A week in Beirut in a post.
BEIRUT, Lebanon- Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with blogging when in Beirut. This has all too often been the case when in interesting places where I’m engaged in interesting projects — the best places to blog about. The reason for this is simple: when the wheels of travel are moving fast, when you’re collecting large amounts of content, the task of processing and publishing it becomes greater. You dig into it and discover that it’s two weeks later and you’re on the other side of the world. That said, here goes:
My week in Beirut was non-stop action. It’s the Middle East — people stay up all night in the Middle East — but people also drink in Lebanon. The country is something like 40% Christian and there is also a vibrant progressive secular culture that has been brewing there for generations. Beirut has always been the party spot of the Middle East, and I was told multiple times that it was actually crazier in the past. The result of all of this is a place that could only be described with the overtly banal adjective: fun.
Bars stay open in Beirut until the last drunk goes home or until the bartender decides to close. This could be 4 am, 5 am, or, if the party hasn’t stopped, not at all.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much in Beirut. When traveling on your own your sleep schedule can become oddly pliable. It doesn’t really matter if you sleep from 10 pm to 5 am, or from 5 am to 10 am. This allows you to experiment with different sleep patterns, and I believe 1 pm to 8 pm would be optimal — giving me both mornings and nights to work with — but I haven’t yet tested this theory. When it truly doesn’t matter when you sleep, certain opportunities open up for you to see places in alternative phases. It also puts you in this strange miasma of temporal suspension, eventually resulting in this kind of surreal state where reality and fiction start to blur — perhaps the ideal state for a writer to be in.
I wrote about this a little from Bishkek in early 2017:
This fact alone makes Bishkek the ideal city for the writer. You can show up at a cafe at 2am, write through the early morning hours, eat breakfast, and then go home to bed. You can show up at a bar at 7am and drink until lunch. If you get hungry at five in the morning you can just go to the nearest supermarket. The writing life generally frees you from having a steady schedule. The only thing hemming you in are the opening and closing times to the places you’d like to frequent. In Bishkek, this is no obstacle. There is no regular wake up time, no logical bed time. I can play out any cycle of the day at any time, I can exist on any time zone I choose. Bishkek provides a unique sense of temporal freedom. There is something about this that I like.
I stayed in the Mayflower Hotel in Beirut, which has become a cultural landmark — being one of the oldest hotels in the city and a place that Graham Greene and his like would come to party in. It was one of those old hotels that I’m completely enamored with; the kind of hotel that was once high-class and fashionable that still holds on to that legacy despite growing old and getting run down, ultimately bottoming out as a quasi-budget establishment. I will put it this way: I could afford to stay there. However, the place is meticulously preserved: the waiters and bellhops still wear their old uniforms and gloves; the paintings on the walls, the decor, the lamps, the feel and mood, seem the same as if it was 50 years ago. The place is a breathing museum that is still owned and managed by the family who started it, and I would sometimes just walk through the winding hallways, looking around, imagining all the life that happened here. The stories.
After checking in I went to the Duke of Wellington pub sits on the first floor of the Mayflower. The place appeared overtly preserved to be how it’s always been. Animal head trophies and old rifles were hung on the walls. The place looked like a colonial British social club, which it may have been. The furniture appeared original: old wooden chairs with ornately carved armrests and cushions that were bolted down with brass rivets. The paintings on the walls were of old English colonists and aristocrats — dukes and other mofos in wigs. Besides the refrigeration, it was challenging to find anything of the current era. It was almost like the place closed its doors to the world outside and the churn of time three generations ago, as if to say, “No thank you, we’re fine how we are.” Like the rest of the Mayflower Hotel, it was a perfect time capsule.
There’s not many places like this left in the world.
I sat in the lounge by myself and drank a solitary beer, laughing about how I was scammed over a SIM card at the airport and started planing my projects for this stop.
After that beer at the Duke of Wellington I went out in the streets looking for something else. I strolled around just to see what I could come up with. It was around 11 pm but everything was still open. I cut down a side street and saw this inconspicuous bar that had a small neon in the window that said “Cheers.” Something about the place caught my attention — the lack of decor and pomp on the exterior kind of reminded me of neighborhood bars in Buffalo. I went closer and peered in through the windows. People were singing and dancing. Seemed merry enough for me.
The big Armenian bartender greeted me with a bellow, shook my hand, and slid over a beer. The bar was set up as a big square that almost took up the entire room, so everybody could face each other while drinking. The bartender stood in the center, directing conversation.
To my right was a couple who proudly proclaimed that one was Sunni and the other was Shite. They were both journalists. Next to them was a young filmmaker who made documentaries. To my left was a Kurdish guy who wrote screenplays — one of which, I was told, was made into a popular TV series. Everybody had their art, their thing that they did, which the conversation revolved around.
“I called it Cheers because people say that more than anything else. They say cheers more than they talk about politics or religion,” the bartender bellowed.
When I eventually left the bartender called out after me: “I won’t say I will see you tomorrow. I will see you later today!”
It was 4 am.
This was a cross-section of how Beirut went. While the city is a collection of cultures from all parts of the Middle East the biggest divide is perhaps that between the secular, internationalized, literati sect, who didn’t really give a shit about what ethnicity anyone had printed on their id, and the pockets of more traditional, more conservative cultures, who remain socially distinct.
I didn’t leave the Hamra area — a collection of streets by the American university — and I stayed within the fold of the literati. Maybe the next time I go back I will take on different types of projects, but for what I was doing this was what I wanted.
I also worked in Beirut. I shot a documentary about this old bar called Captain’s Cabin, which ended up being an extremely fascinating story. I also filmed a short about an interpretive dancer. I will talk more about these over the coming months.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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