One of my first rules of travel is, if there’s somewhere you want to go, go. Don’t wait for the perfect situation or time of year. Conflict, rain, even a certain amount of civil unrest can all lead to memorable impressions and adventures. This dictum applies to many of the most fascinating places in the world, none more so than Beirut.

Unlike most Middle Eastern cities, there’s nothing remotely Arabic about the city once known as the Paris of the Middle East. In its 5,000 years, the Lebanese capital has been destroyed and rebuilt by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and the French. Another molting is happening at warp speed today. New neighborhoods are sprouting on landfill from the rubble of the civil war fought in the 1980s and ’90s, and with more than 1,000 clubs and bars, it has crushed Ibiza as the Mediterranean’s party playground. And the seeds of a deeper culture renaissance are taking root, not that it matters to the powers that be. As a Minister of Culture told a Lebanese friend who was unhappy about the way her countrymen are always being portrayed as party animals, “Nightlife comes first. We need to sell ourselves to tourists. Design, fashion, art, those are for the long term.”

There are two Arabic words that one needs to get along smoothly in Beirut: wasta (“pull, influence”) and zahed (“normal”)

My days of hard partying are behind me, but the vibrancy of Beirut grabs me in minutes. The May evening is pinking in on the roof terrace of Hotel Le Gray, and the breeze is flirtatiously licking my neck. As the mournful calls of the muezzin’s evening prayers battle the clang of church bells, I spot George Michael across the room, nursing a glass of wine.

Le Gray is my ideal hotel. There’s an orchid in the bathroom, the bed has plushy 450-thread count sheets and, in what is perhaps the ultimate act of hospitality, there’s an espresso machine in the dressing area. When the concierge delivers my jacket—pressed upon arrival—he also informs me that I am to meet Mr. Joey Ghazal at 8:30 in Zaitunay Bay for dinner. He hands me a map with the route highlighted, should I wish to walk.

Zaitunay Bay opened in January 2012. Like most of new Beirut, it was built by the Solidere development company (established in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. How do you say ‘conflict of interest’ in Arabic?). Graceful, if generic, neon-lit towers peer down upon a parade of bustling open-air restaurants and stores, all facing a harbor of superyachts, most of which are owned by the Gulf states’ one percent.

Zaitunay Bay

Joey and I were introduced by a mutual friend, but all I know about him is that he is a 35-year-old Lebanese-Canadian “concept developer and restaurateur,” who has a gracious email presence. I track him down at one of his three eateries, Cro-Magnon, an American steakhouse that imports aged beef and serves up exotic dishes such as mac ‘n’ cheese to the country’s well-heeled.

Joey is a member of the creative nucleus fueling Beirut’s rebirth. He’s also a part of a reverse diaspora of optimistic of the Lebanese creative classes—painters, architects, designers, restaurateurs, filmmakers—who have returned home in hopes of building an empire while at the same time rebuilding their country. Like many of his privileged class he speaks English, Arabic and French fluently. He looks like Adam Levine crossed with Don Draper.

There are two Arabic words, Joey tells me, that one needs to get along smoothly in Beirut: wasta (“pull, influence”) and zahed (“normal”). The goal is to accumulate enough wasta so that life can be as zahed as possible.

Joey is guardedly optimistic about the future here. It would be silly to be unguardedly optimistic in a city that’s still recuperating from an 18-year civil war, that’s within firing distance of Tel Aviv and Damascus, and remains the region’s boxing ring, where all of its sects, religions and bullies conduct their battles.

None of this pressing geopolitical fragility jibes with the glittering Four Seasons Hotel above us or the yacht club facing us, which had a waiting list for parking spaces before it opened two years ago. Nor did the global recession smack down Beirut. While the West wallowed in economic sorrow, Beirut, thanks to tough banking regulations and Gulf petrodollars, boomed its way through tough times. “War creates an opportunity,” Joey reminds me. “When everyone leaves, real estate companies buy up cheap properties, wait a dozen years and then rebuild like crazy. Just like everywhere, the rich get richer.”

