The craziest thing about Beirut are the pedestrian crossings. Because they don’t exist, and one just walks across the road and into traffic, Insh’allah.
Having visited Ho Chih Minh City, I’d imagined there was nothing more fearsome than Vietnamese road crossings. Beirut put the fear of cars back in my heart on my first day there.
Until I ventured into Bourj Hammoud later, I’ve never seen a road with a working traffic junction in most of the city.
On my first day in Beirut, I decided to walk from Gemmayzeh (where I stayed) to Hamra (where I could exchange currency) because isn’t it great to explore a city on foot? Well, yes. And no.
The City of Random Parts
Walking eastwards and back taught me several things. First, Beirut is a city of parts. From Gemmayzeh to the Grand Serail, Beirut looks like perhaps the most modern city in the Middle East. The sidewalks (!) are sand-coloured paths. The downtown’s buildings are all dusty yellow. And the troika of religious buildings – a mosque, an Orthodox church, a Maronite church – are a nice statement of Lebanese religious plurality.
In this part of Beirut, the scale and age of the city is striking. Roman ruins burst from the ground south of Martyrs’ Square. The impressively-maintained Crypt Museum beside the St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral tell Beirut’s story through the ages. Then there are the ruins of the Roman baths on the steps to the Grand Serail. So much history in such a small quarter!
But then I hit the Grand Serail: checkpoints upon checkpoints. Police wouldn’t let me go through parliament to Hamra. So I had to climb some stairs to get on a highway ramp.
The next stetch of neighbourhoods I passed before reaching Hamra were more run-down. No ornate glass buildings. Just crumbling houses, with plenty of religious propaganda.
Hamra, again, was a different beast. Under the looming hulk of the destroyed Holiday Inn Beirut, the streets are chaotically lively. Maybe like a commercial street in Melaka or Bangkok, bristling with small shops. Moneychangers were hidden behind the facades of minimarts and, for a change, they man behind the exchange was nice enough to tell me how much stuff costs in Lebanese.
With my money, I walked back to Gemmayzeh via a different route, passing the luxurious Beirut Souks and the banking district next to it. I paused at a branch of the legendary Barbar, a shawarma place that operated even during the dark days of civil war, for takeaway.
A city contextualised
I didn’t see Raouche and the Pigeon Rocks. I didn’t hit the bars at Mar Mikhael. It would be almost three more months till I discovered the Sursock Museum, and Bourj Hammound.
So where did I end up on those dizzying first days? The National Museum.
I liked it because it gives Beirut, and Lebanon, a frame of reference. From the 2nd floor and around impressive Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Islamic artifacts, I could get a sense of how old and grand Lebanon is. If the ruins at Martyr’s Square gave me a hint of how old the city is, then the tombs, mosaics and mummies(!) in the museum are the material evidence that the country is older than my understanding of old.
When I saw the bullet holes on some of the exhibits, I also could understand how traumatic this history was, and continues to be.
Why Singaporeans hide in malls
The last place I went to on my first walkabout was a shopping centre. ABC Achrafieh to be exact.
It’s up the hill from the museum in the direction of the sea, at the very top of a twisted rise. I told myself: there’s good falafel in the shop opposite, so I’ll just stay at the shopping centre for a while to see how it’ll compare to the endless Capitaland malls at home.
I lied to myself. Even if it didn’t have air-conditioning, there were seats. Then there were clean toilets. With cubicles. Also, a bookshope selling English books. If you want to know why Singaporeans love shopping centres overseas, here are some of the reasons.
The only thing out of place was the security check at the entrance.
When I had really bought my falafel and was starting my way back to the hostel, I passed by most of Gemmayzeh, alive and bright, the most happening place in Beirut.
Centuries of history, the madness of modern poverty and capitalism – all mixed together under the bright lights of Beirut. Only here. Nowhere else.