The Eternal Magic of Beirut

THE DAY I ARRIVED in Beirut I was collected at my hotel by Huda Baroudi, a cheerful woman who had offered to show me around. It was a lazy Sunday, grim and gray, and I was jet-lagged. But her eyes were shining and she was eager to take me to the Bechara el-Khoury Mansion, a 19th-­century villa that long ago — before it had been abandoned, pillaged and finally shelled during the civil war — was one of Beirut’s grand residences.

As I settled into the passenger seat of her S.U.V., Ms. Baroudi, an influential designer of textiles and furniture, propelled us at high speed toward what looked like a four-way stop. Beirut’s streets are narrow, potholed and anything but straight; a car was approaching rapidly from the opposite direction, but Ms. Baroudi seemed unconcerned.

At the last moment, the other driver swerved to let us pass. I was unable to speak, but Ms. Baroudi laughed sweetly. “I looked into his eyes,” she explained with a smile and a shrug. “And I could see that he would yield the right of way.”

Somehow, I was not comforted. “This is how we do it in Beirut,” she continued. “All the road signs are in people’s eyes.”

That turned out to be true, not just literally, but figuratively. There is something singular about Beirut. It has one foot planted in the Middle East and the other in Europe, but it doesn’t quite belong in either place. Nothing seems permanent there; it is a perpetual transit point. Generations have passed through its borders in search of fun, or out of desperation. And for both reasons, they continue to come.

Perhaps alone among great cities, Beirut has earned, and manages to maintain, reputations both for wanton licentiousness and for utter terror. “There it stands, with a toss of curls and a flounce of skirts, a Carmen among the cities,” Jan Morris wrote in her great love letter to what she described as “The Impossible City.” “It is the last of the Middle Eastern fleshpots.”

That essay was written in 1956, soon after Beirut hosted the World Water Ski Championships in Saint George’s Bay. Like all clichés, the image of the city as the Paris of the Middle East, was, at least in part, a fact. From the time France reluctantly ended its mandate in 1943, and particularly in the decades between the close of World War II and the disaster that tore Lebanon apart in the 1970s, Beirut was more cosmopolitan, more tolerant and, perhaps above all, more self-indulgent than any Arab city. No other place could serve so effortlessly as a luxurious pit stop for rich Europeans, Arab royalty and celebrities like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The cafes were filled with radical intellectuals, oil sheikhs and every kind of huckster. Even the notorious have always felt at home in Beirut: Kim Philby, the MI6 officer who became the 20th-century standard-bearer for treachery, spent many an evening at the bar of the Saint-George Hotel. The city was a free port in the purest sense, a place where bars and clubs often seemed at least as consequential as churches and mosques.

Even today, Beirut, which is washed gently by the Mediterranean Sea and ringed by mountains, remains unremittingly hedonistic. The city has high-end restaurants like Le Sushi Bar, and, until very recently, a Skybar and a nightclub named after the 1972 porn classic “Behind the Green Door.”

Beirut has Uber and a farm-to-table movement. There are Prada and Hermès outlets on the Corniche, the city’s magnificent seaside promenade, and a Virgin Megastore, too. In a single week, I saw two lime-green Maseratis: one at the dealership, and another parked outside Barbar, a snack bar in Hamra, widely considered to make the best chicken shawarma in town.

Yet Beirut is also the place where the car bomb and suicide vest emerged as the quotidian weapons of jihad. It is the capital of a country that has been without a president for two years. Hezbollah, based in Beirut’s southern precincts, and the role model for many of the world’s terrorist groups, is Lebanon’s only truly powerful and unchallenged political organization. Today, more than a million Syrian refugees have swarmed into the region, having fled the 10th-century carnage little more than 100 miles away. It is this constant tension that makes the city so hard to understand — and such a fascinating place to visit.

