“Sure Aiden, Beirut is totally safe! But seriously, if you do hear gunfire then get down”.
Jinay, my guide to Beirut for the evening, is offering some sound advice about the correct way to behave whenever an assault rifle is being discharged in the locality. I scribble furiously into my notepad, “Gunfire = duck”.
“Thanks for the head’s up Jinay, I’d be totally lost without your invaluable local insight!”.
I met Jinay an hour earlier in a rooftop bar overlooking the Gemayeze area of Beirut. Positioned atop a hotel and hidden inside an alley, it’s an incredibly easy spot to miss which would be a real shame as the panorama from the terrace is sublime. Thanks to Jinay’s guidance, we are enjoying a Mediterranean evening and whilst the spring night has now cooled, as a veteran of 30+ English winters, I don’t yet feel the need for my jacket. Over a couple of Almaza beers, Jinay and I have thus far discussed travel, religion, geo-sociol politics and even the regional bogeyman that is Israel, all with a refreshing openness and understanding that is almost unprecedented in people who met only 2 beers earlier. Our fast friendship and synergy is quite remarkable and this is partially because myself and Jinay were introduced through Joey Travel; a new service offering to help travellers find local friends & kindred spirits all over the world.
Joey’s approaching me had been something of a Godsend as beforehand I was struggling to find out any information about Lebanon…
Off The Radar
When I first sought advice about exploring Lebanon all I got was (1) to get insurance, (2) make my last will and testament and (3) tell my family I loved them. In short, the only advice out there was that Lebanon was too dangerous to visit.
So why is this?
The country has an unfair reputation for danger owing to a bloody civil war which lasted from 1975 – 1990 and, despite 25 years of stability, has not shaken this image off. The consequent lack of visitors means that tourism infrastructure is basic and practical information about visiting the country is very scarce. Even the trusty traveller’s bible that is the Lonely Planet is nearly a decade out of date and because of this, I knew that I was going to need some help in getting the most out of Lebanon. So I logged on and reached out and thanks to Joey, Couchsurfing and dumb luck, made myself some local Lebanese friends who would serve as guides.
Early to bed
I retired to bed early as the next evening I was due to meet Aisha, another Joey local (it seems that I had beautiful women queuing up to take me out in Beirut…). Myself and Aisha had initially planned to find a local music event to offer me an insight into Lebanese culture. However, I had come down with a cold and so fancied something a bit lower key. Thanks to an extensive knowledge of the locality, Aisha quickly found us an awesome place to eat some hearty, warming, (but not so traditional Lebanese) food which did wonders for my cold. The restaurant she chose was pretty damn awesome, the upstairs area was fashioned into a mellow, cosy café and the downstairs set up as a creative hangout space with book shelves, guitars and even a projector showing free films. Frankly it was unlike any other space I have ever found, I was thrilled to have found this place and I doubt I would ever have managed to do so on my own. After dinner Aisha took me on a brief walking tour of the neighbourhood the highlights of which where the cat on the ledge, the dog sleeping in a doorway and the shoes tossed over the telephone cable (all legitimate landmarks in Beirut!).
My last night in Beirut was spent tasting delicious (and I mean truly fucking delicious) Lebanese food before dancing around tables to Arabic music with Jinay and her friends at a cool place in the Hamra neighbourhood. A conversation I got into with a stranger at the bar summarised my whole thing pretty well.
“Wow, you’ve been in Beirut only 3 days and already you have friends?!”
Into The Red
The last time I saw Jinay was when she (very kindly) drove me from Beirut to the pretty and ancient coastal town of Byblos. In Byblos I randomly met yet another local who showed me around for the evening before I decided it was time to head further afield and get away from the Beirut bubble. After a nights rest, I decided it was time to head to Lebanon’s 2nd city of Tripoli – against the advice of my government.
