Beirut, Lebanon

My Struggle To Understand Beirut

Derek Lebanon 64 Comments

Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut. One minute I want to pack my backpack and immediately leave this baffling city behind and the next minute I want nothing else but to stay here for several weeks more. And so it is no surprise that despite waking up each morning wondering why I am still here, I soon find myself reserving my hotel room for yet another couple of nights.

Before I continue, I must explain that this is my 12th attempt at writing this post. By now I have probably written 10 pages and some 15,000 words, but I’ve deleted everything I’ve written so far. Basically, writing about Beirut has proven to be a near impossible task, as every day this city proves itself to be more complicated and utterly confusing than any other city I have ever visited.

However, I’ve now decided that this is going to be my last attempt. Whatever I end up writing this time is exactly what I’m going to publish. And as a result, I apologize now for the potentially garbled and inconsistent post that’s about to follow. But in the end, that’s sort of the kind of place Beirut has turned out to be.

Holiday Inn, Beirut, Lebanon

A CITY WITHOUT A CLEAR IDENTITY

Unlike most cities I’ve been to, where I am able to detect and ‘feel’ the vibe of the place, I have been unable to detect such a consistent vibe here in Beirut. I think back to my visits to such places as Mexico City, Bangkok or Melbourne, Australia and how I was able to confidently declare “This is Melbourne!” or “This is Mexico City!” soon after I arrived. The unique vibe of each permeated the air and was present in the lifestyle of every inhabitant, in the offerings of every street and in the activities of every neighborhood.

But after 10 days in Beirut (I know that 10 days is not a lot of time at all), I am instead faced with a city so full of seemingly disconnected parts, that when combined, ultimately creates such a fragmented environment that makes understanding Beirut as a whole a lifetime project.

TEN MINUTES IN BEIRUT

To give you a quick example, let me recount what I witnessed the other day within a span of ten minutes and within a distance of about 3 kilometers. (I was in a car returning to Beirut after a day of exploring South Lebanon.)

  • We drove past a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood where bombed out buildings were plentiful and there was not one sign of reconstruction at all.
  • Our driver took a wrong turn and led us into the middle of a Palestinian refugee slum, complete with burning cars, 2 year old children begging on the streets, a sea of intense faces staring into our vehicle and non-stop gunfire coming from around the corner.

Soldiers in Beirut

  • We drove past two car dealerships that sold nothing but Range Rovers and the most expensive Mercedes and BMWs on the market.
  • Our car was inspected by armed soldiers, hundreds of whom were lining the streets of central Beirut as tanks sat on every street corner, with guns manned and aimed at the cars passing by.
  • We crossed one intersection and then found ourselves surrounded by Gucci, Swarovski, Benetton and Tiffany (among others), with well-dressed families strolling along picture-perfect pedestrian-only walkways and super-glitzy shopping plazas. Children held Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse balloons while eating Haagen Daz ice cream cones and being attended to by their East Asian nannies.
  • Moments later we arrived back at my hotel in the Gemnayze neighborhood, where dozens of half-built luxury apartment buildings sit crammed next to dozens of hip bars and nightclubs and the bombed out shells of dozens of crumbling buildings.

And that was just one ten-minute period of my stay in this city!

Now throw in a population consisting of Sunni Muslims, Shiitie Muslims, Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Christians, Protestants and Druze, each trying to hold on to their individual identities as much as possible as small groups of East Asians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Africans, Arabs, Europeans & North Americans float in between the seams. Then add a somewhat noticeable anti-American undertone right alongside hundreds of young American students studying Arabic and a shockingly intense dose of Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, TGIF restaurants, Hardees, Starbucks, Dominoes Pizza, Subway, Burger King and Chevrolet and Ford dealerships and it’s no wonder I’m confused.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE MONEY?

Beirut, Lebanon

Clearly there is a great deal of money here, although my research has taught me that the population of this city consists of 20% super-wealthy and 80% poor, with virtually nothing at all in between. And it is the foreign investment, coming from places such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, that apparently explains all of the “A Luxuriously Enchanting Lifestyle Awaits” billboards plastered everywhere, trying to entice the wealthy to purchase massive, yet-to-be-built apartments for millions of dollars. But this image of such extreme wealth seems so out of place (as does the presence of more Maseratis, Porsches and Rolls Royces than I have ever seen in my life) when behind these billboards and fancy cars lie the masses, many of whom are still living in dilapidated buildings or neighborhoods whose conditions could certainly use a significant overhaul.

So what is really going on here? Why is there such a need to transform Beirut into an ultra-wealthy, Dubai-style city? Is this even feasible if 80% of the population is unable to buy into the lifestyle that is taking over? And if this is such a fast-growing, seemingly cosmopolitan city, then why, at any given time, is 40% of the Lebanese population applying for a visa to live in a foreign country? (This statistic was given to me by two government officials yet I can’t claim that it is 100% accurate.)

I myself have only flimsy guesses and no solid answers.

