Beirut: beauty, bowed, but not broken

Luna Park
Luna Park, a tumbledown amusement park along Beirut’s Corniche seaside promenade. It appeared shuttered and cobwebbed, far from its heyday as a respite from the country’s civil war in the 1970s.

Beautiful but battered, regal but raw, Beirut is like a patient in recovery, with ample physical therapy ahead of it. No longer crowned the “Paris of the Middle East,” the Levantine Mediterranean city, one of the world’s oldest and a beguiling twinning of East and West, remains a tourist draw of exotic splendors and fragrant pleasures. If it bears unconcealed bruises, Beirut still, with its lush, war-torn history and an exuberant cafe and bar life, is a multilevel dazzler.

I can’t say my weeklong visit some years ago went as planned. Trouble was had. After I took a photo in a neighborhood where I was told explicitly not to take a photo, I was detained by Hezbollah goons who roughed me up a little, rifled through my bag, flipped through my books and demanded to see my “papers.” I felt like I was in East Berlin, circa 1960. I felt like I might be tortured, disappeared or beheaded. It was no joke. I came out alive, shaken and shaky for the rest of the day and night, but not enough to deter me from haunting a choice bar in one of the city’s crackling nightlife districts. Beirut knows how to party.

Would I go back? Probably not. But I’m glad I went. It’s a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.

Pigeon Rock, Raouche
Pigeons’ Rock, or Sabah Nassar’s Rock, in the Raouche area along the Corniche.
Lebanese Army tank, Beirut
Lebanese Army vehicle, downtown Beirut. Its presence, imposing and unsettling, wasn’t unlike those of the grim-faced armed soldiers patrolling malls and mosques.
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One of countless bullet- and shell-riddled buildings all about the city.
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Proud produce merchant.
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Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, remains an icon in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut. Taking this photo got me into a world of trouble with local authorities who were convinced I was a western spy.
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Hezbollah rocket on display in the middle of a south Beirut street.
Gemmayze district, lined with bars and clubs.JPG
My (tiny) bar of choice in the ever-hopping Gemmayze district, which throbs with bars and clubs and revelers. That guy in the neon-ablaze storefront window on the far right is a DJ.
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Blasted shell of the infamous Beirut Holiday Inn. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, the hotel became a war zone in the Battle of the Hotels.
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Girl in taxi, texting.
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Delightful if pontifical Orthodox priest who gave me an earful about God, history, life.
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Ceiling of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut.
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Prayer on the Corniche. (Luna Park Ferris wheel in far distance.)

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