After a disconcertingly familiar dinner—rib-eye steaks and Bloody Marys in mason jars—we pick up Mo El-Abed, a fine specimen of the Lebanese gene pool. Mo has black eyes and a wide, devilish smile, which he uses to ease us through the velvet ropes at White, one of Beirut’s rooftop clubs of the minute. The open-air arena is wall-to-wall bodies, all tanned and glowing to my jet-lagged eyes.

Club White

 

“This is nothing,” Mo assures me. “You have to see Skybar when it opens next month. It holds like 2,500 people. Do you want a drink?”

I gaze at the bar, five bodies deep, leggy, dark haired beauties in tiny skirts and towering stilettos and the men who love them. Tables everywhere are littered with champagne bottles and buckets. Before I can answer, Mo produces a pocket-size bottle of Ketel One and pours a dram of stinging vodka down my throat.

“At Skybar, you’ll never have to wait for a drink.”

 

 

Le Gray faces Martyr’s Square, but this is not the graceful palm-lined, paprika-red, tiled-roof plaza of old. It’s currently a crater, fenced by placards advertising Plus Towers, a “new lifestyle experience” by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, a founder of the Miami-based firm, Arquitectonica. The usual international roster of star architects have been lured here—Arata Isozaki, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster—and their names get above-the-title billing on every building site.

On the northern side of Le Gray are The Souks, the area near the notorious Green Line that divided East and West Beirut during the war. Once a desolate no-man’s-land, it has been rebuilt by, yep, Solidere, in handsome faux-Arabesque style. I’m generally allergic to faithful renovation, and the developers certainly could have included one park or theater, but commerce trumping culture isn’t a new story in real estate. When The Souks opened it was criticized for being sterile, but it has since found its pulse as an international brand theme park interspersed with government buildings and the odd Roman ruin.

the-souks
The Souks

Amidst Tom and Tommy, Ralph and Miuccia, one place pops out: the Antabli Juice Bar. You can’t miss the zingy mural of a 1940s Egyptian movie star sipping jellab (a fragrant drink of smoked raisin pulp, grape molasses, rose water and sugar). This nostalgic hangout was the go-to-spot in times past and its retro futuristic facelift is courtesy of graphic designer Rana Salam.

Salam is on a one-woman crusade to rebrand the Middle East to the outside world and to itself. The daughter of a modernist architect, she studied graphic design in London because there were no such courses in Beirut and then stayed abroad for 20 years, where she created punchy graphics for Harvey Nichols, Liberty of London and Paul Smith among other high-end retailers. But she bagged London and returned to Beirut where she’s been making colorful mash ups of Western irony and Arabic cultural kitsch. Like Warhol or Lichtenstein, her inspiration is the iconography of her childhood—Arabic Chiclets, old movie posters, and especially those poorly printed street posters and handbills—to which she gives new life by printing on pillows, coffee cups, brooches, and now, trendy juice bars.

“People think this part of the world is all camels or bombed-out buildings,” Salam tells me. “But it’s so much more. It’s color and strong smells, chaos and delicious sweets. The West is all about being sugar-free and controlling every impulse. Beirut is much more freewheeling. We need to reclaim our Lebanese identity, and this is one way of doing it.”

decoRana lives and works in a cavernous 1950s deco apartment in the hilly neighborhood of Achrafieh. (For a brief moment, her downstairs neighbor was Tyler Brulé, the creator of Monocle magazine). If there’s any area that still deserves the “Paris of the Middle East” moniker, it’s Achrafieh, with its leafy, jasmine-scented streets, small antique shops and patisseries. My favorite sighting: two Beirutis parading two small Pomeranians, yakking in French, and draped in fur stoles on an 85-degree day.

But these vignettes are disappearing, as are the 1930s French buildings with their graceful colonnades and art nouveau windows, which are being razed and replaced by charm-free concrete high rises. With no preservation laws, these areas of Beirut are looking less like Montmartre and more like Athens every day. Only in this instance, there’s no war to blame for the ruin of its architectural heritage.

 

 

Beirut is a city of distractions to which I willingly submit. I spend hours tooling The Corniche, the seaside walk where the city parades its diversity. I see: Druse girls in white headscarves, boys diving off rocks into the swirling waves, old men pushing bread carts, a woman with greenish purple eyes and a bandage across her nose (“Nose jobs are status here,” Joey later tells me). I also spot something that would make Rana scream with joy: a Muslim woman in window-sized shades riding a Segue, her abaya fluttering behind her like gauzy black wings.