MORE CONFUSION ABOUT BEIRUT

Cornice, Beirut, Lebanon

It is only natural that a city so focused on wealth and all things money, is going to be less focused on human connection and interaction. That’s generally how things go. When it’s all about me, me, me, we obviously think a little less about everyone else.

And so I’ve found Beirut to lack some of that human warmth that is often present in developing or more traditional nations. Locals tend to ignore my greetings, people look me up and down everywhere I go and asking for directions is often met with a short reply or uninterested wave of the hand. Beirut is the kind of place (at least in my experience) where you sometimes have to ask the restaurant worker three times for your food and then wait as he makes a phone call, watches a music video on the television and smokes three cigarettes before preparing it. Of course this doesn’t happen all the time, but some version of this scenario happened much more frequently here than in other cities I’ve been to around the world.

Also, if anyone can explain why Beiruti drivers will deliberately speed up and cut you off as you cross the street (even if you’re in a crosswalk) while yelling at you to get out of the way, I’d love to hear an explanation. I’ve seen some crazy driving in places such as Mumbai and Cairo, but nothing compares to the lack of respect for pedestrians that I witnessed in Beirut. And while these types of behavior are at times somewhat amusing, I also find that it says a great deal about how people treat each other.

Okay. Let me catch my breath for a moment!

I certainly don’t want this post to sound like a negative ‘review’ of Beirut (which I fear it has) when my goal is simply to try and show how incredibly enigmatic and fascinating this place truly is and how incredibly little I am able to understand of it. In the end, if I didn’t enjoy my time here, I certainly would have left days ago.

I’ve obviously been sucked in by this city’s…by it’s….by it’s…. I have no idea what ‘it’ is that has made me want to stay for 10 days so far, but there really is something about Beirut that has made it nearly impossible for me to leave.

A SIMPLE AFTERNOON STROLL

Gemnayze, Beirut, Lebanon

Of course, by this point, I am no longer expecting to understand this city before I eventually do move on to my next destination. After all, how can I make any progress when, for example, during the ten minute stroll from this American-owned garden cafe where I am now sitting back to my hotel, I will pass by several bombed-out buildings (some of which are still partially-inhabited), a construction site for a 25-story complex of ultra-luxury apartments, a Caribbean-fusion restaurant, a British pub, Hezbollah-posters, emaciated Pakistani street cleaners, a Greek Orthodox church, armed soldiers patrolling the streets, a Saab dealership, mounds of trash 3 meters high, a $100/plate Italian restaurant, a bullet-ridden mansion, a French bakery, a family of homeless Gypsies, an Armenian district, a photography exhibition and a wall full of Anarchist graffiti.

I can’t make any progress. I get a headache if I try.

I’m also fully aware that I could simply ignore all of the above and focus on the pleasant cafe culture here, the nice shops and restaurants along Hamra Street and the lovely Corniche that wraps around the edge of this city. However, I am hungry for more than that as cute cafes can be found almost anywhere in the world. Clearly Beirut has so many hidden layers below it’s shiny and mysterious surface, behind all of those Maseratis, Winnie-the-Pooh balloons and bumper stickers that read “Don’t follow my car unless you want to be killed”.

Unfortunately, I have failed in my attempt to fully understand them.


This post is merely my quick impression of Beirut and I’ve traveled long enough to know that a hundred people will have a hundred different impressions of the exact same place. So if anyone has some insight to share, I’d love to hear from you in order to better understand this most complex and intriguing city.

Photo credit: Soldiers
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Comments 64

  1. junior

    Hi Earl,

    I am junior, I am brazilian and I live in Brazil. My grandfather is lebanese and last year I went to lebanon for the first time. I spend there 15 days and I really know what you told in your post. I am studying arabic and there in beirut it was very dificult to speak in arabic. All the time I started to talk in arabic they change to english or french. I wanted to practice but it was so hard. They speak english with each other.. For me it is very crazy, here in brazil it is imposible. If I speak english with my friends on the street or at home it will be very ridiculous. When I started to talk to a girl in arabic she started to talk in english. I do not have a good english but I can comunicate. So she told me that : “if I were you I would study more english insted of studying arabic because your english is very bad”. So I told her: Habibti hayati ayuni , my dear, I can comunicate in english in spanish, portuguese and arabic. I love your language and I will look for someone that loves his own language too because I love my culture and my portuguese. But you doesnt like your culture, isnt it?
    But then I went to the jabal lebanon to visit my family, I went to the south and I met popular people… simplicy people… and it was amazing. They loved my arabic with my brazilian accent and all they invited me to luch, dinner in there houses… I really love them. I really love people in lebanon. I think like here in brazil people in nightlife pubs in rich zone are very boring… they do not want to talk… they are there to show money and cars and clothes.. but people in popular neighbohoods and small cities is very different… I think in lebanon it is the diference between beirut ( they want to show that beirut is europ or usa) and other cities in lebanon… I really love lebanon.. And I love beirut too.. Now I know a little bit more and I can understand that it is contradictory. Next month I will return and I will stay there 5 months to continue studying arabic… I have friends in aramoun, Aley, tyre, na nabatiyeh, trablous and baalbeck. Go back to lebanon again.. there is something there that make us come back…