“In Beirut, precariousness is a form of identity,” said Christine Tohme, a curator and director of Ashkal Alwan, a research, production and study space that emerged in the 1990s as a place for artists to reclaim a public identity. We were having fair-trade espresso at one of the city’s many fine cafes. “Nothing works here — from communism, to socialism to the big free market, to finding ways of being hipsters, or becoming designers or artists or being in groups that are driven by social media.”

Those words, echoed often by people I met, certainly sound bleak. But Tohme wasn’t so much complaining as explaining. This is common. Read a transcript of what people say and you can see despair running through every sentence. But if you listen to them speak, or better yet, decipher their eyes, that desperation often vanishes. I asked if she ever considered leaving the city where she has spent the bulk of her life. “Of course,” she said. “But I don’t, and I am pretty sure I never will. This kind of turmoil, this kind of volatility, this kind of precariousness … ” She let the thought drift for a while. “I don’t want to say that life in war zones forces us to be creative,” she continued. “I know that is banal. But Beirut is a demanding city, and that makes it vital and alive. And vitality produces greatness.”

BEIRUT’S GREAT INTELLECTUAL passion, the search for identity, is on display in almost every shop, museum and gallery. At Bokja, Ms. Baroudi and her partner, Maria Hibri, create Modernist furniture with lavishly embroidered textiles culled from dozens of regional sources. At the recently renovated Sursock Museum, I saw an exhibition that presented visions of the emerging city, from 19th-century Orientalist fantasies to David Hockney’s arresting 1966 pen-and-ink rendering of the Rivoli, Beirut’s Modernist cinema, which was demolished following the civil war. But the show that most poignantly captured the effects of arbitrary identity in Beirut was at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery. “Blazon” took Marwan Rechmaoui years to produce. It consists of 59 ornamental shields, and more than 400 flags — all elaborately embroidered by workers at Bokja — and arranged by the city’s corresponding electrical districts.

While I was in Beirut, I stayed at the Villa Clara, an idiosyncratic hotel run by Olivier Gougeon, a French chef, and his wife, Marie-Hélene Moawad. The hotel, really a house from the 1920s, has just seven guest rooms, each decorated with antique furniture and paintings by local artists. The floors are covered with boldly patterned artisanal Lebanese tiles, most of them more than a century old, scooped up from houses also on the verge of destruction. The public rooms are full of aesthetic non sequiturs: There is an Andrée Putman table, hand-painted wallpaper in the restaurant, a sculptured pink flamingo and a set of chairs that had once occupied the French Senate. Each guest room is lit by a hand-blown Damascene chandelier, all purchased from the old souk of Damascus.

For people who prefer small hotels that require visitors to think about the city that surrounds them, Villa Clara is a treat. Most mornings, I woke to the sound of twin songbirds at my window, then gazed across the quiet, leafy street at a dilapidated villa, a remnant of the civil war that somehow seemed more like a Brutalist sculpture than a house. The surrounding neighborhood, Mar Mikhael, has the feel of Williamsburg in the 1970s, before it became a hipster theme park, when big rigs still rumbled through the streets at dawn. For every stylish bar and boutique that sells copies of Nylon magazine, there is an industrial machine shop, a tool warehouse or a company that wholesales lighting fixtures. Like many neighborhoods in Beirut, Mar Mikhael could be swallowed any day by the moneyed classes; for the moment, though, aided no doubt by the difficult economy and a general reluctance to travel to the region while so much of it is at war, young artists and writers can still afford to live and work there.

The food at Villa Clara is exceptional, particularly the breakfasts of homemade labneh, the thick Lebanese yogurt that has been strained to remove its whey, the freshly baked Levantine bread called manakish and the eggs from chickens raised in gardens that the couple rents from the Maronite Order in the nearby Chouf mountains. They cure their own ham in the cellars of the St. Jean Maron Monastery — which had been closed since the civil war. The hotel’s French restaurant is reliably considered to be among Beirut’s best (and most expensive). Gougeon, an ex-pastry chef at the Grand Véfour in Paris, arrived in Beirut in 1999, to work as a cook at the French Embassy. He soon realized there would be no turning back. “Here, there is total anarchy,” he explained, with a look of pleasure in his eyes. “Chaos. You have to fight on a daily basis for everything you get.” And like so many others I encountered, he regarded that daily struggle as a benefit rather than an obstacle. “In France everything is regimented,” he said. “There are hours and rules and long vacations. Here there are no days off. And very little rest. But we have something they no longer have: energy, desire and complete freedom.”