And then there are the beach clubs. Beach clubs in Beirut aren’t like those on the Riviera. For one thing, there’s no beach. Instead, there are swimming pools filled each day with seawater. Few people venture in for a swim and those who do careen as haphazardly as they drive, blindly and oblivious to lanes.

The lawn at St. George Beach Club is packed with slicked-up bodies, sunning, cocktailing and smoking as if UV rays and tobacco were good for health. Over here, one copper skinned creature in a mini-kini alternates between smoking bubbly with one hand and tapping her iPhone with the talons of her other. Over there, a gaggle of muscley, well-trimmed gay guys are eating burgers and smoking cigars. (Officially, homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon but GTDs (Gay Tourist Dollars) are much in demand, so it is very tolerated, much more so than inter-faith marriages. A Christian and Muslim must still travel abroad to wed).

But it’s the setting more than the scene that’s so gripping. Facing us is the St. George, the hotel where Burton and Taylor docked their yacht whenever they used to sail into town. Today, it’s the shell of a building draped with a massive sign that screams: “Stop Solidere!” The owner claims that the real estate empire stole his beach and he’s refusing to refurb the hotel until he gets it back.

To the left of St. George is the carcass of the imposing 30-floor Holiday Inn that was once the symbol of Beirut’s Golden Age. In a momentous stroke of bad luck, it opened just one year before the Civil War erupted. (In Beirut the expression ‘hotel wars’ doesn’t refer to economic warfare within the hospitality industry. It was literally snipers blasting rocket-propelled grenades at each other from hotel windows). There are also three bullet-wrecked high rises in view, souvenirs of a 1000-kilogram (!) car bomb that blew up Prime Minister Hariri, and 21 others in 2005.

For some bizarre reason, these ghosts, situated between the bloody past and the frantically rebuilt present, stand as gruesome harbingers of what could happen should things go awry, which they do the very next day.

“Did you hear?” Joey calls me early. Some rogue soldiers in the Lebanese army “accidentally” gunned down a Shia’a sheik in Tripoli about an hour to the north. We discuss the deleterious effect this will have on tourism, but Joey ends on a positive note. “Well, at least the traffic jams will disappear.“

He’s right. When things heat up in Beirut, the city quiets down, which is so not zaheb it’s worrying. “Forty people canceled their reservations in one hotel today,” I learn as I sample a table of meze for lunch at Tawlet (“kitchen table” in Arabic) in Mar Mikhael. Tawlet is run by Kamal Mouzawak, another force of nature bringing change to his hometown. Back in 2002, against all odds, he convinced village farmers to haul their produce into town every Saturday to start Souk el Tayeb, Beirut first (and only) organic farmer’s market. He opened Tawlet in 2008, which is the most written about restaurant in town, as much for its meals as its mission. Each day, a woman from one of Lebanon’s 18 sects—Palestinian, Druse, Armenian—prepares a specialty from her village. These dishes are typically served in homes and rarely in restaurants, so the menu is as radical as the idea of Lebanese working together to stress their commonalities over their differences.

I like Kamal a lot. He’s passionate and contrarian (“we don’t build restaurants, we’re building consciousness”) and more than a little controlling, necessary attributes if you’re going to cause seismic shifts in thinking. I ask him how “the situation” is going to affect his day. He shrugs. “You know, this is Lebanon, cheri. If we can’t go north to Tripoli we go south to Sidon. So, these few stupid soldiers? C’mon, yallah, let’s just get on with it.” Which is exactly what I decide to do.

At Skybar, boldface names—Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dogg, Christian Louboutin, Kevin Spacey, 50Cent, and Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH to name but a few—ignite the fireworks inside.

The neighborhood of Mar El Mikhael is referred to as the Meatpacking District of Beirut by Beirut optimists, because a smattering of new shops have opened among the car repair and refrigerator stores. At Papercup, a charming bookstore/café I sample 961, Lebanon’s first craft beer, an “LPA” (Lebanese Pale Ale) brewed with wild thyme and orange peel. Six years ago, you could only buy two watery beers here; 961 (named after Lebanon’s country code) has changed the game. Today, millions of bottles a year are sold internationally and Whole Foods imports it to the US. I’m impressed, just as I am by Ginette, a café/design store that stocks a well-curated selection of designer goods like hideously expensive tailored swimwear from British clothier Orlebar Brown and USM modular furniture. The menu features a quinoa salad, which, in the home of tablouleh and freekeh is absurd, but neatly demonstrates Beirut’s inability to resist a trend.

