Subtitle: Church bells and calls to prayer.
I walked everywhere today, all over Beirut. It truly is a fascinating (I used that word twice yesterday; that’s it, I’m retiring it) city. It’s chain stores (H&M, Zara, Dunkin’ Donuts), broken sidewalks, lush cafes, speeding cars, military-fatigued policemen, proliferations of checkpoints and sentry stands, barbed wire, bombed buildings, French and Italian and sushi restaurants, churches, mosques, construction and cranes, Roman, Ottoman, European architecture, pictures of Rafik Hariri, and the constant constant smell of engine exhaust. And that’s just the area I walked in, between Hamra and Downtown.
The city is rebuilding. I don’t know how else to put it. The civil war lasted 15 years (1975-1990) and the evidence is everywhere. Most notably, the Holiday Inn, which became a central fighting zone during the war and stands today completely hollowed out and filled with bullet holes. When I read about Beirut, I thought that made it special. But (as noted yesterday) such buildings are all over, everywhere. The Holiday Inn, standing between Downtown and the Mediterranean, is just one of the bigger and more historically notable ones.
There are lots of cranes, building things like luxury apartment towers and new shopping centers. The Downtown area centers on the Place d’Etoile, out of which spirals a circular shopping and restaurant district with beautiful European architecture that was completely constructed from scratch in the last few years—so it feels a bit inauthentic, you know.
Immediately adjacent to that area are two famous mosques and a famous church: the al-Omari and Mohammed al-Amin, the St. George Maronite Cathedral. The al-Amin mosque is gorgeous and gigantic. It borders Place des Martyrs, or Martyrs’ Square. Also dotting the Downtown area, the occasional Roman ruin.
I will say that walking Beirut, as doable as it is supposed to be, is quite an experience of the ordeal kind. Sidewalks are not pedestrian-friendly. They unexpectedly narrow, or drop off completely, or are filled with potholes or strewn with debris from a neighboring lot. I can’t count how many times today I squeezed between tightly parked cars, between ill-placed sapling trees and buildings, tightrope walked on curb edges.
Aside from sidewalks, the police presence in Beirut is off the charts. The police wear black and white fatigues and hold giant guns (the guy guarding the Main Gate at AUB was no fluke, it seems). Their checkpoints are everywhere, everywhere. I was told several times that I either could not walk where I was planning to walk, or that I could not take a picture in that area, or I could take a picture facing that way, but not that way. It made me a little paranoid. They weren’t entirely threatening in demeanor, but it’s just discomfiting to constantly be under the watch of guys with giant guns.
In the evening I took a last walk around Hamra. Rue Hamra was hopping with families and university students. I went down to the Corniche, the seaside walkway adjacent to AUB. I was hoping to get some good street food before I left (which I totally saw them do on Globe Trekker), but there wasn’t much in the way of options, and I ended up stopping on Rue Bliss on my way back at a hot dog place (there are a ton here!) that made Lebanese-style wraps out of what basically looked like American sandwich ingredients. The best I could do in my present state (hint: exhaustion).
Tomorrow I fly to Paris early. I can’t quite wrap my head around that. Who goes to both Lebanon and France in one trip? They’re two different places. I need to get in the zone.
Note: This was written Sunday night at 9PM but it is now Monday morning at 5AM and I am about to take a taxi to the Rafik Hariri to fly to Paris. Just a note.