Before flying to Lebanon I had put a general request on Couchsurfing asking for hosts or travel buddies and had been overwhelmed by the response. These days I rarely use Couchsurfing as the platform has become a victim of its own success and is now filled with users who never respond to requests or even worse, users who seem to see it as a hook-up site (earning it the delightful nickname of “Cocksurfing”). In Lebanon though, I was inundated with curious locals itching to help me out and show me their beautiful and misunderstood country. One of these offers came from Dany from Tripoli. Tripoli was not originally even on my itinerary but Dany’s impassioned invitation, and promise of a unique tour, proved just too much to resist.
Tripoli is 80km north of Beirut and shares its gorgeous Mediterranean coastline. The city was largely spared the horrors of the civil war but recent years have seen secular fighting erupt between the cities Sunni and Shiite populations and this is the reason why Tripoli is currently designated as part of the “Red Zone”; the area of Lebanon deemed by western governments as unsafe for tourists. This is driving Dany absolutely crazy.
I disembarked from the bus with no real idea of where I was going or what I was doing. Immediately, Tripoli felt tangibly different to Beirut. It was visibly poorer and more conservatively Muslim. I noted that in Tripoli, the urban dilapidation was not a mere relic of a decade since civil war, but was clearly much fresher. Most tellingly of all, the bullet holes were almost still smouldering. I don’t mind admitting that initially, I felt a little uneasy.
When wandering around the old souk of Tripoli, it was clear that the locals just didn’t quite know what to make of a white man carrying a 55kg backpack and I sensed a few sideways glances. Most of the locals seemed kind shy but a few offered a warm “Welcome!” and my unease soon passed. The souk was an absolute treat for the senses, gold glimmered from behind glass windows, fresh fish chilled on ice and aromatic spices of every kind filled the air. The narrow alleys bustled with shoppers and the cry of commerce reverberated of ancient, stone walls.
I called Dany and after 30 or so minutes, he met me at the Grand Mosque. He helped me with my heavy bags and thus began our tour of Tripoli.
From Souk’s to Soap to Spheres
We made our way out of the Souk climbing steadily up winding, stone staircases through the old city. We passed children playing in the street and old men lazily smoking hookahs. All of them seemed quite bemused yet pleased to see a foreigner wandering their ancient streets. It also seemed that Dany knew absolutely everybody we passed and he stopped to shake hands and introduce me to somebody new at every turn. As we climbed towards the ancient crusader castle that towers above the old city, we passed army checkpoints with uniformed soldiers manning machine guns perched behind sandbags and children playing marbles in the streets. The soldiers enquired where I was from and then offered a warm “Welcome!” before returning to their watch. The view from the ramparts over the cities’ slums was absolutely epic even if I did get a bit of vertigo from looking down at the sheet drop. As I stood taking it all in, the afternoon call to prayer began. The sound from the minarets soon rose into a cacophony as more and more mosques across the city chimed in. It sent goose-bumps all over my body; an utterly perfect moment.
After the castle we headed back into the old city where Dany showed me a traditional soap shop, the oldest Turkish bath in Triopli and we sampled fruits and juice from local vendors who lined the streets.
After concluding our tour of the old town we jumped into Dany’s car and headed for the derelict train station which had been abruptly abandoned during the civil war. The bullet ridden locomotives are now rusted and foliage grows inside them. After the train station we picked up lunch at Tripoli’s best falafel shop; I tried to pay for us both as a token of my gratitude towards Dany but he would not allow it instead insisting that he paid.
Before we could actually eat the lunch though, we had another stop to make and Dany took me to the Rachid Karame Fairground, a post-modern conceptual park designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The complex was however, never quite finished as Niemeyer had to abandon his work when the civil war broke out. The centre piece of the complex is a modern dome structure cleverly designed as an infinite echo chamber. We entered inside and played with the echoes creating symphonies out of hand claps. Afterwards, we ran up the spherical surface of building (a marvel of its design) and sat on the peak of its dome eating falafel enjoying an epic view of the city.
Tragically, the whole complex, the unfinished masterpiece, is tragically falling into disrepair owing to either plain inertia or active corruption by the local government.
