Beirut- A Nostalgic First Journey

Beirut
When I was about 6 years old, my father gave me an unusual present- a souvenir coin from one of his many travels. This was no ordinary coin. It was large with approximately a three-inch diameter; heavy to hold; and carved with a beautiful design. He had picked it up in Lebanon, somewhere between 1961 and 1963, when he was a student at the American University of Beirut. This coin became the totem that connected me to an unknown world- a world I was curious to explore.

I realised that Beirut held a very special place in my father’s heart. Perhaps, it’s the city where he discovered himself and enjoyed his independence; or perhaps, the beauty of this ‘Paris of the Middle East’ captivated his imagination. Maybe it was something else altogether- but one thing is for sure, the fondness he has for Beirut has not diminished in the 50 odd years that he has been parted from her.

Given this background, it’s not surprising that I’ve longed to see this wondrous city. So, when on my 35th birthday my husband suggested a trip, I could not have been more thrilled. Off we went, with a toddler in tow, to experience Beirut.

Brief history
Lebanon went through a destructive civil war from 1975 to 1990 and one can still see remnants of that in dilapidated buildings sprawled along congested streets; in statues and sculptures pocked with bullet holes and in the army presence throughout the city of Beirut. Though the war has ended, Lebanon still remains a hotbed of political activity and internal conflict.

The rich and turbulent history of Lebanon is palpable in Beirut. From the streets of Gemmayze to the glistening Zaytouna Bay, the rawness remains. Narrow streets and secretive corners, all whisper stories of ages gone by. Beirut is alive and breathing, frenetic and crazy, calm and lazy, all at the same time.

Popular sights
We stayed in a lovely boutique hotel called Saifi Suites, which is situated in the heart of downtown Beirut. A few minutes’ walk from there stands the beautiful and grand Mohammad al-Amin mosque. Rafic Hariri, the man credited with rebuilding Lebanon aMohammed Al Amin mosquefter the end of the civil war and who was later assassinated, is buried near here.

The outside wall of the mosque is covered with posters of Hariri’s face. Army tanks guard both the mosque and the St George Maronite Cathedral that stand shoulder to shoulder. When the muezzin gives his call to prayer, the church bells don’t ring, and when worship is underway at the church, the mosque remains silent. Such is the mutual respect.

Statues at the Martyr's Square

 

 

 

Situated a few hundred feet from the mosque is the famous Martyrs’ Square, which was built to commemorate those executed during the Ottoman rule. The heroic sculptures placed in the square, are covered in bullet holes and stand as reminders of a dark chapter in Lebanon’s story.

 

Amidst all the chaos stands the well-renowned and grandiose American UnivView from AUBersity of Beirut, boasting its magnificent views of the Mediterranean, and its lush landscapes. As one walks through the corridors and along the pathways, one can feel the 150-year history of the institute. I could imagine a young version of my father sprawled across the grass, writing away in his journal, while lazily gazing out at the sea. It was surreal.

Food etc
Beirut is a mix of European and Arab cultures and sensibilities. The cobbled streets lined with cafes, restaurants and boutiques, along with the chic fashion on the streets, are unmistakably French; the architecture is a patchwork of colonial, modern, Ottoman and Roman. The food is Mediterranean with the best of Middle Eastern influences, or perhaps, the other way around.
Our first meal of falafel and batata hara was at Kahwet Leila (café Leila)- a quirky eatery with music videos from a bygone era playing on the black and white television. Old, knobby radios and an ancient gramophone were displayed on wooden shelves, while posters of Lebanese musicians and actors were hung on walls.

Our most memorable dining experience Cafe Leilahad to be the home cooked meal served to us by our friends and lovely hosts in Beirut. Molokhia, which is mallow leaves stewed in broth, Mujjadara, which are lentils cooked with a unique blend of spices, and of course the lovely, fresh salads with yogurt and flat bread. Finger licking good!

Surrounding areas
The beauty of traveling around Beirut is that you can take day trips to nearby localities and experience both the sea and the mountains all in one day.

Byblos is known as the first Phoenician city and is situated approximately 45km outside Beirut. This port city is also known by its Arabic name, Jubayl. It dates back to almost 5000 BC and to this day, archaeologists are discovering new remnants of past civilisations in layers of debris.

ByblosThe intense sun made it difficult for us to walk with a toddler, so we opted for a short stroll in the gardens of the Byblos castle and a buggy ride along the castle walls. We capped the afternoon with a delicious meal of fresh seafood and Lebanese salads at the historic Café Pepe, which stands right by the port along the Mediterranean. The view is breath taking and refreshing.

Another place to explore is Faraya, which is a village in the mountains, about an hour’s drive from Beirut. It is popular among skiing enthusiasts, who come in throngs during the winter months. We went in the peak of summer, so missed the snow, but were able to soak in the sun and take in the view from the lovely Montagnue restaurant, a popular spot among Lebanese expats.

The drive back to Beirut through the mountains is quite awe inspiring. One can’t help but get overwhelmed with the vastness of the city cradled between mountain and sea.

The highlight of the trip had to be our visit to the Jeita caves. My father had mentioned these to me, but I was slightly dismissive about the suggestion, thinking it to be just another overdone tourist attraction. No description or photograph can prepare you for the sheer grandeur, vastness and timelessness of these caves. I felt humbled and insignificant. The caves hold thousands of stalactites and stalagmites of varying sizes, most predating Jesus Christ by several thousand years. To see the fruits of nature’s silent labour from the inception of time left me speechless.

The first thing I did when I returned home to Dubai was to call my father and share all my observations and stories with him. I felt that my father and I truly bonded over our time in Beirut, even though we experienced it decades apart.