Beirut: Heart of gloss

Spectrum magazine, Scotland on Sunday, 27 February, 2011

Once a war zone where guns ruled the streets, Beirut has been transformed into a high glam destination with chic hotels andexclusive bars, while the laid back atmosphere is still tempered by just a hint of danger. By Kenny Farquharson

Achauffeured four-by-four with tinted windows pulls up at the kerb a few feet ahead of me and out steps a glossy couple dressed entirely in black and bling. They walk up the steps of a French-colonial mansion and ring the bell. The door opens immediately and an elegant young Asian woman in a black cocktail dress welcomes them with a smile and ushers them in. Behind her, past a heavy velvet drape, is the unmistakable tinkle of glasses and conversation, with a lounge lizard soundtrack. The door closes.

Curiosity gets the better of me. I walk up the steps, press the button and try to look like someone who comes here all the time, wherever here may be. The Asian woman opens the door and regards me with a slightly quizzical tilt of the head. I muster my biggest smile, wish her a good evening and walk in.

Inside it is like a training camp for the gorgeous-people Olympics. The dimly-lit lounge is furnished in black and gold, filled with people and money. The handbags have pricetag logos and the clothes — uniformly black — have the cut and lustre only serious cash can buy. The Ashrafieh district of Lebanon’s capital is full of high-end bars, restaurants and members’ clubs, but this is the most opulent I’ve seen. I take a stool at the bar and try to look inconspicuous in my H&M suit.

Like a luxury yacht, the club is both vulgar and classy. East Beirut women are beautiful and glamorous, but in an overwrought way. Stick thin; nails so long they can hardly pick up a cocktail glass; Cleopatra mascara; noses sculpted to perfection. Men are only slightly less primped, all displaying three-day stubble. Lebanon, I’ve been told, has more cosmetic surgery per capita than any other country in the world. I can well believe it.

The two women sitting next to me have five mobile phones between them, set out in a neat row next to their cocktail glasses. A huge man with a Rolex as big as an ashtray and a cigar as thick as his neck joins them, but cannot find a seat. He gives me a look, carelessly shelling pistachios with one huge hand. Self-respect dictates that I take my time to slowly finish my margarita, then pause for a beat, before heading hotfoot for the door.

I go for a wander among Ashrafieh’s excited Saturday night crowds. A green Lamborghini is stopped in traffic. A small boy aged about eight, dressed in shorts and a cartoon T-shirt, starts wiping the windscreen with a squeegee.

His tiny sister, aged no more than three and barefoot in a summer dress, taps on the side window and holds out her hand. The Lamborghini engine roars a warning but the kids don’t budge.

At the bottom of the Rue Monot a Lebanese army truck is blocking the road. There are young soldiers in the back. Some are leaning on their guns, smoking languidly and watching the women drift by on implausible heels. Other soldiers are more nervous, their eyes darting around, rifles gripped, postures alert. I stop a man andask what the soldiers are doing here. “A big general,” he says, with a knowing grin, “he comes here tonight, for drink and for relaxation and for sex.”

It doesn’t need the presence of the army to remind you of Beirut’s troubled past. On the old front line between the Christian east of the city and the Muslim west you still come across bombed-out buildings, the concrete peppered with thousands of bullet holes. The shell of the old Holiday Inn, a favourite haunt of snipers, towers over the city as a high-rise momento mori. Downtown, next to the biggest Sunni mosque, is a marquee covering the grave of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, assassinated in 2005. Many blame the murder on Hezbollah, which last month became a major force in the new Lebanese government.

During my stay I am reading De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage, a novel about the Lebanese civil war that razed much of this city to the ground between 1975 and 1990, leaving up to a quarter of a million dead. The conflict included the murderous rampage by Christian Phalangists through the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, which still sit on the city’s outskirts. As recently as 2006, Israel bombard-ed the poorer Muslim quarters controlled by Hezbollah in the south of the city, leaving large areas in ruins and many dead.

And yet the atmosphere in Beirut is laid-back and civil, with former enemies living, working and socialising cheek by jowl. In the popular Gouraud Street you can find Muslim restaurants where women wearing veils party to live traditional Arab music next door to rowdy DJ bars full of students from the American University getting hammered on cocktails. But beneath the relaxed hedonism and courteous hospitality there is an undercurrent that is hard to pin down. It is not unease or anxiety — it’s more like an alertness, an awareness that at any time some elements outwith Lebanese control could again turn this city into a proxy battleground for the Middle East’s bigger players.

A man in the tiny but very cool Torino Express bar tells me how two friends, both Jews, went on a hiking holiday to southern Lebanon and were welcomed with open arms by the local Muslims, going home with Hezbollah T-shirts. But such adventures are not recommended — the Foreign Office advises tourists to avoid the south of the country, as well as Beirut’s Palestinian camps. And it pays to keep one eye on the news during a visit to keep track of political developments in the region, and to inform the British embassy of your whereabouts.

All of which adds an agreeable edge to the luxurious lifestyle Beirut can offer, with its echoes of 1950s glamour in the beach clubs that once attracted Hollywood film stars and, bringing luxury right up to date, the marvellous Le Gray hotel built by Scottish entrepreneur Gordon Campbell Gray, whose portfolio also includes One Aldwych in London.

Le Gray is both a design statement (cool minimalist decor, infinity pool on the roof, objets d’art everywhere) and a vote of confidence in the future of this city as a topclass tourist destination, despite the uncertainties.

From here it’s a short stroll to Centrale, a contender for my favourite bar in the world, housed in a giant metal cylinder perched on an East Beirut rooftop.

Of course, Beirut is not all glam and there are many pleasures that don’t involve a cocktail shaker. In the dusty boxes of second-hand volumes in Khyat’s Bookshop in Muslim West Beirut, elderly owner Habib, who for some reason has dyed what little hair he has left a bright shade of purple, questions me closely on my literary tastes before saying he has the perfect book for me. To my astonishment, after a long rummage, he comes up with a rare first edition of Do You Love Me? by Scots psychologist RD Laing, a book I have long coveted. I have made a new friend.

I leave Habib’s shop, buy a pitta with humus and wander the leafy, sun-dappled area where in the late 1980s John McCarthy and Brian Keenan spent many months chained to radiators. The day’s news is full of heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. I feel more relaxed than I’ve felt for a long, long time.

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