I find Hoda Baroudi and her partner Maria Hibri, the two women who founded Bokja. I originally spotted their work in Paris when I saw a schizophrenic patchwork of fabrics, hand-stitched onto a 1960s vintage sofa. It was the first time I put the words ‘modernism’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ in the same sentence together.

“To some extent, conflict has always fueled this city’s creativity,” says Hoda. “During the war, all of our dreams just stopped. After 18 years of nothing happening, you realize the urgency of doing something today and not waiting until tomorrow.”

Pre-Bokja, Hoda was an economist and a collector of antique textiles. Maria was a flower designer who imported modernist furniture from NYC as a sideline. They began collaborating by hand-stitching textiles from countries along the Silk Route, like Uzbekistan, onto the collectible chairs Maria had accumulated. Bokja has since shown at Art Basel Miami, Design Dubai, L’Institut du Monde Arab in Paris, and in dozens of other cities around the globe. “The fabrics come from different origins, but they speak a common language,” says Maria. “And it’s not only the language of beauty. It’s the unexpected harmony of things that are not supposed to work together. That’s the story of our work and hopefully it’s the story of this country—if we have peace.”

 

The next day the headlines scream “Lebanon Boils,” but by midday horns are blaring and the mood is more of a simmer. Clearly, the unpredictability of life in Beirut is precisely what makes it so compelling. The tension between burka and bikini, sects and sex, commercialism and idealism, the warmth of the people toward outsiders and their remarkable inability to get along with each other, keeps drawing me deeper. It’s not a relaxing place, but it’s fascinating.

As it turns out, young Mo was correct: there’s no better symbol for Beirut’s reemergence than Skybar (and it’s newest “winter club,” O1NE, an even larger venue built in the style of a Roman Colliseum, and surrounded by a 3,500 square meter façade featuring the work of 16 international graffiti artists). Both sit on the tip of Beirut’s new waterfront, which is built atop the rubble from the civil war, in conjunction with, you guessed it, Solidere.

Partying is somehow a patriotic act.

It’s daylight and the club is empty, but it’s easy to see why the world’s party elite flock there. Every night 10 DJS, 5 VJS and 3 LJS (light jockeys) collaborate to create a pleasure-driven pandemonium not seen in many capital cities. It has one of the world’s largest LED light walls, which is topped only by fireworks display that is set off from boats in the harbor; meanwhile boldface names—Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dogg, Christian Louboutin, Kevin Spacey, 50Cent, and Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH to name but a few—ignite the fireworks inside.

There’s no admission fee – good looks, a good concierge, or good wasta is your entry ticket. And although this is a “summer club,” it doesn’t open until June, one month later than the city’s other rooftop bars. “Skybar’s like the most beautiful woman in Beirut,” Yasmine Shuhaiber the event manager tells me with not a hint of irony, “She makes you wait for her.”

It’s fair to say that June 12, 2006 was a memorable opening night in nightclub history. As patrons stumbled home, Israeli bombs fell on Beirut and continued for six terrifying weeks. Skybar didn’t open that season to show respect for the dead. But the following year the club drew record crowds and profits, which made up for the losses of 2006, Yasmine says. Translation: partying is somehow a patriotic act.

Skybar

 

On the way out, I pass The General, who, with his Mossad-style crew cut, is instructing 75 servers on the most gracious ways of ensuring that a customer’s ice bucket is never lacking a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. I remark to no one in particular that perhaps The General should be running the Lebanese army. Dozens of servers nod their heads in agreement. No one, apparently, thinks it’s a joke.

 

Before I leave town, Kamal invites me to have a meze dinner with him at Al Halabi, one of his favorite places in the Armenian quarter. He assures me that I have no idea of what a proper meze is—a procession of food that’s as much for the eyes, as it is for the tongue—until I’ve witnessed Al Halabi’s.

