPING
Being a West Londoner by birth, I am fully conversant with the concept of a “having a day out” in East London. Forgive me, but such is the ease of staying within one’s own quartier that ventures across postcodes can assume the magnitude of taking a mini-holiday within one’s own city, even for fabulous sights and sounds.
I am, therefore, unsurprised that the ten minute journey from East Beirut’s Achrafiye neighbourhood towards West Beirut’s Hamra quartier involves so much more effort than merely jumping into a spluttering Mercedes Benz with a driver chewing on tobacco, posing as a ‘servees’ taxi . For those of you that want a quick lowdown, here is my cut-out-and-keep guide to the best of Beirut’s central neighbourhoods. (Be warned – this is not the kind of Guide that mentions Sky Bar and similar well-heeled ventures. You can check guidebooks or ask your concierge for those)
This edgy, slightly battered area hovers around a bus station, and veers off towards Bourj Hammoud, which is the Armenian part of town. Home to generations of immigrants, little Greek flags wave off the roofs of once-beautiful French mandate houses that are adorned with triple-arched windows and a few forlorn plants. Armenian bakeries toss out hot, flat sandwiches to customers reading Arabic and Armenian newspapers simultaneously; tourists tend not to venture these streets where old men sit for hours on plastic chairs nursing stainless steel pots of cardamom-scented coffee to keep them in chat all morning.
In amongst the car mechanics, Beirut’s underground movement is quietly settling in. Small art galleries, naked but for white walls, can be spotted late at night when the transformation of the area may appear less obvious. A sofa lying in the street hosts a group of women drinking bottles of 961 ale, brewed around the corner in a micro-brewery which sprang out of the courage of those who stayed behind during the 2006 war. A photojournalist of Chinese-Californian origin has just shown off his first exhibition following eighteen months of travelling around the most remote regions of West Africa. Girls in harem pants and Havaianas defy Beiruti fashion trends and discuss his work excitedly before they head off to Seza, a cosy Armenian restaurant with an outdoor terrace hidden by plants and trees, a rare treat in this Mediterranean city which forgot to create a culture of outdoor tables and chairs as part of the post-war(s) regeneration.
Mar Mikhael can trace its upcoming gentrification from a couple of early starters. Tommy and his Italian wife, Silvia, started up their casual Osteria café, music bar and restaurant over a year ago, relying on the overspill from neighbouring Gemmayze to fill their wooden seats. Playing world music that is uncommon in the city, an easy-living clientele are made welcome to enjoy a perfect cappuccino or a casual glass of wine with their pecorino, pane and tiramisu. Osteria has brought vibrancy into this rundown area, and other bars (as well as production companies) are now follwing suit, like neighbouring EM Chill which hosts eclectic DJ nights and speakeasies. The most frou-frou of the new blood is Papercup, which serves delicate teas and rich coffee alongside divine flourless chocolate cake to architects, design lovers and passers-by who peruse the finest display of international magazines in Beirut at their leisure.
And if you need to do more than eat and drink, Dany Abisaab has a calming, NY-style yoga studio close to the handful of shops like Pretty Henna and Liwan where you can drop a wadful of cash, an inescapable part of everyday life in Beirut.
Gemmyaze is centred around a single road, which is known by all as Rue Gemmayze (although in maps you may see it called Rue Gouraud). By day, the area is sleepy, with very few cafes, and only the beautiful, traditional architecture of the street to keep a flaneur company. Churches vie with the Goethe Institute which vies with developers who are desperate to knock down Beirut’s heritage and replace it with tacky glass towers that allude to a lifestyle aspiration that can be seen at night, when the city’s young elite parade their yellow open-top porsches and expensive German cars down The Single Street, bringing all traffic to a complete standstill every night of the week around midnight. Ask any taxi to bring you to Gemmayze by night and they will click their tongues fiercely, and drive on, without you.
When night falls in Gemmayze, the glow of Downtown’s impressive mosque which can be seen in the background to The Street fades away into the fierce bright lights of headlamps, mobile phones and flashy cocktail bars, like Behind the Green Door. Gemmayze snatched the trendy headlines from Monot Street in Achrafiye a few years back, and the craze shows no signs of ending.