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  3. ibrahim

    Hey Earl
    i totally understand your frustration to understand Beirut. and its not strange that you couldnt connect the puzzle pieces, in fact i am from Beirut, born and raised in Beirut, and ive been living in Milan for the past years, and i still do not understand how this city functions. for instance, i don’t understand all the things u mentioned in your post, neither how in one day it feels like war, and the other Beirut is on the CNN for being the best party city in the world. but Beirut finds its way to the top. i’ve traveled all around Europe and ive never sensed this sophistication i feel in Beirut.
    over the ages the city has became more than a physical city with buildings and streets and nice architecture, Beirut has thousands of layers that you to carefully unfold and try each of them, 10 days is not a lot in order to find everything u need to know about Lebanon. its very true that the city leaves you puzzled/dazzled/shocked/sad/happy/laughing/loving/hating or any other emotion in less than 10 minutes, but this is something you can only find in Beirut and no where else in the world. i would call Beirut different, its not a city of a certain form or culture, its a melange of thousands of languages, cultures, and lifestyles in one small spot of land that can take you everywhere in the world. i think the problems you faced were normal because of the fact that its not a backpackers city. neither a walkers paradise because of the constant slopes and little hills, next time you decide to go to lebanon:
    Do not check in the hostels in gemmayzeh, check in a cheap hotel in hamra theyre many. for a bit more you can get a better room and breakfast in a one star hotel
    you have to visit more cities like saida(sidon) Jbeil(byblos) tripoli, tyre which are all considered to be the first cities in the world
    second try to go to the lebanese villages like deir el qamar,Douma, bneche, koura, Mokhtara, Mazaar, Aley , bcharre, and wadi annoubeen for example
    for night clubs or pubs, backpackers are not welcome, Lebanese people and especially Beiruti’s judge by appearance, so shorts and sandals are not so welcome while in beirut. i understand its strange because that’s how i travel around with my shorts and backpack. but for Lebanese people, looks are everything. (it sucks but its true)
    there are tons of restaurants to try that all offer great food and hospitality, try asking the locals where to go or use some tour guides.
    i hope next time you can stay more and digest the craziness of this fabulous city 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Thanks for that great information Ibrahim. I hope to get back there one day and explore the country some more!!

  4. Maya

    Hi Earl,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m a Leb American living in the US when not traveling. I tried to move back to Lebanon with my husband (full American), and we managed to live there for 1.5 years on and off. It was a very interesting experience for both of us. For me, I felt like I needed to find where I belong now as someone who left the country at 17 all alone and haven’t had the most conventional life afterwards. As for my husband, it was the complete immersion in the culture as a foreigner. We went through the ups and downs, where at some points we went to pack and leave, but then the next day we’d find ourselves dreaming about buying a little house up in the mountains and wanting to live there the rest of our lives! It’s a country of contrast and beauty. You will find it all there. It’s really hard to understand Beirut if you don’t live there and spend time with locals. My husband and I find ourselves always talking about moving back there.. It’s like every other country we’ve lived in, there’s the good and the ugly. What Lebanon provides is extremely unique nowadays. It’s safe, beautiful, has no shortage of hospitable and caring people.. Yet it’s very complex and could leave the person feeling disconnected.

    I really hope you go back, and like many others have said before, you should try to befriend locals and hang out with them.. They sure will show you a good time and you’ll get a different perspective.

    I can totally see your point however. I don’t think Lebanon has a great backpacker type of infrastructure. Most visitors normally rent cars, an apartment and live like locals there. Backpacking is pretty new to Lebanon and it needs time to maturely develop. I think the ministry of tourism can/should do a lot more.

    I hope this helps, and thanks for the post 🙂

  5. Norma

    Hi Earl

    I landed upon your blog almost randomly whilst researching some travel destinations and was very interested to read your post about Lebanon.

    I am a Lebanese Australian who was born and spent my childhood in Lebanon and have lived most of my adult life in Australia. I visit Lebanon frequently to immerse myself in the culture, see family, revisit childhood spots or simply discover new places. Your observations are very true of someone who spent a short time there. Beirut is a complex city full of contradictions. Most of it stems from the fact that so many sects and religions co-exist in such a small country. There is also no separation of Church and State making for a whole lot of political frictions.

    It is impossible to give it an identify based on all these contradictions, however, two things that all Lebanese have in common are 1) their love for their country and 2) most definitely their hospitality. To better understand Lebanon if one day you decide to return (which I really hope you do) is to visit the various areas representative of the various factions within Lebanon. You will then be able to appreciate the differences and it will hopefully help you define each of these factions individually as Lebanon by its nature is a sectarian country making it impossible to place everyone in the one bucket.

