Saturday, August 06, 2005

Beirut - second impressions

Well, we might have been a bit too hard on Beirut yesterday. Having spent the whole day on our feet wandering around the city, we appreciate much more the city, but still have a problem with its inhabitants. The friendliest people we have come across have been the soldiers, policemen and construction workers and we have passed time chatting to them on the way. However, the normal folk really do seem to be LOUD and egoistic. In Syria, the cars will hoot like toot-toot, here it is a very loud BEEEEEEEEEEP! And then there are the rich bitches... the ones driving around in their SUV's, blonded hair, diamond rimmed sunglasses, on their mobile phones.

Anyway, with the sun shining in a deep blue sky, we set out with no particular itinerary, but found that once we were out of our immediate neighbourhood (hotels, clothes shops, night clubs, internet cafes and hospitals), and crossed what seemed to be the green line, we found ourslves in the middle of a massive redevelopment complex. Churches, shopping precincts, civic buildings, a marina, appartments and mosques, all being renovated, built from scratch or re-developed. Mostly in a very pleasant style, as well, albeit with large gaps between one area and another. Old stone was being used often, it was not all glass and steel by any means.

The area was centered on Nejmeh Square, with intersecting boulevards filled with cafes, very reminiscent of Piazza Navona, far too expensive for us, and filled mainly with Gulf Arabs. Still, it was a great achievement to have provided this public space, with the Parliament building leading off to the south, towards some pretty gardens and the Presidential Palace higher up on the hill. One hopes that the skill and care taken with this area will be followe din the rest of the city. A soldier pointed out to us that most of it had been completely obliterated in the war.

Round the back, we came across a vast empty space which was the Place des Martyrs, the area which became a sea of Lebanese flags when the old Prime Minister Hariri and six colleagues were murdered in February. There was a memorial to the seven dead, with what looked like their coffins, bedecked with white flowers laid out for the public to come and pay their respects. Everywhere (almost) one sees photos of the very popular Mr Hariri, normally wrapped in teh Lebanese flag. It seems like he has become the symbol for Lebanon's re-found confidence as a nation.

From there, we walked around the area of Achrafiyeh, where we found lots of old houses invarious states of repair, many with pretty gardens of pines, hibiscus and bougainvillea and balconies too.... until this area led to what had obviously been in the thick of the war-zone with bullet-riddled buildings and grafitti and not altogether friendly inhabitants. It will be a long time before Beirut gets rid of the scars of its terrible civil war. The good thing is that the people who were fighting each other for so long are now at peace. Whether they really get on is another matter, but hopefully whatever they think, it'll not end up with them massacring each other.

Maybe more about Middle Eastern poilitics another time.

Anyway, now I am fascinated to know whereabouts in this city we lived when we were here in 1963-65. The hotel we are staying at (the Mace Hotel) was built during that time. The porters are very friendly chatty old men who seem to have been around since the start and they too are interested to know where we were. One of them, Michel, who was on duty today suggested we join him on a trip to the mountains to see the cedars and a miracle-performing religious man. It was a 6 am start and we passed over... funny how they are still interested in miracles after all this time.....

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