“Are you fed up with Beirut, yet?” he asks, pouring me a glass of Ixtasis, one of Lebanon’s very drinkable white wines. You’re projecting, I tell him, “I love the exuberance of this place. Your generation is working towards some dream and the optimism is impressive. It’s what we in the West lack and we’re less for it.”

“We’re not doing anything special,” he counters. “We’re just doing our jobs. If we don’t build the country, who’s going to do it?” He sounds irritated, as if patronized by me, bourgeois man of Western privilege.

“You know, if we were in Dubai, we’d get paid a lot and we’d take the money and run. Here, you have to nurture the place as it nurtures you. Joey Ghazal, in New York or London, he’d get a small opportunity. Here, he gets a big one and it’s like, Wow! He makes a huge impact. We pay for that with electricity cuts and stupid soldiers, but is there a perfect world somewhere? I don’t know it. Here, everything you do, it shows.

“You’re the one who sounds fed up,” I say.

“Maybe I am. But I’m also hungry. C’mon, yallah. Let’s eat.”

 

In December, 2013, a bomb exploded outside of Joey Ghazal’s offices that killed seven people and injured another 71. It was the first bomb to explode downtown since the one that killed Prime Minister Harari in 2005. No one in Joey’s office was hurt, but he made the difficult decision to give Beirut a rest. He currently lives in Dubai.

Two months ago Kamal Mouzawak launched Atayab Zaman (“The Delicious Past”) a culinary training program for displaced Syrian refugees, 1 million of whom have spilled into Lebanon. He’s convinced food can bring peace. Inshallah.

The irrepressible Rana Salam has opened a shop next door to her studio, designed Mamnoon, modern middle eastern restaurant in Seattle, and still snakes through traffic on her yellow Vespa. “In the middle of a crisis, you have to keep dancing,” she says. “The show must go on.”

 

Warning: Go to Beirut, but go soon. This city reinvents itself so quickly that nothing in this article can be guaranteed to be in existence by the time it’s published.

 

A guide to modern Beirut

Rana Salam The best mashup of middle eastern design and Western snark. ranasalam.com

Bokja Lebanon’s No. 1 furniture exporter. Modernism meets handcraft. In Saifi Village. bokjadesign.com

Karen Chekerdjian Highly refined homewares and furniture, all made in Lebanon. In the emerging industrial port neighborhood. karenchekerdjian.com

Karim Bekdache Wonderful antiques, old signs and weird 60s pieces in a loft warehouse in Mar Mikhael. karimbekdache.wordpress.com

Orient 499 All local and Middle Eastern designers and artists. orient499.com

El Antabli Rana Salam’s retro modern juice bar in The Souks. beirutsouks.com.lb/fnb/al-antabli

Nada Debs Lebanon’s most famous furniture designer. Old themes, new materials. nadadebs.com

Sursock Palace To glimpse how Beirut looked before the “Paris of the Mideast” became “Miami of the Mideast” sursockpalace.com

 

Bars and rooftops

Skybar Nothing, anywhere, quite comes close. sky-bar.com

b018 designed by Bernard Khoury, one of Beirut’s top architects. b018.com

White Smaller, simpler Skybar. whitebeirut.com

 

Beach clubs

Lazy B Relaxed and elegant. lazyb.me

St. George Urban and memorable. stgeorges-yachtclub.com

 

Eat

Al Halabi “A procession for the eyes as much as the palate.” No website; in Antellas Square. 04 523555

Cro-Magnon American steaks, aged beef, mac ‘cheese. Killer Bloody Marys should you need a taste of home. lecromagnon.com

Tawlet/Tawlet Ammiq Home cooking by Lebanon’s best cooks: It’s women. A must visit, either in town or the outpost in Bekka valley, Tawlet Ammiq. tawlet.com

Ginette Trendy café and shopping in one. Quinoa is on the menu. Need I say more? ginette-beirut.com

Papercup/Plan BEY Great places for coffee, paper goods, magazines and books. papercupstore.complan-bey.com

 

Stay

Le Gray  Sophisticated, modern boutique hotel in The Souks. Dip in the rooftop pool. campbellgrayhotels.com

Albergo Sophisticated, old world boutique hotel in Achrafieh. Sip the lemonade served upon arrival. albergobeirut.com