    I would recommend visiting in Summer when the place is flowing with tourists and when you are more likely to meet Lebanese visiting from overseas who may then introduce you to their families hence creating a local connection. Lebanese are renown for their hospitality and I know first hand how tables are normally spread with lunch and dinner feasts for complete strangers and I am disappointed that you didn’t get to experience our legendary hospitality during your time there.

    I would be more than happy to offer further advise should you need it or answer any questions you may have – please drop me an email.

    Great blog by the way – I admire your sense of adventure and will be sure to keep track of your travels! 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Norma – Thank you so much for that detailed comment. I enjoyed reading it and certainly do look forward to another trip to Lebanon at some point. As a traveler, it is often hard to get a complete picture of anything because we cannot spend as much time as we want everywhere we go. And I know full well that connecting with a few local people can make all the difference!

      I will definitely send you an email the next time I’m in that area 🙂

  6. Roy D

    I am Lebanese living in Lebanon and i am now 22 years old. There is something i always find missing in articles discribing Lebanon, Dear Earl in your next visit you should go to the mountains( Mont Liban) there you could find the roots of the Lebanese culture… I am not sure if you noticed the highway traffic late Fridays but Lebanese return to their houses in the mountains, up there is the beautiful heritage and beauty.

    I would disagree on many other things, for instance Lebanese tend to like foreigners alot..they are proud to speak French with the French Tourists English,Italian,Spanish and even German but it always depend on the region… In Jounieh, Byblos, Batroun…. you could even become gest in their houses!!

    one thing is definately right… there is always something strange about Lebanon… can you immagine that only 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and up to 12 million abroad!

    1. Earl

      Hey Roy – Thank you so much for your comment! I definitely wasn’t trying to say that the Lebanese do not like foreigners. I was simply making an observation that in comparison to other countries in the region, I personally found it more difficult to communicate and interact with locals in Lebanon. As is the case with any country, every experience of every traveler is different and I have no doubt that if I were to visit again, and to visit the regions you suggest, I would view Lebanon in a completely different way. And you’re right about those numbers. It is quite incredible that only 4 million people live in Lebanon and so many live abroad. I’m not sure there is another country with such statistics at that!

      1. Mike . Y

        Hey earl I really enjoy reading about your adventures , I’m Lebanese and am studying in Beirut , I found this very funny cause just thinking about how a person like you would react to a city like Beirut is hilarious honestly, I agree with Roy on most of the things he’s saying, Beirut can not be explained unless I guess you write a complicated book, but on the most part it’s a place where even the smallest business tractions happen by giving the other guy a couple of hundreds dollars in his back pocket.

        Most of the people living in Beirut arent Lebanese and all the beggars aren’t definitely not, almost all of my friends are either Palestinian or Jordanian here. If you really want to see Lebanon the south is very nice and the north is unbelievably beautiful , but I doubt you won’t see even abit bombed up buildings and bullet holes in most places.
        Lebanon is a troubled beauty

        Hope that helps khaye

        1. Earl

          Hey Mike – It’s always great to hear from someone who actually lives in the cities I write about! Even the things you said in your comment are things that I would never have known, not even after having visited Beirut. That city still baffles me 🙂

          I do agree about the south being beautiful…the couple of days that I spent in the mountains down there were simply amazing. This is certainly one of those countries that I need to return to at some point and hopefully when I do, we’ll be able to meet up and I can learn some more from you.

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  8. Rebecca

    Great post! Beirut – and Lebanon in general – sounds like a fascinating place. Not surprising, given the city’s history. I guess sometimes we have to let a city get the best of us and realise that we can’t always get under a city’s skin, no matter how much we’d like to! Safe travels!

    1. Earl

      Hey Rebecca – That was definitely the case with Beirut and it’s helpful to make that realization that sometimes we just aren’t able to understand a place. Nothing wrong with that at all.

      I appreciate the comment and hope you enjoy the final week of the year!

  9. Theodora (Travels with a Nine Year Old)

    I think sometimes it’s precisely the frustrations and craziness of a city that make you fall in love with it. Like Manila. Or Hanoi.

    Is it warped to say that your post really makes me want to go to Beirut?

    It’s always been on my list (until the civil war it was the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated city in the Middle East), but this makes me honestly want to explore.

    Far, far more than the general sterile lists of great things to do could ever…

    Interesting, too, that you never felt unsafe.

    1. Earl

      Hey Theodora – That’s not warped at all. Even when I re-read my post it makes me want to return already 🙂

      And I definitely didn’t feel unsafe in any part of Lebanon at all…

  10. Gray

    Wow, fascinating article, Earl. I admit, I’ve never had any desire to go to Beirut, but your descriptions were certainly interesting to read. This sounds like a city with an identity crisis–or else it’s a city that doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. I think it’s okay that you left feeling confused about the city, because that means it will stay with you for a long time. My guess is there are probably people who live there for years who are just as confused. In any case, it’s got to be a little freaky wondering what you’ll encounter around the next corner in Beirut.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gray – Actually, I haven’t stopped thinking about Beirut since I left. And I think leaving that country so confused might prove to be a good thing in the end as I find myself still trying to understand the place, which has led to communications with a lot of new people who are able to shed some further light on the situation there. And I have no doubt that there are a great deal of people living there for a long time who are as equally confused. In fact, I met quite a few of them during my visit!