IT HAD BEEN NEARLY 20 years since I last visited Beirut. By then, the hostilities, which ground on mercilessly from 1975 to 1990, had turned the very name of the city into a synonym for war zone. More than a hundred thousand people died; a far greater number were ripped from their homes. Infrastructure — the telephone networks, the water system, roadways — and most of the economy had all been crippled.

By the 1990s, politics, war and hatred had run their course, at least for a while. It was the perfect moment for the emergence of Rafik Hariri, the blustery businessman who had moved to Saudi Arabia at the age of 21. Hariri entered the Saudi construction industry, advanced rapidly and was soon running his own firm, becoming the personal contractor for Prince Fahd. By the time he returned to Lebanon in 1992, to become the country’s prime minister, he was a billionaire.

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Hariri set out at once to rebuild Beirut’s shattered urban center. An affable man who liked things to be big and shiny and new, he had little interest in sectarian fighting, but perhaps even less in preserving the essence of what many people had long regarded as the Middle East’s most alluring city.

Hariri, who was killed by a devastating truck bomb in 2005, loved yachts and planes and, more than anything else, enormous real estate projects, which is what the center of Beirut eventually became. To remake the city, he created a company called Solidere, which is a French acronym for the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. Squatters were removed from the city center, which was then essentially demolished. In addition, more than half a million square meters of land were reclaimed from the nearby sea.

Solidere’s stated goal was to attempt to revive the memory of the days before 1975, when Beirut was pluralistic, prosperous and throbbing with intensity. The company did retain and restore some of the bullet-riddled facades that had withstood the rampages of the various militias. But the development also wiped away centuries of history and most of Beirut’s rich architectural heritage. To get a sense of that, one only has to wander over to the Beirut Souks, which had functioned as a center of commerce at least since the time of the ancient Phoenicians. Solidere rebuilt the souks along its historical grid plan, which was supposed to assure continuity. It didn’t: The souks today are filled with shiny objects and marble floors. It is a great place to buy moisturizer, a $10,000 handbag or a Patek Philippe watch. But the new souks have far more in common with the Mall of America than with the many Levantine bazaars that have dominated the Arab marketplace for thousands of years.

“The most urgent question here is not how a collection of Pizza Huts, Safeways, McDonald’s and Body Shops gathered together as a ‘souk’ will recapture any lifestyle other than that of a shopping mall,” Saree Makdisi, who is professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, has written. Mr. Makdisi is of Lebanese descent and often writes about the development and preservation in the Arab world. “The point is not that this is a misnomer, nor that a traditional souk is necessarily more genuine and authentic than a shopping mall, but that something strange is happening to our sense of history when we can confuse a shopping mall with a souk.”

George Arbid agrees. A bearlike man with an oval face and a commanding beard, Arbid is director of the Arab Center for Architecture, and an associate professor at the American University of Beirut. Late one afternoon, he took me on a walk in the center of the city, not far from his office. Too often, he said, the word heritage has been used solely to describe Roman ruins and ancient times: “When I studied architecture” — which he did both in Beirut at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts and at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design — “the only modern architecture you could find in books was in the West. We were the ancient place. But look around. This is a modern society, and you can see that in the buildings, here and throughout the Middle East.”

Modernism is Arbid’s passion, and he recoils when people act as if the only choices for Beirut are to become another faceless airport city or remain frozen in a long-forgotten past. He knew that I was staying near the headquarters of Electricité du Liban, which was built in 1965, and asked me if I had noticed it. It would have been impossible to miss. Electrical service in Lebanon may not be something to brag about, but the building itself is magnificent. And yet there is no public access. “It survived the war,” he said. “Why on earth wall it off now?”

