I am watching a Lebanese bride posing for a bevy of photographers at the poolside setting of my hotel in Beirut. She is so lovely—and the photographers so many—that for a moment I think she is a local celebrity. Her fashionable white wedding gown is daringly cut—what Kate Middleton walked down the aisle in is nun-like by comparison—this one is so off-off-shoulder that the bodice seems to be held up solely by magic. Her tiny waist is scrunched up with a decorative belt. She throws back her head, veil billowing in the gentle evening breeze, and smiles confidently at the cameras. I congratulate the groom who is watching spellbound, and tell him how gorgeous his bride looks. “And she is all mine,” he says with awe. When is the wedding? Two days ago! At his home. As per Muslim custom. And tonight? The big reception at the hotel for family and friends.
Beirut has many such “Go figure” moments for me. What is a Muslim bride doing in a Christian wedding gown? Why is she happily displaying a creamy expanse of shoulder and bosom? In the meantime, I cover up head to toe in a “borrowed” black abaya (with a lingering fragrance of Chanel No. 5 from past wearers) as I visit the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque (blue-domed, Hagia Sophia-like, built by Rafik Hariri, a newly created icon of the city).
Uptown girls: A Lebanese bride and her friends cruise in a luxury car in Beirut. Jordi Cami/Getty Images
Beirut is ridden with such contradictions at every turn, and that’s what adds to its fascination, making it top The New York Times’ list of must-visit places a couple of years ago. A history of violence doesn’t seem to hinder it from being a party town like no other—one gets the sense instead that living dangerously makes it celebrate life to the hilt. It has a dazzling array of nightclubs and bars to keep you up till sunrise: Skybar, Centrale, B-O18, Crystal, to name a few, many frequenting the Top 100 List of the World’s Best Bars. The per capita income is only $7,000 (around Rs 3.15 lakh), but the streets are full of luxury cars, fine restaurants are chock-a-block (book the restaurants before you book your flights, seriously), Chanel and Vuitton bags are everywhere, and the city wears the air of a sophisticated fashion-and-design capital. The women are gorgeous (I hear murmurs of rampant going-under-the-knife) and, high heels notwithstanding, appear taller than the men. Is it an illusion? Go figure.
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The physicality of the city is also marked by breathtaking contrasts. I see scores of bullet-ridden buildings—remnants of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990—nestling cozily next to swank new edifices. There are umpteen mosques adjacent to umpteen churches, and sometimes a mosque that was a church that was a mosque (like the Al-Omari mosque) and without fail they are all as stunningly lovely as the bride. There are painstakingly restored buildings, many in mustard sandstone, with cafés spilling out on cobbled streets, and you think you might be in France or Spain or Italy. Ruins from a Roman bath—extremely tech-savvy, those guys two millennia ago devised ingenious heating systems—just sit there placidly, their innards laid bare, while you stroll alongside. The old, the new, the destroyed, the reincarnated, all co-mingle in a strange cycle of birth and rebirth. Even the Hindu notion of reincarnation finds a hold here—the Druze, although Muslim by faith, believe that everyone is born again.
Being born over and over again is one thing Beirut—indeed Lebanon—specializes in. It is like a history book with the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and French throwing their weight around this tiny nation. The result is constant churn and reinvention. Beirut, founded in 3000 BC, has been rebuilt several times over. At Byblos, a World Heritage site an hour’s drive from Beirut—and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world—I am amazed to see beautiful Roman columns from the first century, cut and recycled by the Crusaders in the 12th century to build a fort. The French, although here briefly from 1920 to 1941, have left their mark—French is spoken everywhere, alongside Arabic and English, and sometimes all three in the same sentence.
This plethora of influences has left a complex and highly fragmented religious trail. There are not just Muslims and Christians as I had thought, but 18 distinct sects within those—the aforementioned Druze are one of them—each with their own set of laws, beliefs and political affiliations. Recurring friction is inevitable—I innocently asked a woman how the civil war affected her life, back came the answer that she was shot in the leg as a child on her way to school! Sharing the border with Israel has its own consequences—there are half a million Palestinian refugees who have been living here for decades, and that’s a lot given that the total population of Lebanon is just four million. In the meantime, the Lebanese have been migrating out into the world—now there are four times more abroad than at home. People of Lebanese origin have been making their mark in varied fields: poet-philosopher Khalil Gibran, richest-man-in-the-world Carlos Slim, businessman Carlos Ghosn, singer Shakira, actor Salma Hayek, designer Elie Saab (exquisitely cut clothes, his Beirut store is a must for fashion lovers), the honour roll is long and varied.
The one thing that unites the country is a great love for food. It is simple food celebrating the ingredients of the Mediterranean—what makes it so special is the freshness, every dish bursting with flavour. We breakfast at the Farmers Market held every Saturday in downtown Beirut and I fall in love with manakeesh—a cross between a roti (it is made on a large ulta tawa) and a pizza, topped with a scrumptious mixture of olive oil, wild thyme, roasted sesame seeds and sumac (a new spice for me, it looks like chilli powder, but has a sour taste). We have a memorable meal at the seaside restaurant Mhanna Sur Mer—where we run into the Lebanese author Nassim Taleb of Black Swan fame—the chef is renowned for his superb mezze. Our host must have ordered the entire mezze menu—or so it seems to me from the overloaded table—and we dig into Lebanese classics such as tabbouleh (parsley salad), moutabal (like a baingan bharta dip), hummus (chickpea dip), fattoush (mixed salad), warak (wine leaves stuffed with rice), fatayer (like spinach samosa), batata harra (that’s right, potatoes spiced up), different kinds of goat cheeses, and many more dishes that I didn’t catch the names of.
And that’s just for starters! If you are looking for a short sumptuous holiday, Beirut should definitely be on your menu.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at firstname.lastname@example.org