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  13. Dina

    Wow, sounds like a very complex place. No wonder you have to write and rewrite over 10 times, Must not be easy to concentrate the story into an article. The bumper stickers “Don’t follow my car unless you want to be killed”, I like to imagine that right beside the Pooh’s balloons sticker. Does that sticker meant to be funny, or is it a threat?

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – I’d tend to believe that the bumper sticker was intended to be humorous but that it also carried a sliver of truth with it. I certainly wasn’t about to follow anyone who had that plastered to their rear window!

  14. Michelle

    Earl – I’m impressed that you were able to offer such a great insight into the various aspects of Beirut after only ten days of being in the city. I’ve lived in Lebanon for three months – mostly based in Beirut – and haven’t yet managed to write a coherent description of the place, only many aborted attempts at one to family and friends. Indeed, your post is more coherent than you give yourself credit for.

    I have found that Beirut is not a city that lends itself to being loved as easily and immediately as other cities for many of the reasons that you describe – it makes you work a little harder before you feel the love! However, as Lara mentioned, it is the people who hold the key to the love (and further understanding of the place), so to speak. Yes, I have met my fair share of difficult Lebanese people, but the ‘human warmth’ that seemed to evade you on your visit is there. It just may not always be flaunted as freely on the street as it is in Syria.

    Admittedly, I may have had a foot in the door on this count, as I arrived in Lebanon and was welcomed into my Beiruti friend’s apartment/yoga centre in Gemmayze and found myself immediately immersed in a wonderful community of people through my connection to him and his yoga centre. To be fair though, the invitations to lunch, dinner, to sleep at people’s homes, picnics in the mountains, phone calls to make sure I was okay and wasn’t wanting of anything, etc. were really exceptional compared to other places! The Lebanese are famed for their hospitality and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it first-hand. Indeed, at one point I possessed the keys to four different properties in Beirut and beyond and was free to come and go as I pleased!

    I am aware though, and have noted to myself before, that had I arrived in Lebanon as a backpacker with no connection to the city that my experience may have been different.

    If Lebanon does manage to lure you back make sure you get in touch with some local hiking organisations. Hiking through the mountains is really a quintessential Lebanese experience that maybe not enough people recommend. Sunday hikes are also very popular with the Lebanese (not only foreigners) and are a great way to get in touch with locals. The invitations to lunch, dinner, etc. are sure to flow from there! The Lebanese really are a very sociable people…

    P.S. It really surprised me to read about the gunfire you heard on your visit, as incidents like that are really the exception in current day Beirut. I must admit though that the sound of fireworks in Lebanon has momentarily freaked me out on a few occasions!
    P.P.S. Despite the lovely people I’ve met, Beirut – Lebanon – can be draining at times. I do empathise with you 😉

    1. Earl

      Hey Michelle – I’m thrilled that you commented and offered your experiences as well! As I was writing this post I kept thinking of all the other foreigners I had met who had spent more time in Lebanon and how they would feel about this post. And in the end, I don’t doubt a single thing you said above. I know from my travels that visiting a place as a traveler as opposed to living somewhere for an extended period, is bound to offer completely different experiences.

      And so this post was definitely written from my traveler’s perspective! I too have found that when I have some initial contacts in a new country, it does speed up the process of immersion and as a result, leads to some of the more rewarding interactions that may elude someone who is merely passing by and doesn’t know anyone.

      I will definitely take your hiking advice for my next visit and I’m already looking forward to exploring more of the Lebanese culture. Now I just need to see when I can fit in another visit!

      (And good luck with your own description of Beirut. I’d love to read it!)

  15. Forest

    The odd thing is that Beirut arrived at the point over time but cities like New York are literally just a tony step up from it. The minute people stop communicating and start rebelling NY could turn into Beirut very quickly.

    I sometimes believe the rise of capitalism whilst people are dying on the streets around is the main cause of unrest in the world at times! Cairo shares some of the characteristics you talk of with an ever skipping identity just less bombed out buildings although many look like they have been bombed!

    1. Earl

      Hey Forest – It is difficult to see such poverty alongside side wealth, and I certainly do at times question the benefits of sticking with a system that seems to create an even greater divide. And it is true that many places in the world must constantly try and survive on that thin line between peace and conflict as a result. As for Cairo, I do remember my visit there initially being quite confusing as well!

  16. Kirsty

    Enjoyed reading the post, it sounds like a very interesting place, no wonder it was difficult to write! I agree with Kyle that some places are just too difficult! It just seems that the city is sat at polar opporsites.

    1. Earl

      Hey Kirsty – It is true that we can’t understand every place we visit, so sometimes we just have to admit it, take what we learned and move on. Perhaps another visit in the future will help shed more light on this interesting destination.

  17. lara dunston

    Apologies for that novel, Earl! Your post was very inspiring. I think I’ve done what Corinne was probably going to do!

