Editor’s note: After reading Sam’s amazing description of Beirut, please follow the link at the end of the article to make a donation to the Lebanese Red Cross if you are inspired to help after the terrible tragedy that befell what seems like an incredible place. To read more of Sam’s content here at TRT, click here.
A couple weeks ago, I watched in horror as the Port of Beirut exploded, leveling buildings, injuring thousands, killing at least 150 people, and causing over $15 billion in damage. Not long ago, I had been to this city and enjoyed my evenings in the café at my hostel amidst hookah smoke, eating the best hummus in the world, while listening to local bands play traditional music to which Lebanese young adults flocked and danced. The hostel, Saifi Urban Gardens, was one of the best I have ever encountered, with a tremendous atmosphere, kind staff, and a rooftop bar overlooking the port, and today, this little oasis in a bustling city is nothing more than rubble, completely destroyed by the blast.
Beirut is easily one of the most bizarre and enchanting cities that I have visited in my life. Known as the Paris of the Middle East, there are areas, like the hip Gemmayze Street, that forced me to keep reminding myself that I was not in the cosmopolitan hub of Lebanon’s enemy neighbor, Tel Aviv, Israel. At the same time, there were other parts of the city that were crowded, heavily Islamic, and rooted deep in Arab culture, reminiscent of the streets of Cairo, but with daunting yellow flags pledging allegiance to Hezbollah flying atop apartment high rises.
Not unlike Istanbul, Beirut is a city that is at a crossroads of progressive westernism and conservative traditionalism. I spent three days in this country that is slightly smaller than Connecticut, using Beirut as my base, and wish I had had a couple more days to explore the northern part of the country. For me, a Zionist American rabbi, deep inside Hezbollah territory at times, who had always known Lebanon as a hostile adversary, the three days spent there were among the most fascinating I have had as a traveler.
Arriving in Beirut is overwhelming to the senses; driving down Gemmayze Street at night, there is a feeling of joy as young Lebanese men and women bar hop. A block further are the romantic St. Nicholas stairs, which look like a scene out of Italy. Going a few blocks beyond, you are forced to confront the other side of Beirut with the magnificent Sunni Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque lit up against the night’s sky. With bright blue domes and towering minarets, reminiscent of grandiose Ottoman mosques, this relatively new mosque (built in 2008) has become a symbol for Lebanon’s clash between modernity and tradition. Take the opportunity to go inside and see the ornate chandeliers (some of which were destroyed in the explosion) and the beautifully painted ceilings and walls. Surrounding the mosque is Martyr’s Square, a large, uncovered Roman street dating back 2000 years, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, and the Maronite Cathedral of St. George with its archaeological museum and skeletal remains in the basement. This one block shows the complexities of this small nation, which is located in a region of the world where tribal identity and religion are everything, yet itself is divided, as approximately 27% of the population identify with Shiite Islam, 27% Sunni Islam, 21% Maronite Christian, 20% another Christian denomination, and 5% Druze. The tension boiled over into a 15-year civil war from 1975-1990 that led to decades of Israeli and Syrian military occupation. The remnants of this war are still visible today as virtually every building older than 1990 in Beirut has damage from the war.
Despite this troubled past and, to a degree, present, Beirut is a city where a person can find peace. A stroll along Beirut’s infamous Corniche will take you past the stunning Pigeon Rocks, emerging out of the Mediterranean in an imposing way. Continuing north and dodging the hordes of joggers and rollerbladers, you will find the beautiful buildings and gardens of the American University of Beirut. Though it is a relic of the colonial past that has caused regional strife and quagmires that last to this day, AUB remains the premier institution of higher learning throughout the Arab world.
For a day trip to understand the diverse nature of Lebanon, take a trip to the southern part of the country. Go to Beirut’s Cola bus interchange and hop a minibus to Sidon (called Saida by locals), a lovely seaside town 45 minutes south of Beirut with a beautiful old city and market. Make sure to walk over to the Crusader Sea Castle built on top of the water and also go to the soap factory to learn about the process of creating handmade soaps, which has been a source of pride, income, and cultural focus of Sidon for hundreds of years. Sidon is 80% Sunni in its population and feels a world apart from the next stop south, Tyre (Sour). Unlike Sidon, Tyre is predominately Shiite in its population and is considered a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization, a major political player in Lebanon, but a designated terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, the European Union and the Arab League, one which was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group until 9/11. The presence of Hezbollah, with its checkpoints and cemeteries bearing its flag in Tyre juxtaposed with the Lebanese military’s base in the same city reveal the lack of unity within the country that has multiple militias and armies.
The Crusader Sea Castle
To complicate Lebanon’s situation and demographics further is the status of its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that inhabit its borders. These individuals are today mostly the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who came to Lebanon fleeing the violence of Israel’s War of Independence. The initial refugees were given camps to stay in, but in over 70 years have never been granted permanent housing or Lebanese citizenship, either to them or to the generations that followed, creating a perpetually growing humanitarian crisis of stateless people who have only known one country as a physical home. In Tyre, 60,000 predominately Sunni Palestinians live in these various ramshackle camps, and tensions have risen over new refugees from West Africa and Syria moving in and doing menial labor for cheaper prices than the Palestinians. With my American Jewish identity, it was a surreal feeling to walk past Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) flags, and posters of the spiritual leaders of these organizations: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hassan Nasrallah, and Yasser Arafat. Though the city’s demographics are diversifying, Tyre is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, going back nearly 5,000 years and being cited in the Bible. While there, be sure to visit picturesque seaside Roman Hot Springs Ruins, and also the UNESCO World Heritage Al-Bass Archaeological Site, featuring one of the largest Roman hippodrome racetracks in the Levant, and also dozens of beautifully decorated tombs at the outdoor necropolis there.
A banner to PLO founder Yasser Arafat
It never seems like a good time to visit Lebanon, which continuously has a State Department warning and is often in an internal or external conflict, where popular uprisings seem to occur more often than not, and that is also struggling to control its coronavirus outbreak. However, once our world and Lebanon are safer and healthier, I believe that visiting places that have faced recent disaster is an ethical way we can contribute to their rebuilding. Certainly, a visit to Beirut and Lebanon’s southern coast will leave a lasting impression, and likely more questions than answers, as well as an appreciation for the regional challenges and those within the country who are seeking a better, more peaceful tomorrow for their beloved country.
This is normally where we make a pitch to help sponsor The Royal Tour. Today, if this article inspires you, we ask instead that you make a donation to the Lebanese Red Cross to help the country after the terrible tragedy that took place. Some things are more important than ad-free travel content.
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