Apr 15th, 2019, 11:05 AM

This Is It: Hayda Lubnan

By Isabel Guigui
First glimpse of Beirut. Image credit: Isabel Guigui
Switch it up, step out of your comfort zone and discover Lebanon.

In the navel of the Mediterranean lies a small enclave of various peoples, heritages and traditions, its territory decked with beaches, cedar forests, mountains and valleys. The roads are rough, unemployment is high, and politics are complicated to say the least, but the faces are kind and gestures sincere, energy vibrates through the country and the youth brims with innovation. 

Lebanon is an adventure. Serendipity breezes through and carries you to a party on the roof of a ten-story building that’s slated to be torn down, to a club near Raouché where the wind rolls in off the sea, to a jam session at the house of some kindred souls met the day before. The beauty of this vividly diverse republic expresses itself through different channels of culture, its raw power evident in the sheer number of unions and collectives bound by the desire to change their society. 

From the cradle of civilization to its current proximity to war, Lebanon is unquestionably alive. Hardly a generation after the decimating civil war, the country now balances the unique challenges of hosting 1,5 million Syrians (amounting to one quarter of the total population) with ongoing altercations on the Israeli border and distinct foreign threats to its sovereignty. And yet Beirut boasts some of the finest educational institutions of the region, is considered one of the “nightlife destinations” of the world, and will find yourself dumbstruck as you realize that many citizens master English, French, and Arabic, and will switch casually between the three by pleasure. Beyond the capital city, you will take to the roads to discover not only a beautiful nation steeped in millennia of history, but also a society of fine hosts and caregivers, where community still has an important place and friendship at first sight abounds.

Raouché at sunset. Image credit: Isabel Guigui

Lebanon invites you in to challenge your preconceived notions, to discover how well a country so stricken by destruction knows how to live, to prove how a part of the world ravaged by war may still give fruit to a new generation of intelligent, passionate, and driven people. Bus up and down the coast by day, rage in an erstwhile bunker by night: no matter the length of your vacation or the weight of your wallet, if you’re looking for adventure, start in the “Paris of the Middle East.”

Combined with a deep appreciation for its multiple legacies, the diversity of this land generates an intersectional cultural haven beckoning lovers of stories and songs, amateurs of history and politics. The nature of the country’s linguistic faculties and its extensive diaspora have yielded improbable collectives and fascinating projects, the glowering reminders of the past, mute, ever present like a fourth wall, spurring the creatives forward and the crowds to move with the moment. 

You land in Radio Beirut on a Wednesday night, a concert honking on, the bartenders clad in red shirts that proclaim: “Dropping Beats Not Bombs.” This classic dive on Armenia Street broadcasts on air and will feature any number of funky bands, unforeseen conversations, and Happy Hour drinks starting before noon. Music cafés, jazz bars, concert venues, and backdoor undergrounds speckle the city, although Beirut is known primarily for its open-air clubs along the water, where techno and house beat through the night.

Radio Beirut, Mar Mikhail. Image credit: Isabel Guigui

I prefer the house parties, fade into jam sessions at two o’clock, or the long nights at the KED warehouse club where the Beirut Groove Collective spin vinyls until we find ourselves back on my roof watching the light come into the sky.

The storyscape of the country is vast and fertile but as the city opens its doors for music, so it does for the spoken word. Just as certain bars have a name for putting up concerts and open mic nights, others host poetry workshops and storytelling evenings. From anglophone bookshops to the Salon du Livre Francophone, reading material is ample in Beirut. And when the summer is gone, you quit your deck chair on the roof for a snug café facing the stormy waters or tucked away in a garden. 

Wishing to know more about the facts of the matter at hand in Lebanese and larger regional politics, you rent a car with friends and take a day trip to the Tourist Landmark of Resistance (read: museum operated by Hezbollah) just an hour and a half from Beirut. While you’re at it, just extend that trip for a few days and see some of the ruins in Baalbek, Aanjar, or Jbeil, which was inhabited continuously for over seven thousand years. Access to many museums and historical sites is very affordable, and bus travel is the way to go.

Picnic near Rachaya, about eight kilometers from the Syrian border. Image credit: Isabel Guigui

For those confined to Beirut by business or too tight a timeframe, not to worry. Conferences with titillating subjects (such as “What Would Marx Think of The World Today ?”) take place continually across various universities, museums welcome the public for evening concerts and exhibit openings, film screenings and workshops take place weekly in cultural institutes. They are almost always low-priced or free. 

Life in Lebanon is about so much more than its creative and academic products. A Mediterranean country, it solicits you to slow down, take your time with a meal, say yes when friends plan to get together – but also when your friend unexpectedly shows up and says, “Get in, we’re going on a road trip.” In Beirut I need to bike slower to weave through traffic, I keep in mind that 24 kilometers may actually take me an hour on the bus to get where I need to go.

And when you stop fighting the fact that you will be late, you take more time to slow down, enjoy your Nescafé and soak in the sun. This shift en masse allows a society to retain the humane expressions of looking one another in the eye, giving a hand or offering a smile - which makes all the difference. Among the many expatriates I met who chose to move to Lebanon, the one resounding reason for staying was, “the people.” Point in case: I was invited to a wedding by the Lebanese groom on my plane before landing in Beirut, so I could testify to this phenomenon even before ever setting foot in the country. 

Ziad Rahbani - Abu Ali (1978)

A voyage to the Levant presents not only the boundless opportunity for adventure but also the opportunity for growth. Like all countries Lebanon has its problems but the people you meet and the stories you hear in just a few days reveal an image of immense potential, held back only by the corruption that rots the government. The challenging geopolitical situation of the country does not discount it from the possibility to make progress, and the sheer number of qualified, motivated, and hard-working individuals contributes to a growing coalition seeking to right its republic. 

I grew through the profound admiration of the friends I made and the people who surrounded me in my daily life in the neighborhood. Altercations between bus drivers in a traffic jam become raucous laughter and lively conversation with passengers from both buses; the new and only foreigner in the little Armenian corner at the edge of Geitawi throws her sandals in vain at the towel that fell from her balcony onto the powerline, and an old gentleman comes to her rescue with a chair and a broom; a local accompanies kids wondering how to get back to Beirut from Jbeil after a beach day directly to the pickup spot on the highway. 

This is Lebanon. “Hayda Lubnan!” I would cheer: from the window on a road trip to a club in the mountains on a friend’s birthday, from my rooftop with the best friends who stay until the end of the party and until the sun rises. This country is one worth experiencing imminently, to meet and bond with its peoples, to move with rhythms inspired by ancient Arabic music or sixties soul or Berlin deep house, to learn about its past and its present, to deconstruct prior impressions and build them anew. Just as the land itself has been rebuilt upon and reclaimed over many era, a trip to Lebanon can be to reclaim another version of yourself, one you didn’t know you missed but which feels all too relevant once revealed.