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 a Skybar, Le Sushi Bar 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.”