    Natalie & Earl – Beirut hasn’t actually changed that much, not in the 12 years I’ve been going there anyway. Remember a lot of the new buildings are replacing buildings that were destroyed during the war. Like any city, shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars, come and go, but it’s not a dramatically different city in the way that Dubai is, for instance, which is constantly changing. I return to Beirut and I can still go back to many of the same restaurants or bars we’ve been going to for a decade and I will still find the same bar manager behind the bar or the same guy carving a shwarma stand on a certain corner and he’s been doing that for 30 years.

    Tariq – Lebanon is very similar to Syria in so many many ways – and also different. But every time I travelled between the two countries I would always notice more similarities than differences.

    1. Tariq

      Hey Lara

      You are most likely right about the similarities between syria and lebanon, since you visited both countries. My comment was based on Earl’s previous articles about Syria and his experiences compared with his experience in Beirut.

      Peace 🙂

  18. lara dunston

    Love the post, Earl! I think you’ve captured the very identity of Beirut that you’re finding so hard to come to terms with. It *is* a complex city, a multi-cultural/-ethnic/-religious/-political city, and that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating – for me, anyway. My husband and I have been travelling there frequently from our base in Dubai since 1998 (we wrote the two editions of the LP Syria and Lebanon guide and countless stories on the place) so we know it intimately. It continues to confound us at times but that’s what we love about it.

    For me, Beirut’s identity is as strong and clear as that of Mexico City or any other city. Mexico City is an interesting comparison because the two cities have strong links. You’ll meet many Beiruitis who have family in DF and vice versa. Mexico City’s quintessential street food – Taco al Pastor – came from Lebanon, brought there by immigrants – it’s the shwarma. Like Mexico City, Beirut *is* a crazy and chaotic city and the fact you saw what you did in 10 mins makes it so and that’s what makes it so appealing to many.

    There are extremes of wealth in Beirut, but they are nowhere near as extreme as Mexico City for instance, or cities like Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. It may look like there is a tremendous divide but the reality is very different. Many Beiruitis like to look well-off, even when they’re not, and they do take care of each other. They are extremely generous and hospitable people.

    I have to correct you on one thing though – Beirut isn’t trying to be the next Dubai. One thing that has always set a certain kind of Beiruiti (and not all of course) apart from other Arabs in the region is their passion for the flashy, and that’s why so many go to cities like Dubai to work. Their earnings there allows them to invest money back home. The Gulf Arabs have also invested lots of money in Lebanon and in many other parts of the Middle East – and if it wasn’t for their investments, the economies wouldn’t be as healthy as they are. They’ve taken risks in terms of investment in places that other investors wouldn’t.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling so confused and intrigued about a place at all. That kind of curiosity is what sets travellers apart from those who prefer to stay still in one place. And the fact that a place fascinates you so much probably means you will return, as we have so many times, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Some places, many places, warrant returning, and I always think it’s a shame that some people travel with this “once in a lifetime” attitude and never intend to go back to places they love. I don’t think you’ve failed at all. I think you’ve really done well to get beneath the skin of the place in fact. My only advice would be next time, try to befriend more locals, because it’s through the people that you’ll really understand the city.

    P.S. I heard about the gunfire you saw the other day at Al-Rashidiyeh, the Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre – that was actually two families settling an old score and that’s rare these days to be honest.

    1. Earl

      Hey Lara – No need to apologize! That was a novel well-worth reading 🙂 Seriously, thank you for sharing your unique insight about this country. It has taken me quite a while to digest it all and re-arrange my thoughts somewhat. The comparison to Mexico City, a place I have somewhat recently visited as well, is quite interesting and something I never really thought of. But now that you mention it, I do see the similarities.

      As for the wealth divide, I did learn that a lot of it was people trying to give the image that they were wealthy and I also learned that many of these people were spending their entire monthly salaries just to keep up this appearance. And I did put some effort into befriending as many Lebanese as possible and most of the information I learned came from my conversations with people from all classes, ethnicities and religions. Although I must say that I found it a little more difficult to create bonds with the Lebanese than I did in Syria, where walking up to almost anyone leads to an instant conversation and offer of tea.

      Of course, that’s exactly why I want to return to Lebanon. I am definitely aware that the longer I stay or the more I visit, the deeper I can explore and much of what I was unable to see during my quick trip will suddenly become clearer.

      And I’d be curious (sorry to answer your comment with another long one!) what your initial impressions were the first time you visited Lebanon?

      Thank you again for adding so much to this conversation. This was the kind of extra insight I was truly hoping to learn!

  19. Corinne @ Gourmantic

    Earl, your sentiments are justified and your impressions of this once great city are a reflection of its daily struggle.

