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.