I asked Arbid about the Hariri years and the Solidere construction. “We were coming out of a ruinous war,” he said. “Hariri was perceived as a savior, a man of the free market who would help Beirut rise from the ashes. He did that for some people. But the question is for whom? Not for the middle classes, and certainly not for the poor. The new Beirut City Center is a development project.”

The project and its aftermath have raised an issue that has been debated with great urgency in the past decade: How do you prevent development from interfering with a civic discourse that has prevailed for centuries? As we walked down the streets of Ashrafieh, toward the sea, Arbid showed me how space has gradually given way to a sort of anonymous vertical compound. Up to the 1970s, modern architecture like that of the Electricité du Liban had reflected the local traditions of outdoor living. Buildings had arches and plenty of room for people to mingle. Pockets of green flourished. “That is the traditional Lebanese construction,” he said, “open and inviting.”

Then came the era of darkness. Literally. “Now we have 40-story buildings that are put together with one thought in mind: price per square foot,” he said. “I am not opposed to tall buildings in neighborhoods that can afford them, but the terraces of Lebanese tradition are gone, and so are the shops and meeting places on the ground floor.”

He was right. There are cleaners, banks, bakeries and restaurants threaded through the old residential blocks. The newest towers, many of which hover ominously above graceful old villas, are nothing but giant walls of glass. Many terraces have been replaced with windows that can’t even be opened. “Every one of these places is a gated community, a vertical gated community,” he said. “There are no shops, no public space, no place to chat.”

THESE DAYS, IT’S HARD to conjure a vision of Beirut’s permanent leisure class, or the world in which they lived, but it is still possible, barely, for those who spend some time with Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane. The only daughter of Alfred Bey Sursock and his Italian wife, Donna Maria Theresa Serra di Cassano, she lives in the Sursock Palace, which is on the Rue Sursock, just down the road from the newly renovated Sursock Museum, in the neighborhood most commonly called Sursock. The palace, miraculously untouched by 15 years of mortar fire, was built in the 19th century, soon after the Egyptians dredged the harbor and turned Beirut into a booming port.

The Sursocks are among the oldest and richest of the Christian families in Lebanon. And at the age of 94, Lady Cochrane, a Sursock by birth, may be the last great dame of the Levant. Lucid and acerbic, she seems like a cross between the Dowager Countess of Grantham and one of the less savory Mitford sisters. We had tea late one afternoon in her library, which, because it is the “coziest” place in the house, also serves as her sitting room. (This particular cozy room has 33-foot ceilings and mahogany walls and enormous 17th-century paintings. A collection of Flemish tapestries lines the entrance vestibule and dining room.)

Lady Cochrane, dressed crisply in a brown blouse, silk salmon foulard and houndstooth skirt, met me in the middle of the great hall, which features a double flight of marble stairs at its center. I asked the most obvious question first: Were you here during the civil war?

“Always,” she replied, as if my question was slightly insulting. “It’s where I live.”

Even today it is hard to walk three blocks in Beirut without seeing a building pockmarked with machine gun fire or mortar rounds, and yet the Sursock Palace was pristine. I wondered how that was possible.

“ I believe we were somehow respected,” she said matter-of-factly. “Because one day I was in the middle of the hall where you came in.” A crowd of what she referred to as “young ruffians” walked into the house. “I knew that these people would go from house to house, burgle and ruin them,” she said. (I wondered whether the words “ruffian,” and “burgle” had ever before been used to describe the vengeful packs of murderers that held sway in Beirut during the war.)

“I was alone,” she said, “and I thought, this is terrible. There must have been 50 of them. With big guns. I thought, they are just going to murder me. They saw me at a distance, and then they all went upstairs,” she said. “I tried to stay calm as best I could. After a time, they came down and I thought they must have just destroyed everything or stolen things.” She said this all with a kind of effortless serenity.

