The Adventures of Sven the Backpacker and Other Tales.

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.

14 Responses to “The Adventures of Sven the Backpacker and Other Tales.”

  1. Johnny
    May 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Heard great things about Manilla, btw… as well as the Golden Triangle route in India.

  2. Nasri Atallah
    May 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Btw I’m dying to go to Pinoy karaoke in Hamra. So let’s try and get a group together!

  3. Lea
    May 24, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I have never commented on a blog for the following reason:

    There are two spaces where comments and interaction from the audience are always awkard and seemingly misplaced: blogs and comedy shows.

    it’s an entertaining blog.

  4. Mathieu
    May 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I moved to Beirut as (a French) expat in June 2006. I had already been in Lebanon in 1998, and had quite a few good friends from Lebanon back in France.

    My first three weeks were gorgeous. Setting up a nice flat in Ain El-Mraiseh, going to the beach in Tyr, outdoor techno parties in the mountains…
    And then, after these three weeks, July 12th 2006…
    I left after two weeks of war, came back (though Syria) the day after the cease-fire and spent another year, increasingly frustrated by the rising violence and desperation.

    I have been living in various countries in Europe since then, coming back from time to time. It has been almost two years now that I haven’t come to Beirut. Too long.

    So, I’ll be back for two weeks this July, half-tourist, half at home, half exiled.
    Maybe we’ll bump into each other in some cafe in Hamra :)

  5. loulia
    May 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    I love your blog in general and this post in particular. I was raised in France for 16 years before I moved to Beirut (which I left to move to the USA 9 years ago) and I remember really missing being exposed to other nationalities while I was there. I return to the “SPA” every summer and notice the gradual changes with awe and a bit of envy because Beirut felt more “inbred” when i lived there.

  6. Todd
    May 25, 2011 at 7:14 am #

    That was an epic post. Loving this blog… for someone who will be moving to Beirut in a few months, it’s an invaluable resource. Looking forward to going to cafes in Hamra and trying to guess who you are 😛

  7. Marillionlb
    May 25, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Great article (as usual) in the hope that this summer will be a calm one and more young tourists from all over will come and witness first hand all the contradictions Lebanon has on offer and make it a country you love to hate, but cannot but love it.

  8. The Captain
    May 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    This is by far my favourite blog

  9. Danielle
    May 30, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    I wonder how many others there are like me out there..the tourist who intended to stay a month but stayed a year and a half (and counting?) instead..

    Like you, I too miss the interaction with people from different nationalities, cultural, and social backgrounds.,,but I suppose that Beirut is keeping me entertained for now with all of it’s socio-cultural and political complexities..

    Great post Nasri..

    Now about that inappropriate vegetable.. ahha 😉

  10. Nick
    June 14, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Awesome! Very well written!!!! Specially ” Oi, Manuel. Dos cervecas por favor. Innit.” :))

  11. Anthony
    June 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Great article! I missed this one when you posted it. A new place you might add where it’s flocked with tourists is the residential building of Coop D’etat in Gemayze. That’s gradually becoming the summertime version of a Torino-esque place.

  12. Jude
    August 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Thanks for the exquisite read. Though I understand you may not have a lot of free time on your hands, I wandered if you could post a piece on the epidemic of riots and lootings sweeping acroos the UK.

  13. Kyle
    November 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Philipino lady haggling for better price on vegetables in Arabic with Armenian vegetable seller lat at night on rue D’Armenie. She gets the deal she wants then turns to us with a giggle, “Where are YOU from?” We chatted eggplants and obscure-to-Canadians vegetables for a few minutes and we said our goodbyes. Completely forget if the conversation was in Arabic, French, Tagalog, English or Armenian for that matter. But the conversation happened.

  14. Nasri Atallah
    December 6, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Kyle – Haha. Sounds like a standard theme. Glad you’re enjoying the blog and Beirut.

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