    I started drafting a detailed reply and it ended up too long for a comment. Better if I write a post about it once I finish posting my current 4-part series. Naturally, I’ll reference your post and address some key points in the hope that it will give you further insights 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Corinne – I definitely look forward to reading your post on Beirut as I’m certain I will learn something new! But for now, I am also quite content reading your posts about Paris. I think we can agree that it is much easier to feel and experience the wonderful ‘vibe’ of Paris 🙂

  20. Dan

    I really enjoyed reading this one Earl, I like that you are hanging your impressions out there I think they are really valuable and interesting even if you don’t have a final word on the place yet.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Dan! I’m not sure I’ll ever have a final word on Lebanon. Actually, I’m not quite sure it’s even possible for a traveler to have a final word on anywhere we visit given that we are merely short-term visitors (most of the time) to a particular place. But I like to at least write down my thoughts and see if there’s any sense to be made at all…which clearly there wasn’t this time around 🙂

  21. Natalie

    Hey Earl, You have actually made it sound like an interesting place to visit. It seems that it is struggling to give itself an identity. Perhaps this is just something time has to take care of. Maybe in 10 years it will be completely different.

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – With the rate at which Beirut appears to be changing, I can’t even begin to imagine what it will be like in 2 years, never mind 10 years! And despite my confusion, this city was by far one of the most interesting places I have ever visited…perhaps you’ll add it to your list as well 🙂

  22. Kyle

    I think it is a good lesson to learn and one that I’ve definitely picked up along the way: understanding is sometimes not possible. Just accept that sometimes you don’t “get it” and try to enjoy what you can. It looks like you’ve come to that solution, so hopefully you can enjoy the rest of your time there!

    1. Earl

      Hey Kyle – That’s a great way to put it…’understanding is sometimes not possible.’ I think it had been a while since I came upon a place where I was able to understand so little and so at first it was a bit tough admitting that I didn’t get it. But not now…I can honestly say I absolutely didn’t ‘get it’!

  23. Joya

    Hi Earl, I’m so glad you wrote this post even though it was hard to write. I think that you being able to get your thoughts out into the open does Beirut justice. I am Lebanese and went for the first time when I was a teenager. I am way over due for a second trip especially now that I am in my twenties. I want to see my family but also see Beirut through more mature eyes so while I do not have fresh insight just know that Lebanese people are extremely proud of their country even though it has its troubles. This dichotomy of good and bad, rich and poor etc. is nothing new but Lebanese people still know how to enjoy their country, its beauty and their families and I would hope any visitors can see that through the murkiness and enjoy themselves as well.

    1. Earl

      Hey Joya! Thank you for commenting and it’s wonderful to have a Lebanese perspective thrown in here. I did notice that the Lebanese were quite proud of their country as a whole, as evident by the amount of flags being flown everywhere! And I definitely want to make clear that I absolutely enjoyed my visit (despite it being so exhausting) and Lebanon is one of those places that I know I will return to.

      I would really be curious to hear your thoughts if you do make it back for another visit soon. As I said in the post, everyone will have a completely different impression of the country, and with your Lebanese background, I have no doubt that you will offer some insight that most travelers simply won’t be able to discover.

      1. Joya

        I think you captured the confusion of Beirut perfectly and I hope to go not next summer but hopefully the summer after and I will definitely share my experiences for others but also what it is like to see it through more grown up eyes.

  24. Ozzy

    I think you should you just accept Beirut for what it is and stop trying to understand or feel the “vibe”. You should just accept the chaos, flow it, and enjoy it for what it is. Long ago I learned that if I don’t try to understand all of the places you are and the people you are around and just jump in the water and enjoy the flow of things they become much more exciting and always opens the mind to new and fascinating things. Beirut sounds like an interesting place and there must be something there if you haven’t left yet. Thus just let go and see what happens. Have a good one Earl.

    Ozzy

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – Great comment, I like what you said there. I agree completely that it is best to just jump into the flow, but I think Beirut was the first place I’ve been to where it was very difficult to get into the flow because I’m not sure if one exists! It’s extremely hard to explain but I found Beirut to be the kind of place where a traveler really has to put in a great effort if they want to discover more than just the handful of nice cafes scattered around the city. I met many travelers who only stayed for a day or two because they had no idea how to begin exploring this city!

    1. Earl

      Thanks Andi! It would have been nice exploring and getting confused in Beirut with another traveler! You’ll hopefully get to Beirut soon. It would be interesting to read your impressions of this place as well as everyone of course will have a different take on it.

  25. ayngelina

    Wow I’m exhausted just reading this post. You know the more I travel the less I understand, but I think it’s because I now grasp that spending one day in a city doesn’t tell us “This is….!” and it’s so much more complicated.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ayngelina – I like what you said about ‘the more you travel the less you understand’. It also seems that the more we travel, the wider our eyes open and we end up digesting as much as possible. And this education is a major benefit of travel although it certainly does lead to more questions and confusion as well!

  26. Tariq

    Hey Earl

    Good article with great description of Beirut, its cultures and diversity. Its also good to know that you have actually figured out what they lack based on what you saw in a short amount of time, Human connections and interactions. I believe this is the most important aspect a nation should adopt first to create peace before getting into competition to become richest city or country. This is something money can’t buy. These ignorant people not just in Beirut but other places substitute this peace with materials (cars, gadgets, fashion stuff). I heard once upon a time Beirut was one of the richest city but GOD punished them because of their evil deeds (a Muslim source, not sure how true it is).

