Burgeoning Beirut bourgeois

An American-Israeli writer combs Beirut's nightlife and finds disaffected cosmopolitan 20-somethings.

Beirut club 88 248 (photo credit: SARAH MELTSNER)
Beirut club 88 248
(photo credit: SARAH MELTSNER)
It's Friday night and we're piled into a SUV, headed toward Gemmayze - the uber-hip district of the moment in Beirut where young people go to party. My host sits in the passenger seat, a baseball cap perched on his brown hair, the bill tilted to the side. He leans over to his friend, who is driving, and asks him, his voice light as though he were telling the opening line of a joke, "How would you describe your political and cultural leanings?" His friend snorts. "Do you have a cigarette?" He turns up the music - Portishead - and leans an elbow on the open window. Cool night air flows in. "Can I quote you?" I quip. "Sure," he says with a laugh. "My name is Mustafa." Everyone laughs then - his name is not Mustafa. But he knows he's talking to a journalist, knows I've come from Israel, so on-the-record names are off limits. This is not what I intended. The plan was to come as an American tourist for a glimpse of Beirut's notorious nightlife. I had hoped to leave regional politics out of it. We ride in silence for awhile, the conversation as idle as our car while we sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, music blaring from the open windows. Mustafa is smoking a cigarette when someone poses the question to him, "How do you feel about Israel?" "I don't feel about Israel," he answers, a puff of smoke drifting from his mouth. We pass a billboard with a large digital clock glowing red. Mustafa gestures towards it. "This tells how long it's been since the assassination." He's referring to the 2005 car explosion that killed Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. As the city parts to reveal a sandstone-colored mosque capped by deep cerulean blue domes, Mustafa gestures again, "And this is where he's buried. It's like a tribute to him or something." We're walking through Gemmayze - a blur of thickly-packed bars, restaurants, and clubs, traffic inching through narrow streets - when one of our group, a guy I'll refer to as B, tells me, "We're only about 20 minutes away from the complete and desolate poverty of the refugee camps." But you'd never know it in this picturesque section of Beirut with its burgeoning bourgeois scene. Buildings with well-maintained facades showing European architectural influences infused with Middle Eastern elements line the sidewalks packed with well-dressed Lebanese. The atmosphere is exhilarating. It's a place where the backdrop of Lebanon itself - a country rocked by instability - almost disappears. Of the Beiruti propensity to party, I think of my Lebanese friend - a young professional in her thirties, educated overseas that has spent a large part of her life abroad - who once told me it's simply that, "We love to have a good time." "It has nothing to do with everything that goes on here?" I asked her. She was silent for a moment, thoughtful. She spoke to me about her reaction to the events that occurred in May, when Hizbullah flexed its muscles throughout the country, Beirut included, "The day the fighting started, I was in my room, working, and I heard the gunshots. I thought, 'huh, that's weird,' but I figured it was fireworks or something. I came out of my room later and my mom was glued to the TV. She told me what was happening. But I didn't want to know what was going on." My friend held her hands up to either side of her face, mimicking blinders. "My mother was watching the news all the time and I told her, 'if something really serious happens, tell me.' So what did I do? Every day I went to the beach and every night I went out." She says that the bars that stayed open during the fighting in May were overflowing. Our first stop is Joe Pena's Cantina y Bar. There's a large mural of the Corona Extra logo painted on a wall. The bar is packed, and so are the tables - young Beirutis enjoying a late dinner before a long night out. The menu is printed in English, and many of the Beirutis speak English with each other, switching to Arabic to speak to the waiters. My host, B, and I go to the bar while our other companions order dinner. I order the house specialty, an applhina - vodka, fresh lime, passion fruit, and fresh apple juice. It is both sweet and sour, and I drink it quickly as I talk to the man next to me, our voices raised over the music - the Spanish version of "Hotel California," a la The Big Lebowski. He has recently finished medical school and is leaving Beirut soon to practice in Chicago. He says that people like him frequent Joe Pena's. He gestures to the crowd, "Most have lived away. And when you live away, your mind-set changes." My host has a similar take on the Joe Pena's crowd. He says they're the "upper echelon" of Lebanese society, and accordingly, many of them have spent a significant portion of their lives abroad. "They're removed from the political system, from the social system. They're independent and financially stable. They come back here [to Lebanon] and they just want to have fun." B offers a simple assessment of the scene, "The women here would be beautiful if they hadn't all been chiseled to perfection." We join our companions, who are finishing their meals. My