The best description I ever heard of Beirut is 'an impossibility that works'. Contrast is description used for many cities, but here it is almost everywhere you look. It's not just the architecture, nor the fact that you can swim in the sea and ski on the same day; contrast is in every aspect of life here. I don't claim any special knowledge of Beirut or Lebanon, but any visitor would very quickly notice the many differences that seem to happily coexist - if a little warily. At one point during a short walk, I saw a church, a mosque, an old shop, a modern art gallery, a cafe, a pub, an ad for breast enhancement and a photo (admittedly on the other side of the road) of HizbAllah's Leader. All this was visible to me without having to move my feet. Where in the world can anyone claim the same?
This was not my first visit here. My last trip, also for work, was back in 2004. I was reminded of this by the greeter at my hotel! According to their records, that was my last time at their property and they were concerned that I had gone elsewhere for my 'other visits since'. Assured that they hadn't lost my custom, she went on to highlight the changes to the lobby since my last visit. This summarises my experience of most of the Lebanese with whom I've studied or worked both in London and Kuwait. Their service is what differentiates them from the rest of the region - and indeed the world. Their relatively small population is visible in every major city, and so to - thank God - is their cuisine.
From old buildings renovated in the same original style to an impressive restaurant designed by the innovative Bernard Khoury, architecture is a fun thing to admire here. Of course I would not have known about the latter without local expertise. In fact I emailed blogger Joseph Alam prior to my trip and he very kindly agreed to meet me. He picked me up from my hotel and spent over two hours showing me around his city. I'm sure I would have walked downtown, but Joe introduced me to the charming neighbourhood of Gemmayzeh. The main road took us gradually up the hill and time passed as we saw one old house after building after old palaces. Age has a different meaning here to what we're used to in the Gulf. It's so nice to be walking in an established town with a wonderful mix of history and contemporary design. Small pubs decorated the road-side and charming balconies overlooked it. Signs appeared everywhere reminding people that this area is residential. In fact it's a commercial, leisure and residential all in one with a backdrop of an old town on a hill. Heaven.
As soon as Joe pointed out the cinema below, I knew it went back to the 1960s. He tells me that they will be renovating it soon - and again maintaining the original features where possible. Reviewing my photos after my trip, I had to put these two together. They seemed to be telling the same story.
My trip was a short one. Apart from the top image, which I took on my way to the airport, all the images were taken during our short photo-walk. I would like to again thank Joe for his kind hospitality, his time, his effort to come into town, and if all that was not enough, for his very thoughtful gift: a photobook that sits proudly on our shelves.