Wednesday, January 27, 2010
USA TODAY - Friday 22nd of January BEIRUT RECLAIMS ITS COWN
BEIRUT — On a mild Tuesday evening in downtown Beirut, the city's young and beautiful are bellying up to the hottest night spot, the bohemian Gemmayzeh neighborhood. Model-chic Beiruti women, sporting skinny pants, stiletto boots and cascading tresses, cluster in groups or with dates inside the hip bars, pubs and restaurants that line this milder Middle East version of Bourbon Street. Not far away, in the Old World-style Albergo boutique hotel, visiting Michelin-starred chefs from France are dishing out meals for a sold-out crowd that takes Beirut's sophisticated dining scene for granted. During the summer, the trendy flock to swank rooftop clubs — Noir, Sky Bar or White Bar, where Champagne bottle service can run $10,000 — to dance till dawn. Call it Sex and the City meets South Beach. Beirut's sizzling nightlife, from gritty to glam, helped drive a record tourism year in 2009. Overcoming a reputation as a Middle East trouble spot, Lebanon welcomed nearly 2 million visitors last year, a 39% increase over 2008. It was the No. 1 destination for tourism growth in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization. 'Joie de vivre' draws Arabs, Westerners "Lebanon is back," Nada Sardouk, Lebanon's tourism director general, told the Middle East news agency AMEInfo.com in December. "We've had 80% to 90% hotel occupancy this year. But it's more than about just numbers. ... It's about the joie de vivre." That exuberance is drawing mainly Gulf Arabs for the liberal lifestyle, Mediterranean climate and beaches; returning Lebanese expats; and intrepid Westerners. After years of political turmoil and war, a newfound security and calm has settled over this parliamentary democracy, ushering in a renaissance, however fragile. Although Lebanon is still on the U.S. State Department travel warning list, Beirut itself was virtually free of sectarian violence last year. The peace dividend is evident in tony new hotels, sleek malls and office towers, and a vibrant arts and music scene, which draws the likes of Snoop Dogg and international DJs. One anticipated newcomer is Le Gray, a chic boutique hotel that British hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray opened in November. Over roasted quail in its rooftop Indigo restaurant, Campbell Gray gushes about this city of 2 million. "Beirut is a real city, with real history and edge. That makes it sexy," he says. "I find it beguiling, exciting, damaged, vain, beautiful. This is the new hot place." Four Seasons president Kathleen Taylor is equally bullish. "We're very pleased with our timing," Taylor says of the new seaside Four Seasons, which opened this month. "There's a real resurgence of interest in Beirut." Hotel guests will find a heady mix of cultures and religions — European flavor, French colonial legacy and Middle Eastern intrigue in arguably the most tolerant city in the Arab world. In this pluralistic society with 18 religious groups — primarily Muslims and Christians — one's religious affiliation defines one's politics. "My identity is my religion first, and Lebanese, second," says Rita Aad, who works for a foreign embassy. The mosaic can be disorienting: Mosques sit cheek by jowl with churches and monasteries. Image-obsessed women in revealing outfits — some showing off their nose-job bandages — stroll alongside women covered from head to toe. The muezzins' lilting call to prayer mingles with European techno blaring from passing cars. And the trilingual locals are apt to greet each other in a mélange of Arabic, French and English while cheek-kissing — three times, no less. As this onetime Paris of the Middle East dons its new face, gleaming skyscrapers brush up against pockmarked cement skeletons that still await makeovers 20 years after the end of Lebanon's civil war. Meanwhile, Beirut's 5,000-year-old historic core is being transformed by urban development group Solidere. Restored golden limestone buildings, aglow at sunset, now house cafés and boutiques, where fashionistas can mainline Cartier and Fendi. This area "symbolizes the whole country," says Solidere's development head Angus Gavin. "All the different religions are represented here." Indeed, layers of history reveal a Roman bathhouse, St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, the landmark Mohammed al-Amin mosque and showpieces from the Ottoman and French Mandate eras. To reconcile Beirut's brutal past — the city has been destroyed and reconstructed seven times — Solidere is creating a Garden of Forgiveness and an interpretive heritage trail that's due this spring. New buildings are going up, too. Traditional souks have been reborn as a modern open-air mall lined with designer stores. In the new Sayfeh Village, the moneyed live in chic pastel condos surrounded by antique shops and galleries. "Beirut bounces back quickly," Gavin says. "It's an extraordinary characteristic of the Lebanese, like a life force." A playground among the ruins That survivor mentality causes people to seize the moment — partying with passion, despite power outages and brutal traffic. "Beirut is like a Lebanese Babylon, where Arabs can dance on tabletops, swim in bikinis and kiss their girlfriends in public," says British journalist Warren Singh-Bartlett, a 12-year resident. In summer, the famous beach clubs hold their own against the playgrounds of Greece and Spain. Whether on the beach or in the smoky cafés — Lebanon has one of the world's highest smoking rates — conversation inevitably turns to politics, given the volatile history and many minorities all jockeying for position. With a frisson of danger never far from the surface, "there's a subversive appeal," Singh-Bartlett says. "You go to a swanky restaurant serving Japanese-Spanish fusion and leave and see bombed-out ruins. But you don't have to worry about being mugged on the street, only about being invaded." Indeed, the legendary Lebanese warmth and hospitality engenders a sense of safety. When this visitor asks directions of a male pedestrian, she is graciously offered a ride to her destination — and doesn't hesitate to accept. "Beirut is a very strange and complex city," says Sandra Dagher, Lebanese co-director of the year-old Beirut Art Center, a warehouse-turned-exhibit space that would be right at home in SoHo. That complexity is on full display along the Corniche, the palm-lined boulevard hugging the coast for miles, which draws tout Beirut. On soft evenings, people gather to suck on hookahs packed with flavored tobacco while knots of men pole-fish patiently. Young couples stroll hand-in-hand, oblivious to soldiers in fatigues. And everyone, it seems, deeply inhales the balmy sea air as if to hold onto this moment of peace forever.