“Why not put down roots in Beirut?”

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Financial Times, June 5, 2010


Why not put down roots in Beirut?
FT.com, Financial Times, June 5th, 2010 By Tyler Brûlé
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After years on the hunt for Mediterranean digs, I discovered two places in Lebanon that were so affordable and delicious.

Fast Lane officially shifted into phase one of the summer holidays last Saturday at 14.30 Beirut time when my Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt touched down at Rafic Hariri International and I was met by a cloudless sky, a dazzling sea, no significant queues at the “Do you have an Israeli stamp in your passport?” checkpoint and a barrage of e-mails in response to my column about OOORs (out-of-office repliers).

For those who might be interested, about 65 per cent of readers were in favour of a ban on OOORs while the balance felt so outraged that I was fearful that there might have been some fatwa declared against me (and this newspaper) and I’d have to lay on security to travel the streets of Hamra.

The last time I was in Beirut I left the city hours before Hezbollah got a bit excitable; and Lebanon had to endure yet another summer of strife. Speeding into town, I thought Pepsi’s choice of World Cup advertising and imagery a bit misguided as we drove under hoardings pasted with images of crazy-looking fans in warpaint book-ending the slogan: “Unleash Your Passion”. If there’s one thing Lebanon’s factions don’t need during the hot summer months, it is any encouragement to get passionate – particularly by a company that trades in caffeinated, sugary beverages. According to my friend Carole, Lebanon has a bad track record in World Cup years, which have tended here to end in shoot-outs of a bloodier sort.

As we drove through the streets of Ashrafieh, it was immediately clear that the cautious behaviour of Lebanon’s banks over the past 24 months had been good, even too good, for the economy: the city is in the middle of a building boom. All over the upscale Christian quarter elegant low-rise apartment blocks from the early 20th century and handsome villas from the 19th have been reduced to rubble and replaced by gaudy hoardings promising new garden towers of glass and cheap, reconstituted stone.

While there’s still enough of old Ashrafieh around to give it a sense of place (the little dry-cleaning shops, the sliver-width news-stands, domestic-staff uniform shops and pockets of 1960s graphic-design brilliance on shop awnings), it’s going fast. On the entrances and walls of finer buildings all over the city A4-size posters have been plastered demanding that they be preserved, and advocating people to sign up on Facebook. It is all wonderfully well intentioned, but I had to wonder how many of the chic old dears shuffling around the neighbourhood in their coiffures, massive sunglasses and little housedresses had ever applied their perfect nails to a keyboard let alone logged on to Facebook.

Like most things Lebanese, the flavour of protest is going to need to be a little bit sharper (think, for instance, of the tart, satisfying effect of sumac and lemon in a fattoush salad) to stop the developers from erecting shocking off-the-shelf towerblocks that could just as easily be going up in Sharjah or the suburbs of Istanbul. A mass protest in the form of a permanent sit-in throughout the most architecturally threatened neighbourhoods would be a good place to start. Developers, diggers and prospective clients from Doha could be kept at bay while daily life carried on as normal behind the key protest choke-points.

The other alternative is to encourage as many like-minded people as possible to flood to Beirut to buy up the wonderful French Deco apartments and restore them sympathetically.

On Tuesday morning I decided to do my bit and went on an apartment tour with Emily and Mats under the guidance of Kamal Mouzawak (founder of the Soul al Tayeb farmer’s market and the tasty new restaurant TawLet) scouting for a place in the sun. Regular readers will know that I’ve been on the hunt for Mediterranean digs for the past five years and it’s little surprise that my attention has now turned to Ashrafieh, Hamra and Mar Mikhael. I’d like to tell you more about my discoveries but two places I saw were so affordable and delicious that I don’t want to jinx it or have a keen reader beat me to the deposit, so I’ll let you know if and when I sign a contract and start moving all that furniture in storage in Zürich to the port of Beirut.

What I can tell you is that the city is the best place to do a little shopping, sunning and dancing in June. My highlights include:

1. A day at the Lazy B Beach Club – this private club 10 minutes south of the airport feels a bit like 55 in St Tropez but the setting is better and it’s more comfortable and welcoming.

2. Breakfast on the rooftop at the Hotel Albergo.

3. Magazine and book shopping at Papercup in Mar Mikhael.

4. An Armenian feast at Varouge in the Bourj Hammoud district.

5. A late-night drinking session at the new and very inviting Li Beirut bar in Hamra. You’ll leave wanting the entire soundtrack that the boys spin into the wee hours.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

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More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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