Back to Beirut
After 10 days exploring Lebanon, I arrived back in Beirut and had a few days left before my flight to Turkey. I checked into the awesome Grand Meshmosh hostel where I treated myself to orange cake, strong coffee and then an hours nap.
When I awoke, the proprietor Michel was preparing to take a few guests on a little walking tour. I had no idea where the tour was going, but in the spirit of letting locals show me around I decided to just join it anyway.
Michel initially took us in the Sursock area and pointed out the lavish mansion houses built first by the Ottoman’s and latterly the French. We saw modern monstrosities situated next to elegant beauty, a testament to the Beirut’s lackadaisical approach to city planning. As the tour progressed Michel showed us the “Green line”, the boundary which had separated West and East Beirut during the civil war where many civilians had died by sniper fire trying to cross in order to get to work or school. The bullet holes and mortar wounds still showed, deliberately left as a stark reminder.
We also visited the most famous Sahyoun falafel shop(s) in Beirut. Urban legend dictates that Sahyoun had once been the undisputed best falafel store in all of Beirut. One day however, the 2 brothers who ran the joint had fallen out and so one of them left the enterprise and decided to open up his own store next door using the exact same recipe. I won’t say which of the 2 brothers we dined with, but the Falafel was without a doubt amongst the best I have ever had.
Michel’s tour took us well of the beaten track and ever deeper into the “real” Beirut. He showed us traditional Arabic suit-makers & the last, “male-only” shisha joint. As the tour continued we delved further away from the affluent Christian neighbourhoods into much poorer and predominantly Muslim areas. The state of the houses became more and more dilapidated and the dress more conservative. Hezbollah flags hung from windows and battered walls were plastered with images of “martyrs”. As we passed through the crowded, open air market the general vibe became both livelier and tenser and my female companions began to feel uncomfortable despite Michel’s best efforts to reassure them that they were perfectly safe and had nothing to fear.
Michel informed us that our tour was about to reach its climax.
“We are now going into a Palestinian refugee camp. Please do not take any pictures”.
We entered Shatila refugee camp, a labyrinth of high rise breezeblock structures, electric wires sprawling chaotically and water pipes spewing into streets. Children in tattered clothing played in the dirt and generations of men crowded into one room sat around old television sets. The residents were clearly surprised to see 4 white faces in their neighbourhood yet they seemed very friendly and courteous.
I deeply regretted that we had been asked not to take photographs as the spectacle, whilst terrible, was something I longed to be able to share with the world. Yet I respected Michel’s wishes, brandishing my iPhone in front of people who have nothing would not just have been appropriate.
“These people have nothing. They don’t belong to Lebanon so they cannot work. They have nothing except the hope of returning to homeland which none of them even know”.
Once again we noticed Hezbollah flags, black flags of Islam and even a huge poster of Syrian president Bashir Al-Assad.
“You will find extremism of every kind in here. But also many good people”.
As he said this I looked to my left and noticed a youth. He looked thin and hungry, crudely dressed in tracksuit bottom pants and wearing only croc shoes as he stood in the mud. In his arms though, he was carrying an AK-47. Apparently he was security for the camp government, the camp drug dealers or all in all probability, both.
Dome and Then Home
As we exited the camp, we noticed the road out of Shatila was blocked by Lebanese army tanks regulating the flow of people.
“The army don’t go in the camps but they keep guard outside”.
As I looked back, I saw a huge painted mural of Jerusalem’s Dome of The Rock. It was a pretty poor likeness but then again, the artist had ever even seen it.
We headed back to our hostel stopping for Lebanese ice-cream and Sahlab, a thick, rich & sweet milk drink. We sat reflecting on all we had seen that day. I felt shaken and yet elated. Visiting the camp had been one of the most powerful experiences during all of my travels. I thanked Michel for taking me and for showing us a side of Beirut I would never have seen without his local expertise.
We made our way out into the streets and into one of the rickety, rusted vans that pass for public transportation in Beirut. My time exploring Lebanon was drawing to a close and it was time to get ready for Istanbul.