I got a message from a French friend of mine the other day asking if Beirut was a safe place to visit. I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. And it comes up quite a lot. On the one hand, walking the streets at night in Beirut is probably safer than anywhere I can think of. There are no hooded youths on the streets waiting to steal my Blackberry and use it to film me as they go about on a happy slapping rampage. On the other hand, we tend to pepper our existence with Ak-47s and the occasional car bomb. Armed with these two realities, I gave my usual answer, which is “it’s safe until it’s not”.
This particular French friend was planning on visiting as a tourist but was also interested in the ins and outs of life in Beirut, beyond the security situation, because she intends to move here to take up a rather exciting job opportunity. She asked me how easily I thought she’d make friends, because she doesn’t know anyone in town and she’s a bit concerned about that. I chuckled to myself as I told her not to worry, everyone in Lebanon loves foreigners and that she had the added advantage of being both French and Female.
There was a time when the word tourist in Beirut basically meant anyone from the Gulf who couldn’t be bothered to make it all the way to Europe for a long weekend intended to smoke a chicha at Grand Café. And that was about it. I don’t have a problem with that kind of tourism, but it’s the Lebanese equivalent of a lobster-red English tourist in Mallorca in a Newcastle United shirt who thinks he’s mastered the Spanish language because he can say “Oi, Manuel. Dos cervecas por favor. Innit.”
It also meant hordes of returning Lebanese expats, with bulging wallets. But even though the Ministry of Tourism loves counting them in its statistics, they aren’t really tourists at all. They sleep at home with their extended families and basically use the country as a large spa for the duration of their stay. They get medical checkups, see their dentist, get a haircut, load up on zaatar and head back to work.
But something has changed over the last couple of years. And Im not just referring to the slew of articles that I’ve already discussed (which were at the origin of me starting this blog actually), that extol the virtues of Lebanon’s buxom women and endless supplies of hummos and Arak.
When I first read those articles, I often cringed. Both at their patronising, vaguely Orientalist tone and the fact that I know we have a knack for hijacking our own success.
But a couple of years on and there’s a steady stream of real tourists. The kind of tourists armed with North Face backpacks, battered Birks and a sunburn. The kind of tourists who stand bewildered at an intersection in the street, pull out their Lonely Planet and cogitate.
Every time I see a bemused Scandinavian in flip-flops and shorts taking a photo of an innocuous wall in Hamra, while a confused bakery shop owner looks on in utter confusion, I smile to myself. The baker slaps some cheese onto a piece of circular dough, wipes his hairy knuckles on his off white apron and shrugs. Ajenib. I have no idea what the Scandi sees on that wall, but I’m happy he sees it. And I’m happy it’ll end up on his Flickr and Facebook and that his network of friends will see it. And that they’ll flock here.
Tourists and our interactions with them are terribly important. The more we meet people from around the world, the more we come to accept them, as cheesy and redundant as that sounds. Places stop being abstract, they become embodied by a real individual. There’s an interaction that sticks in your mind.
One of my favourite hangouts in Beirut is Torino Express. It was one of the first bars to open in Gemmayze, before it became a petting zoo full of pony-tailed pot-bellied valets and management consultants. It’s not much to look at, just a stunted hallway basking in red neon. But it’s my real life equivalent of Cheers. A refuge for anyone who wishes to eschew the touch-screen, uber-designed clinical Beirut that has emerged over the past few years. And it’s always full of tourists. Their battered guidebook resting on the creaky wooden tables, more often than not serving as coasters.
I try to make the most of having these tourists around. I kind of miss the diversity I had in London. I know I keep harping back to that, but it’s true. That was my reality for about 20 years. Bumping into people from everywhere every day, and I miss that. So I’ll be that annoying Lebanese guy who wants to start chatting away to a group of tourists minus the “you know in Libanon you can swim and ski in ze same day”.
Of course, not every non-Lebanese person in town is a tourist. A lot of those you see around town aren’t tourists at all. They’re expats. They’ve made this city their home.
I do most of my work freelance now, which means I spend a lot of time working in cafes in Hamra. I say working, but I actually mean staring blankly at my MacBook and looking at the people around me trying to imagine their lives.
A cursory look around on any given day reveals that half the place probably isn’t Lebanese or even Middle Eastern. This never happened when I spent my AUB days loitering around the area. There were two American exchange students who’d been disowned by their parents in Nebraska, and that was about it.
Today, there are the journalists who think they’ve figured it all out. There are the activists and aid workers, who know they haven’t figured anything out but keep trying anyway. There are the randoms, who came here for a weekend on their way back from Jordan 10 years ago and forgot to leave.
So, if you think about it, Beirut is teeming with people from all over. Although I started this post wanting to talk about tourism, we shouldn’t forget we have hundreds of thousands of people from exceedingly interesting parts of the world living with us on a daily basis, often literally. The Syrians, Egyptians, Filipinos, Ethiopians, Sri Lankans and others.
Sure we’ll ask a Dutch couple at Torino what it’s like living in Amsterdam, but when was the last time you stopped to ask what it was like living in Addis Ababa or Manilla. I’m pretty sure that would be just as interesting. Probably even more so.