    Clearly this place is completely different than syria. 🙂
    Anyways, your articles are always enjoyable to read and you put lots of descriptions which actually makes me feel like I am already there. 🙂

    Good luck with rest of your journey

    1. Earl

      Hey Tariq – I appreciate the comment and I do agree that it is unfortunate when material possessions become more important than human connections. Unfortunately it’s happening all over the world but hopefully we’ll eventually realize what we’re missing out on!

      1. Mohamad

        I’m the latest person to comment and probably the youngest at 15 but you ‘ve answered everyone so far so I’m gonna tell you. I’m Lebanese but was one of those 12 million living abroad (USA) but I’ve been living here 2 years now and I think: you r very right about Lebanon being the most complex city ever and Lebanese waiters are always very cold with customers. Also, let me tell you, you may not find compassion with these locals becuz in Lebanon, everyone is always worried about himself. Also, Lebanon is also very hard to live in financially, schools pretty much rob you of your money and shops may give you bottles of water in like $20. Lebanese LOVE money!!! P.S. I’m glad you survived the trip without being shot in the head. However, despite all this, as you’ve said there are plenty of good areas(somehow mixed with poor places) and Lebanese are very loyal and love their country alot!

        1. Earl

          Thank you for commenting Mohamad. As you’ve clearly pointed out as well, Lebanon is a complex country. And as a result, I think I need to spend a lot more time there to try and gain a better understanding of the culture! Trying to understand Lebanon in 2 weeks is impossible 🙂

  27. Gillian

    I can see why you’re confused! But it sounds like you’ve put some good effort into trying to figure it out. It sounds like an interesting, challenging place and, as you point out, in a much different way than other places that are known for being challenging. Cheers!

    1. Earl

      Hey Gillian – It was an exhausting experience trying to understand Beirut! Even now that I’ve left I can’t stop thinking about the place and everything that I saw there. I’m willing to guess that most visitors to Beirut need some time to decompress once they leave 🙂

  28. Audrey

    Beirut is one of those cities that has always fascinated me and your description of how confusing and contradictory and crazy makes me even more interested in going. The ethnic diversity sounds especially interesting. I remember visiting my father in Abidjan when I was in college and was several times mistaken for Lebanese (they were the merchants there). I couldn’t believe it, but other Lebanese told me that there are light haired-skinned women like me in Lebanon.

    I do have to admit that I didn’t realize the divide between rich and poor is as prominent as it is. Do you know if the divide is getting bigger or smaller?

    Safe travels and enjoy!

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – I could see how you would be mistaken for Lebanese as it was almost impossible sometimes to determine who was Lebanese or who was from elsewhere. By the end of my stay, I realized that almost anyone looks Lebanese as there simply is no distinct look!

      As for the divide in wealth, from what I learned, it is unfortunately getting worse as such factors as low wages and expensive education make it extremely difficult for anyone who is not from a super-wealthy family to keep up. Basically, for those who don’t have money now, there are few ways to climb up the ladder and Lebanon is becoming more and more expensive all the time, so more and more people are left behind. And that’s at least part of the reason why so many people are applying for visas to live in a foreign country as most of the non-wealthy I spoke with had quite a bleak outlook on life in Lebanon.

  29. Adam Daigle

    Hey Earl,

    What’s the general Lebanese sentiment towards Americans? Do you feel threatened or unsafe? The reason I ask, is because the US Department of State recently issued the following travel advisory:

    “The US Department of State continues to urge U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns. U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks.”

    Over-hyping danger, or legitimate concern from what you can tell?

    -Adam

    1. Earl

      Hey Adam – I did see that warning as well before going (actually, my mom sent it to me!) but I’m not quite sure the reasoning behind it. I never once felt threatened or unsafe and in fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Americans living, working and studying in Beirut. The anti-American feeling I detected usually came in the form of sarcastic comments about the US government or comments about not wanting Lebanon to be friends with the US. There were also the speeches on the Hezbollah channel that I was told were often anti-American but as for the treatment of American people, I never had any problems.

      The warning is a baffling one. And even outside of Beirut, I never felt unsafe at all.

  30. Christine

    Unfortunately, I do not have the insight on Beirut that you may be looking for, but I was really intrigued by your post. I admire you for not writing off the city. It seems like you have an investigative journalist inside of you that is wanting to solve the mystery of this city, or at least better understand it before you move on to your next destination. It sounds to me like you’ve figured it out though. Beirut’s vibe is the disorder, the pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit together.

    1. Earl

      Hey Christine – You are right, the vibe was the enigmatic environment itself. And I find it very hard to leave a place without gaining at least a basic understanding of what I’m seeing, but in the case of Beirut, I think I will slowly put the pieces together now that I have left. There was just too much to digest!

      Thank you for the comment!

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