Pico Iyer Journeys

Beirut's Designs

All around me in the streets were Ethiopians (here for work), other exiles from the Philippines and magazines in Singhalese, to bring the news to visiting Sri Lankans. I e-mailed an old friend in California who had once taught at the American University nearby, to tell him of my arrival, and he e-mailed back that the Mayflower was where a colleague of his had been found, with throat slashed, in the gutter, during the war.

Beirut is not a beautiful city–or, rather, its beauty is that of a Monaco or Macao, where shrewd developers have seen that they can construct a time-share offering on paradise. When you draw back the curtains, much of what you see is concrete, whole forests of International Style high-rises that almost block the snowcaps in the distance, where you can ski, as the brochures always boast, the same morning that you swim in the Mediterranean. Adaptability, you could say, has become the central feature of the city’s landscape. When I stepped out of the Mayflower my first morning in Beirut, I was greeted by a man sitting on the pavement, amid a blast of honking horns and construction cranes, placidly taking in the day’s newspaper over his brioche and “Gourmet Coffee.”

Beirut at night may be a blonde in a mini-skirt sipping a water-pipe in one of the lavish cafes downtown and wondering whether that is last season’s Dior Leila is wearing; but by day it is more like one of the rumpled men you see shouting out numbers in English, French and Arabic into a cellphone outside his money-changing stall. And in the twelve years since Rafiq Hariri, a construction tycoon, became prime minister, he has tried to yoke these two sides together by bringing enterprise to fashion and making of the city’s ruins a tabula rasa on which to draft a vision of 21st century post-modernism. The Beirutis I met often muttered that he was sacrificing history to theme-park in building up a glittery display-city with the private company, Solidere; after all, when I wandered across the street from the trendy Hotel Monroe, I came upon a trade-fair from the Islamic Republic of Iran, all dour looks and obligatory beards.

Yet the city’s resourcefulness makes it hard for any visitor to resist, and impressive in its ability to get by on charm alone. In the mornings I browsed through dazzling selections of books on fashion and photography in one of the many bookshops in the broken old West Beirut center of Hamra. On a rainy afternoon, I took in the beautifully restored National Museum, which sits on the very Green Line that was, a generation ago, a byword for the city’s violent divisions and mortar attacks; in the evenings I went with typically urbane and cultured Beiruts out to seafood restaurants in the port city of Jounieh, where mothers with bare shoulders and tattoos in all the right places steered toddlers between tables loaded with mezze and bottles long after midnight. To see the city’s recent past, which could yet become its near future, I drove twenty minutes from the area of Starbuck’s and The Body Shop to the southern suburbs, where cardboard-cutouts of Khomeini guard the streets, and pictures of suicide-bombing “martyrs” promise revenge.

My single defining image of the city finally became the taxi-drivers, disarming, quick-witted and likable, who drove me through the city, offering me sips of their expressos as they drove or delivering a gallant “Enchante” as I got out. My very last evening in Beirut, I came out of a Thai restaurant downtown and looked for a cab to take me to the airport. An aged Mercedes slowed down, and I walked into a blast of heavy-metal music.

“I’m sorry,” said the young driver, quickly turing it off. “I am a Christian, so I don’t listen to the words about the Anti-Christ. But the music helps me when I’m feeling down.” Like most people in the city, he had a harrowing story of growing up Palestinian in Saudi Arabia and driving a car now to send himself through college. But like most people in Beirut, too, he seemed eager to learn from his suffering, and there was no self-pity in his story, only supple determination.

“You know sometimes, if you talk about your problems, it makes you feel better ?” he went on, as we drove down a modern highway towards the terminal. “That’s how I feel when I listen to this music.” It wasn’t what most people said, I remarked. “They are too ashamed to say they like it. But actually what these songs are saying is quite deep, about pain, about suffering.

“Please, if you’d like me to change,” he said, turning the radio dial down again, “I can. I know many people find this disturbing.” Then, for the duration of the trip, he offered a definitive disquisition on the difference between heavy metal, black metal and death rock.

“Thank you,” I said, when I got out, “for explaining this strange passion.”

He put a finger to his lips. “If they hear you talking about this music, they will arrest you. For being a follower of Satan.” Somehow, it didn’t seem quite a joke. Pleasure in Beirut is never without its shadows.

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