“But they did not pinch one single thing,” she continued, shaking her head in amazement 30 years later. “Except for an old poniard that had been hanging on the wall. There were two of them with exquisite Chinese handles. Very rare. They stole one and left the other where it was. I have always felt quite certain they didn’t care about the handle. Probably threw it away. They only wanted the dagger itself.”

Lady Cochrane explained that her staff had buried most of the valuables at the start of the hostilities. And there were a lot of them to bury. (“After it was over my own butler had trouble finding everything,” she said. “He hid it all so well.”)

She is horrified by the city she now inhabits. “When I was a child, Beirut was the most beautiful city. Full of gardens. Then bad government got a hold of the place. Now, after years of war and neglect it is nothing but a generalized slum.”

It was perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but I had to ask one more question: What had happened?

“Democracy, young man,” she said. “Democracy. We never had a proper leader, and eventually the place began to fall apart.”

MY VISIT WITH LADY COCHRANE left me in need of an infusion of hope, and so I went to see Marwa Arsanios, a 37-year-old art professor at the American University, who co-founded an organization called 98 Weeks, and who has shown her own artwork throughout the world. Arsanios wanted to create a place where artists could focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and begin to address the questions that consume so many of them: “How do you build a community in a time when the traditional leadership is gone?” she said. “How do you establish something that lasts in a place that only changes?”

“This is a really weird moment,” she continued. “Nobody really knows what will happen here, but everybody thinks something will happen.” Like so many of her creative friends, she stays in part because of the city’s fragility; Beirut, whatever else it is or may become, still has possibilities. Like Arsanios, most of the elite — particularly the many wealthy members of the diaspora — could flee in an instant if they had to. But (again, like Arsanios) many among them continue to see Beirut as a special place, and, despite its surroundings, exhilarating and alive. Although the euphoria of the Arab Spring has faded, replaced for many with fear and confusion, Arsanios is hopeful. “When we started, political life was frozen,” she said. “Journalism was bad and universities were dead. The art community became a refuge. And it has given us strength.”

The following night I had drinks with Arsanios and several of her colleagues from the American University. They were cleareyed but not glum. Each was committed to the future of the city — as a place for art, civic discourse and free inquiry. But they all realized the path might not be simple. I thought about what The Economist recently described as the “global empathy gap” between sufferings of the West and those in Beirut. Last November, the shootings and bombs that killed 130 people in a series of attacks in Paris set off an international wave of sympathy and regret. The night before, the same group, ISIS, devoted, among so many other hatreds, to war against Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for exploding bombs that killed 43 people in Beirut. The world seemed to shrug.

Nonetheless, I walked back to my hotel, alone and in silence — as I had every night since I arrived. Despite the fact that the crime rate in most of Beirut is low, nobody who lives according to the dictums of the State Department would do that. “The Lebanese government cannot guarantee the protection of U.S. citizens in the country against sudden outbreaks of violence,” its travel alert warns. “Public demonstrations occur with little warning and may become violent.” Of course, this is also true in many American cities. But on the alert went: “U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Lebanon despite this Travel Warning should keep a low profile, assess their personal security, and vary times and routes for all required travel.”

I did none of those things — nor was any of it necessary. There are parts of Beirut that are clearly unsafe; but tourists don’t, as a rule, hang out in Hezbollah-controlled territory. The city I visited was peaceful, even serene, and nobody I spoke to suggested it wasn’t. The loudest noise usually came from the most energetic nightclubs.

But as I neared my hotel that night I suddenly heard the rapid fire of heavy machine guns, and the harsh whistle of mortar rounds. I was about to dive under the nearest car when I saw several old men, standing on the street next to the giant warehouse that seemed to be under attack. They were all laughing. At me.

“What the hell is going on?” I screamed into the dark as I realized that none of those mortars had actually hit anything. An old man who sold motor oil on the side of the road walked up to me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “It’s only a movie,” he said, clearly delighted. “They are shooting it inside the warehouse. The guns aren’t real.”