drink is gone. Someone in the group shoves another one in front of me, Almaza, the Lebanese pilsner. "The best beer in the world!" he says, raising his bottle to me. He's got close-cropped black hair, square black-framed glasses, a thick stubble on his face. He wears a plain T-shirt, jeans, and Converse low-tops. He looks like he could be a Tel Avivi. After a debate about arak - is it better straight or with water? - B and I order shots. The two of us sit across from each other at the end of the long, crowded table. With alcohol coursing through our veins, the conversation quickly turns serious, something I was hoping, on some level, to avoid. I offer my opinion that the country is held hostage by political factions, by instability and infighting. B agrees. "Lebanon is the little country that could," he says. "It's at the wrong place, at the wrong time. There's so much potential here." He shakes his head, squashes the end of his cigarette out on the table. It occurs to me that some might say the same about Israel. Inevitably, the talk veers in that direction. "I, personally, am not concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict," B tells me. "Lebanon has enough problems of its own. Look, there's no such thing as Arab nationalism. There's no such thing as Arab unity. It's a lie." As for B, he feels disconnected from both Lebanon and his Arab roots. He explains: English is his first language and he speaks it better than Arabic, he has spent most of his life overseas, and when he finishes university he intends to leave Lebanon. This sentiment is echoed by another Lebanese university student who speaks to me at our new location, Treesome, which is very chic and very dark. Away from the group crowded at the bar, we stand by a birch tree that protrudes from the floor and is, presumably, the inspiration for the name of the establishment. He tells me that he is a US citizen and has spent the majority of his life in the States. He says he also doesn't intend to stay in Lebanon when he finishes university. He mentions that he was in Beirut in 2006, during the war. He sat out the conflict in his apartment, with his brother, where they drank whiskey and listened to bombings carried out by the IDF. Although he says he won't stay in Lebanon and he doesn't want to raise his children here, he hopes that they, like him, will attend university in Beirut. "It's all the Lebanese can do, send their kids to school here," he says. A shot is passed to me. I look to our companions at the bar. One of our group raises his glass at me, "Welcome to Lebanon!" he says and everyone echoes his sentiment. We throw the alcohol down our throats. I'm a curiosity, as out-of-place as the tree I'm standing next to, but the group has become more comfortable with me. Or maybe they're emboldened by drinking. Either way, I find that I am answering questions now rather than asking them, or more actually, answering the same question again and again: "What's it like there?" "There" meaning Israel. I consider the fact that more Jews live in the Diaspora than in Israel, just as more Lebanese live overseas than in Lebanon. I think of trips like birthright and the many different volunteer and study programs that seek to foster a connection to the homeland in the Middle East, similar to how the Lebanese send their children to university in Beirut. I think of how different life in Israel is from the images in the media, and that, so far, the same seems to be true of Lebanon. I tell them that, in many ways, "there" isn't so different from here. "But our bars are better, right?" they ask. The group insists that I can't leave Beirut without going to BO18 - an old bomb shelter that has been converted into a dance club. They say it's a quintessential part of the nightlife. I spend Saturday morning and afternoon walking off my hangover. I start in the Hamra neighborhood - a district that was seized by Hizbullah in May and that serves as home to American University Beirut. Near to campus, posters advertising concerts and other events have been papered onto a construction barrier. One reads "Confronting Memories: Explorations in Film." The series is part of a larger, year-long cultural project titled "What is to be done? Lebanon's War-Loaded Memory." I stop to write it down. When I open my notebook, I find B's drunken doodles from the night before - random sketches and song lyrics, including lines from a Pink Floyd tune: 'Should we shout, should we scream? What happened to the post-war dream?' As I walk the city, I turn the words from the poster over and over in my head again and again. Whether her memory is laden with violence or not, Beirut is like a scrappy but unbeatable kid - righting herself on shaky legs after every fight, ready to have a go again. Sagging buildings, abandoned and pock-marked with bullet holes, sit just blocks from the fresh-faced downtown where millions of dollars have been poured into restoration and revitalization. The people I see there - "tourists from the Gulf States" locals tell me - are taking leisurely meals at cafes, filling the outdoor tables, enjoying the comfortable weather of late summer. Beirut, rising to stand once again, is a work in progress - the clamber of construction, the large cranes littering the skyline and the many empty storefronts serve as testimony to that.