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Hello, from Battered Beirut

September 5th, 2011 · 3 Comments · Abu Dhabi, soccer, UAE, World Cup

I’m in Beirut, the “Paris of the East” (well, some people call it that) … and the occasion is the UAE playing Lebanon in a World Cup qualifying match tomorrow night.

I had always wanted to come here, and I love covering international soccer games, so it’s all working out quite nicely. (Including the Etihad plane ride over here from Abu Dhabi, which was half-empty. Really. Half-empty. I had a row to myself. It was paradise.)

Beirut is popular with my colleagues at The National, who have have given it rave reviews, on the whole, but …

My initial take on the place is that it is battered, sad and chaotic.

That “Paris of the East” thing must have come before the 1975-76 civil war that pretty much destroyed the city …. or before the 1982 invasion by Israel, which tore up the place pretty good … or the 2006 (was it?) strife that wrecked more things …

The hotel I am staying at is near the Corniche, which is actually in pretty good shape. But the view out the windor of my room shows no fewer than three major buildings (two former hotels and, I think, a parking structure) that were trashed in 1975-76. And nearly four decades later they’re still there, rotting and pathetic, with holes in the masonry and electrical lines bare, water lines reaching out into nothingness …

This is the Post Apocalyptic Paris of the East.

To be sure, I am impressed by the energy of the place, and the resilience of the people here has to be astonishingly high. To come back from major trouble again and again … But now it is even clearer why so many Lebanese are expats, industrious business folks all over the region and even the world. Because the opportunities at home seem so limited.

My outlook on the appearance of the place might be a function of the neighborhoods I’ve seen. I made the uphill walk from my hotel to the Hotel Bristol, where the pre-match Fifa press conference was held, and the Bristol is located in the upscale (by comparison) Hamra neighborhood, and things didn’t look much better there. But maybe it’s just where I’ve been …

Narrow streets, choked with traffic and scooters, horns tooting and blaring, everyone in a hurry to get … somewhere, Battered storefronts, trash on the streets, lots of adult men sitting around .. actually sitting in chairs, in twos and threes, just watching the traffic go by. I don’t know what the unemployment rate here is, but it has to be high if we’re counting the “guys sitting in chairs doing nothing” demographic.

A very sizable chunk of adult males seem to be involved with the taxi industry. Really. Either driving them or shilling for them. I can hardly walk a block without someone shouting at me, “Taxi?!?” As I walk through the streets, gypsy cabs will honk at me … and seem almost annoyed that I don’t want to climb in.

The industry isn’t really regulated, from what I can tell. A car might have a “taxi” sign on it and it might not. Most appear to be individual enterprises, and in many cases cars pick up multiple people headed (more or less) in the same direction, at some lower fare. You have to ask to make sure you’re the only person making the ride, and you need to fix the price of the journey up front, because meters are rare.

On the whole, cab fares are ridiculous. I paid something like $20 for a 10-minute ride from the airport (it would be about $5 in the UAE), and I imagine I will pay something like that to get to the soccer stadium — which apparently is in bad shape, but I digress.

To read the local English-language Daily Star newspaper is to be alarmed for the immediate future of the place. The government is still trying to get Hezbollah to disarm; the gun-toting “party” still holds most of south Lebanon and is the defacto government there.

Today’s headline warned of “government paralysis” because this or that political party is threatening to walk out of talks over, I think, electricity. Syria is right next door, and has dominated Lebanon for decades, but now Syria is in upheaval, and the Lebanese can’t decide if that’s good or bad, though they seem to be leaning toward “bad” because a stable Syria under a bad man seems like a better situation than the potential for chaos, which they know first-hand here.

Beirut has a wonderful location, on the edge of the Mediterranean, which laps up against a sea wall, in this part of the city, the northern tip.  The weather is nice — basically a slightly warmer Los Angeles or a far-cooler Abu Dhabi.

But it is all this infighting and intrigue and religious tensions and sects struggling …

I did some soccer writing, of course.

Here is a column in which I suggest that Srecko Katanec, the UAE coach, likely will be fired if his team doesn’t beat Lebanon tomorrow … and here is a preview of the match I did.

So, snap analysis: Beirut could be a wonderful place. It could perhaps be the Paris of the East again (lots of French spoken here, and the baguettes seem legit) — but they need a space to breath and not fight with each other and their neighbors. They need to get Hezbollah out of south Lebanon. They need unity of purpose to make this a better place.

I have a sense that more unpleasantness is headed here. I hope I’m wrong.


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sam // Sep 5, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    Ouch man, you either are the most pessimistic person out there or you have gotten too used to living in Abu Dhabi, a sterile and bland city to say the least. Yes Beirut is messy, dirty, unorganized. But it has a sense of energy, life, and freedom that is unmatched anywhere in the Arab world.

    Also, you make silly references, I mean whats wrong with guys sitting on the street? Have you ever been to Spain? or South America? Post apocalyptic? Yes I mean there are some war torn buildings but there are a ton more beautiful ones that have been built recently.
    Taxis-well of course you think its expensive, you are a foreigner who was easily taken advantage of. Have you ever heard of negotiating? Just tell them your price, if they dont agree then walk away.
    Have you checked out the bar scene in Gemmayze or Monot? Try to find something like that elsewhere in the Middle East.
    Have you gone hiking in the surrounding mountains? Have you visited sea side cities and had a wonderful seafood meal with a delicious glass of Lebanese wine?

    Sorry for ranting, just seems like you are viewing Beirut in all the wrong lights. My advice is to take a walking tour of the city and then an organzied tour of the beautiful countryside-see the ancient ruins of Baalbeck, visit a vineyards, see the Cedars…

  • 2 gab // Sep 6, 2011 at 5:31 AM

    they need to get hezbollah out of the south?? do u know that hezbollah is actually the lebanese people who live in the south?? so u want the lebanese people to kick out other lebanese people who fought for their occupied land by israel?? you must be nuts dear… beirut is beirut btw, we never want to compare it to paris or try to make it like paris where u are born, live and, die alone…

  • 3 Ekios // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    Well, my dear Paul … you are maybe just about to get a few “nice” comments on that post since you are directly rubbing the Lebanese back the wrong way 🙂

    Everything you said is “globally true” BUT, don’t you EVER dare to say it so “directly” … it is like having someone with too much weight … first enjoy the beauty of the eyes and the sense of humor, then, feel sad that the body is in bad shape.

    Don’t you ever get directly on the truth when it comes about Lebanon.

    Plus, don’t talk about hezzbollah like that when you are a “stranger”, you’ll get some nice kick in the teeth saying that you better shut the … up since you don’t know sh#t about that country and the middle east. (and get accesorly some nice words about you being from the west, or for “just” being a “sport” journalist, you name it .. )

    If I tell you all of that, it is for a veeeeeery simple reason Paul … since .. “I’ve done that, been there” and even now, after “8 years of Lebanon” i’m still myself getting that treatment frequently when I can’t keep my mouth shut, even (especially) from the Lebanese’s I love the most ..

    And well … since you are talking about Paris .. Paris is NOT FRANCE … so Beirut AIN’T LEBANON. Go around (North is your best option .. especially now after that post) see some of the country (skip Tripoli) like Byblos or Batroun. The country is in bad shape, because of its people, but it remains something of the old Lebanon, and if I’ve been able to feel and taste it, so can you.

    Good luck ! 🙂

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