For those people wanting a more relaxed experience in the neighbourhood, there are still options. Last week, Coop d’Etat opened to great fanfare, and Ethiopian live music, on the seventh floor terrace of the Saifi school building. This is a venture that prides itself on its lack of valet parking, its showers in the midde of the bar and its fantastic mojitos, which may be the best in Beirut. The newly opened Aliacci café/restaurant serves fantastic food and coffee to a clientele eager to sit by massive, open windows. Torino Express, a hole in the wall bar where Doudou shots continue to puzzle the hell out of foreigners (a lethal Tabasco, olive, tequila combination), remains a local legend, although some of its most loyal customers have upsticks to Dany’s bar in Hamra. And Rue du Liban, home also to ethical and expensive independent bag retailer, Sarah’s Bags, is also becoming home to a burgeoning bar scene with places like Demo that are less pretentious than other local white-stools. George’s juice bar is around the corner, a local godsend where any combination of orange, pineapple, mango or avocado can send your vitamin dose into ecstasy alongside your daily newspaper. After a night in this area, you definitely need it. Paul, the French bakery chain, tends to attract a moneyed, replica set for Sunday brunch who compete with the intersection traffic to make their croissant orders heard. You would be better off heading to Casablanca on the Corniche for an elegant Sunday morning breakfast in the confines of an elegant French villa.
Technically, this is the name given to the entire area that sweeps down off the little mountain that is the Beirut equivalent of the Upper East Side. Achrafiye, home to marvellous turn-of-century houses as well as the bland-beyond-belief ABC mall, covers a multitude of small areas, including wealthy Sursock whose residents suffer less from daily power cuts because they are on the same grid as the Patriarchy, and the maze-like backstreets of Geitawi. There are some excellent restaurants in Achrafiye, the boutique hotel Albergo with its glorious terrace, some fantastic falafel haunts and a bevy of tiny shops where seamstresses, leather-workers and old craftsmen ply their trade in lamp-less shops which have looked the same for over fifty years. This is an area which is unremarkable but for the fact that, if you look carefully behind the ugly exterior of Starbucks and Hardees lining Sassine Square, residents of this quartier are long-time, local and have a (largely French-speaking) history to share.
The good folk of Ashrafiye share this fierce pride in their quartier with the good folk of Hamra, the once intellectual corner of the city nestling between the university and the Corniche. Here, the architecture is more anodyne and relies on its proximity to the sea for its attraction. The area is more traditional and is fighting hard to try to regain its former vibrancy. Once the scene of fierce fighting, one can still never be quite sure whether the explosion you heard outside your dinner party was a car backfiring, birthday fireworks or a sign that you should stay inside away from Rue Hamra which, sadly, has lost many of its former gems and now hosts the whole array of Western and national coffee chains. The September Hamra Streets Festival, lively with music and stalls, was sponsored by Starbucks, for example.
Still, the city’s liberal intelligentsia and media set still flock to the handful of bars and cafes in this area for a drink, some good music and some flittering chat. Cafes like Bread Republic, t-marbouta, Buttermint and Younes offer wireless internet, tables outside and endless caffeine fixes. Dany’s bar, taking the shape and feel of a British pub, is where you will always find a friend, a beautiful barman and a tobacco factory’s worth of smoke. The No-Smoking-in-Public-Places momentum is floating way over the head of this fun-loving joint which seems to be open whenever you are passing. Ferdinand and De Prague also offer late night drinks, and Walimat, despite a recent change in venue, still offers perhaps the only live music venue in central Beirut where you can dance to traditional Arabic music. Performed by Ziad Sahhab and his band.
Kebab-ji is definitely the place to end the night in Hamra, its fine slim lamb offerings wrapped in silky-thin bread enticing you always with ‘just one more’ before you try to catch a servees back to the other side of town.
And when, almost inevitably, the taxi refuses to drive you across town, or there is neither power nor water at home and you need fresh sea air, a late night stroll from the Corniche up the hill into Raouche is always an option. By day, the neighbourhood is packed with swimming pools and beach clubs; by night, Raouche reclaims part of Beirut’s old, confused soul with its ‘Juice’n’Bouza (ice-cream) bars, saj (sandwich) joints, patisseries selling baklawa instead of brioche and strollers from all over the country trying to take pictures in front of the natural sea formations known as Pigeon Rocks.
Being a West Londoner by birth, I am fully conversant with the concept of a “day trip” travelling twenty-five minutes by tube into East London.
Being a Beiruti by choice, I fully advise visitors to find a reliable taxi company, like the pink Banet taxis (owned by women, driven by women, for women) or to hitch up into the back seat of a smoking Mercedes and get out, explore the city and neighbourhood hop.
From consumer to conservative, from designer to downtown, from branded to bombed-out, Beirut is a city which will challenge your every preconception of the Middle East. Just occasionally, and usually when driving, it will also challenge your nerves.
September 23rd 2010