January/February 2006 | Beirut Unexpected
Stand in the middle of downtown Beirut, under the big clock at Place de l’Etoile, and look around. There’s a pack of Saudi teenagers, some in the traditional white robes and headdresses, others wearing baseball caps and sneakers, and one combining the two styles. A couple of German backpackers in boots is bargaining with an Armenian spinster for a Yemeni dagger while a team of waiters in an American hamburger chain restaurant is singing “Happy Birthday” to a veiled mother of three. Then Saad al-Hariri, son of the recently assassinated ex-Prime Minister, walks by with 150 of his best friends to the cheers of everyone who isn’t already occupied with their own unfolding drama. When a cool wind blows in off the Mediterranean, everything seems so bright—the faces, the clothes, the stores—and maybe everything seems brighter than usual since, after all, it’s midnight, and the evening’s just about to start.
Welcome to the liveliest city in all the Middle East, and insofar as it’s where the West meets the Arab world, we should hope the rest of the world looks like this someday. If most casual observers of international events still associate Beirut with the chaos of the country’s 15-year-long civil war, rave aficionados know that Beirut is one of the capitals of the international DJ circuit. This city has moved on. Certainly there are old resentments and more than a few scars from the violence—bullet-scarred buildings and a beautiful coastline that is not yet entirely free from the pollution it suffered during the war—but now Beirutis will do almost anything to avoid civil strife.
Both Lebanon’s Muslims and Christians are still ostensibly very traditional in their sexual mores, but there’s more than an undercurrent of roiling passions. Sure, there are plenty of 30-year-old virgins, but Beirut is where the Arab world goes to let its hair down, party hard, and to be frank, have really good sex.
Indeed, it’s tourism that has empowered the country’s gay and lesbian community and has made it the most liberal place in the Arab world. “Tourists come from all over the world because they know Lebanon is a fairly open society,” says Georges Azzi, head of the Beirut-based organization Helem (Arabic for “dream”), the Arab world’s first and only gay advocacy group. “This is especially so for Gulf Arabs,” he explains, referring to the Middle East’s most lavish spenders, from countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. “So the police couldn’t crack down on the nightlife scene even if they wanted to.”
There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in Beirut, many of them considerably more budget-conscious than those listed below. But if you’re not traveling in style in Beirut, you’re only getting half the picture. Hotel Albergo (137 Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi St., 1-339-797, $270 and up), a 19th-century Ottoman villa located in Ashrafieh, the city’s main Christian area, is far and away Beirut’s most stylish hotel. It features 33 suites with a rooftop pool, restaurant-bar, and a first-rate Italian restaurant, Al Dente, downstairs. Right across the street from the much more famous Intercontinental Phoenicia, the Monroe (Kennedy St., 1-371-122, $150–$200) is younger, hipper, and cheaper. Part of the vast European chain, the Mövenpick (General de Gaulle Ave., 1-869-666, $185–$285) doesn’t get enough respect. OK, the food’s merely good, not great, the rooms are a little pricey, and the area’s one of the least interesting in Beirut, but the private beach is one of the best in the city.
Beirut is the food capital of the Middle East, combining traditional Lebanese cooking with influences from, among others, French and Turkish cuisines. The following restaurants go one step further: The health-conscious vegetarian version of Lebanese cuisine at Walimat Wardeh (Makdessi St., Hamra, 1-343-128) is excellent, and the decor is charming. Manager Munir Abdullah, editor in chief of the Arab world’s first gay and lesbian magazine, presides over a warmly inclusive, sometimes raucous scene. Sure, you didn’t come to Beirut for Italian food, but the homemade pastas at Fennel (Weavers Center, Clemenceau St., 1-363-792) are excellent in this bright, stylish restaurant in Clemenceau, one of the city’s traditional quarters. Get there for lunch and check out the furniture gallery upstairs. Casablanca (Minet al-Hosn St., Ein al-Mreisseh, 1-369-334) offers top Lebanese wines, Asian-Arab-Euro fusion cuisine, and Cuban cigars in a beautiful but pricey two-story Ottoman mansion right off the Corniche, the Mediterranean-adjacent pedestrian promenade.
BARS AND CAFES
In Beirut the most crowded bars always draw the biggest crowds, even if the bar’s about the size of a really big walk-in closet, like Torino Express (Gouraud St., Gemmayze, 3-611-101), second home to Lebanon’s small but growing bourgeois-bohemian set—filmmakers, actors, and journalists. The drinks are cheap, the music is good, and the scene is always hot, sweaty, and sexy. One of the few places where you can actually hear the person you’ve been trying to chat up all night, Le Rouge (Gouraud St., Gemmayze, 1-442-366) is good for late-night snacks and a glass of Lebanese wine. Coffeehouse and sandwich shop by day, Prague (Makdessi St., Hamra, 3-575-282) is Hamra’s most happening bar with the city’s best music come nightfall.
There’s a lot of dancing throughout the city but not a lot of dance space, which means that like most Lebanese you’ll likely wind up dancing on tables, chairs, cushions, or someone else’s shoulders. The alpha and omega of Beirut’s gay club scene, Acid (Sin El Fil, 3-714-678) is about a 15-minute cab ride from downtown Beirut. Designed by architect Bernard Khoury, BO18 (Port Rd., Karantina, 1-580-018) is one of the most notorious nightclubs in the world; it is an underground cemetery-bunker built on the ruins of a onetime Palestinian refugee camp. The morbid theme partly explains the intensity of the scene. Get there after 3 a.m. and stay long enough to see the roof open up on to a Beirut sunrise.