Nights 1 & 2, Dark Beirut

FYI I wanted to add a picture to make the post look prettier, but I can’t because I’m over the media space the free WordPress version offers hehe. 

Dark Beirut! In more than one way 😛

Enthusiastic hugs and jumps with Elisa as we meet; a Mandela tea, a Torron de Jijona (hurrah for random snacktimes), and a few preliminary chats; and on the street we go!!

Again I feel that I learnt A TON, in very different fields, on both of these first two evenings. Let’s imagine I’m being interviewed here to show off my newly acquired knowledge 😉

So Irene, tell us. What’s the best falafel place in Beirut?
Ah, well. Sahyoun for sure. It’s just amazing, really quick service and incredibly delicious food. Of course, you’ll have to choose which of the two brothers to pick! The falafel sandwiches are equally yummy. Too bad they fought over who’d inherit the business!! (Type up “Sahyoun falafel Beirut” and you’ll see in the top TripAdvisor comments what I’m talking about!!).

Wonderful. Any advice for ice cream?
Absolutely. Very close to Sahyoun, on the same street, you can find Bachir – the real Lebanese ice cream experience. If I could post photos here I would, because I have excellent proof of my ice cream moment there; maybe you can find it at this link, among my other photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/cg5hoVKPSaPnCqXv7

Lovely, thank you! Now, I see among your pictures one of a pretty strange building, that looks old and new at the same time?!
Yes. That is the building that historically marked the divide between East and West Beirut. It was half detroyed during the Civil War, and now it serves as a place for art exhibitions and events thanks to the renovation works which preserved its appearance and original material, while making it safe again (the grey parts).

Cool! Now, could you tell us a bit more in general what you found interesting on your first walk in Beirut?
Well, there were plenty of things. I really need to thank my friend Elisa for her invaluable comments on what we passed along the way, based also on her experience living in the city for three months in 2012 (if I’m not wrong). She really connected the dots for me between the architecture and its socio-historical background. For instance, she told me about a bare area where poor Syrian men usually stand in the mornings waiting for someone to take them on for daily jobs; she explained to me that the cement building that sort of looks like a burnt mushroom used to be Beirut’s magnificent opera house and is now central to a controversy regarding what’s best – destroying it and building a completely new opera house, or somehow maintaining its sad remains and including them in a new project; she had me notice the close proximity of churches and mosques here and there, and the competition between their minarets and belltowers…

Was there any particularly dark story? You titled this post “Dark Beirut” for a reason, I suppose!
You’re right. I am afraid I have already forgotten the details, but once we got to a really beautiful giant mosque Elisa also told me about the mausoleum that was made and then re-made more stylishly for the body of ex-Prime Minister Hariri (senior) who was assassinated. The resulting square is super modern and pretty, I must say. And what’s most amazing is that it overlooks some impressive Roman ruins that I believe were only discovered while working on the new mausoleum itself! It is also surrounded by many churches and mosques. Now, I remember there was a lot more regarding PM Hariri senior and the whole family, but you know what it’s like when you get lots of info all at once 🙂 I’ll go read his Wikipedia page or something sometime soon — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafic_Hariri

Okay, and that’s all on the dark side?
No. On my second evening Elisa took me and two other friends to see “Capharnaum”, a masterpiece by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8267604/) which portrays quite a lot of sad truths regarding the side of Beirut/Lebanon that is not ‘trendy’ at all, so to speak. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, I honestly consider it a must-see now and am incredibly glad i watched it. I also really appreciate that the children who are protagonists to the story are real street children. And that’s not it: it was also sad -though in a very different way, and fascinating at the same time- to learn about the story of one of the roads that leads to the Clocktower Square, which is or was supposed to be the beating heart of Beirut and is instead a ghost street surveilled by soldiers. Again I don’t feel I can actually re-tell the story (there is that gap between having heard something and being able to report it to others correctly, you know) but I found what seems to me like a great article that describes in detail this and other significant notes regarding downtown Beirut: http://www.beirutreport.com/2014/01/erasing-memory-in-downtown-beirut.html
The article is from 2014 and still pretty relevant I’d say! NB I’ve only just discovered this platform http://www.beirutreport.com/ and really want to read more of what they write, now!!!!!

Wow, so many different stories indeed. Anything else?
The last big topic we covered during my first evening was the Solidere construction plans and the St George Hotel in Zeytouna Bay / Yacht Club which stands alone against them. By the way, the walk alongside the Corniche and the Bay was very nice, I enjoyed it a lot and particularly liked seeing so many people spending their Saturday night fishing or having tea with their family on little chairs they brought from home to be close to the water 🙂 But yeah, as per the St George Hotel a quick research on the net gives a wealth of sources of information from different points of view, like
http://saintgeorgebeirut.com/media-coverage/
http://www.discoverlebanon.com/en/panoramic_views/beirut/hotel_saint_georges.php
http://salah.lababidi.org/politics/stop-solidere-battle-hariris-solidere-el-khourys-saint-george-hotel/

I recommend reading about it because I think it’s a story that tells a lot about many things. There is also a video playing on a display just outside the Hotel itself. Elisa was telling me the swimming pool is the only part now still in use, as well as the déhor, during summertime – even for prestigious events, weddings etc. I wonder what level of awareness of the whole story the guests have.

Anything else you’d like to add, as a general note regarding the vibe you got from the city?
I keep being extremely surprised by the variety and the contrasts that are apparent within even just metres of distance, in any given Beirut neighbourhood I’ve been so far. It isn’t just about the churches and mosques but also about the old, the new, and the new that wants to look old; about the “Dubai” feel that you get from some angles and the many buildings that still carry the signs of the Civil War; the wonderful street art, the hip shops, the vegan restaurants, the abandoned garbage, the rich teens and the humble families, the fresh Mediterranean Sea air… I am confused and keep finding both similarities and differences with Italy, Jordan, Palestine, Israel… It’s charming and I can’t wait to learn more and more!

I see. Last question for now- you mentioned the falafel and ice cream shops. Any more recommendations to make, so far?
On my second evening we had an excellent and exaggeratedly abundant dinner at Dar El-Gemmayzeh restaurant: we particularly enjoyed the fun descriptions of the dishes hehehe, and the cool atmosphere. We had Rocca & crispy eggplant salad with pomegranates, chanklish, the Armenian itch, deep-fried cauliflowers, foul muhammas, muhammara, and as drinks a mint lemonade and a pomegranate guide. Very nice. Before that, I was very happy to visit the Plan Bey -http://www.plan-bey.com/- shop, super creative and inspirational. Elisa was so kind to gift me a beautiful Beirut poster I’ll very happily hang in my Italian home!!

That is fantastic to hear. Merci Irene, it was great to have you on our show!
Oh, the pleasure is mine 🙂

 

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