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Beirut unexpected: once known as the Paris of the Middle East, this seaside city fell into chaos during Lebanon's prolonged civil war. Years later the Arab world's most gay-friendly metropolis glitters anew.

Stand in the middle of downtown Beirut, under the big clock at Place de l'Etoile, and look around. There's a pack of Saudi teenagers, some in the traditional white robes and headdresses, others wearing baseball caps and sneakers, and one combining the two styles. A couple of German backpackers in boots are bargaining with an Armenian spinster for a Yemeni dagger while a team of waiters in an American hamburger chain restaurant is singing "Happy Birthday" to a veiled mother of three. Then Saad al-Hariri, son of the recently assassinated ex-prime minister, walks by with 150 of his best friends to the cheers of everyone who isn't already occupied with their own unfolding drama. When a cool wind blows in off the Mediterranean, everything seems so bright--the faces, the clothes, the stores--and maybe everything seems brighter than usual since, after all, it's midnight, and the evening's just about to start.

Welcome to the liveliest city in all the Middle East, where the West meets the Arab world. If most casual observers of international events still associate Beirut with the chaos of the country's 15-year-long civil war, rave aficionados know that Beirut is one of the capitals of the international DJ circuit. This city has moved on. Certainly there are old resentments and more than a few scars from the violence--bullet-marred buildings and a beautiful coastline that is not yet entirely free from the pollution it suffered during the war--but now Beirutis will do almost anything to avoid civil strife.

Both Lebanon's Muslims and Christians are still ostensibly very traditional in their sexual mores, but there's more than an undercurrent of roiling passions. Sure, there are plenty of 30-year-old virgins, but Beirut is where the Arab world goes to let its hair down, party hard, and to be frank, have really good sex.

Indeed, it's tourism that has empowered the country's gay and lesbian community and has made it the most liberal place in the Arab world. "Tourists come from all over the world because they know Lebanon is a fairly open society," says Georges Azzi, head of the Beirut-based organization Helem (Arabic for "dream"), the Arab world's first and only gay advocacy group. "This is especially so for Gulf Arabs," he explains, referring to the Middle East's most lavish spenders, from countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. "So the police couldn't crack down on the nightlife scene even if they wanted to."

Beirut's gay nightlife scene consists of a few landmarks: nightclubs like Acid and OM, both outside the center of the city in nearby suburbs, and BO18. This is probably the most famous club in the city, in part due to its stunning decor, great music, and fantastic crowd, and also because it is built on top of what is essentially a mass grave from the civil-war years. But gay nightlife here is hardly restricted to gay (or what some Beirutis call gay-friendly) establishments; the whole city's open to all.

The downtown area is a good place to start for people-watching, families, and tourists. The Gulf visitors partake in a fair amount of Bluetooth cruising with their cell phones, but the city's serious partying takes place in two neighborhoods--the nightlife scene is vibrant but small enough that after a week you'll recognize familiar faces, and they'll recognize yours. So have fun, but remember that word spreads quickly if you're a bad time.

The Monot area is for a younger crowd: college students from the American University in Beirut and the city's several other schools as well as 20-something professionals, or, more often than not, recent graduates still looking for work. The neighborhood is loud, boisterous, and from Thursday night to early Sunday morning packed with thoroughly gorgeous men and women. In Beirut, more is more, especially when it comes to showing off your body. That maxim also applies to crowds. Most Lebanese night crawlers avoid places not jammed to capacity--there's more of a chance to see and be seen, and no one minds rubbing up against their neighbors.

If you're too shy for that inimitable Lebanese specialty, dancing on tables, and interested in slightly quieter nights and much more serious food, then you're better off in Gemmayze, not far from Monot and also located in predominantly Christian East Beirut. It's one of the most beautiful areas in the city, with 19th-century Ottoman mansions, Parisian-style apartment buildings, and the Montmarte-influenced Saint Nicholas Stairs, home to an annual arts festival. "It's one of the most cultured neighborhoods in the city," says Lina Lteis, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who also manages Paul, a stylish local French cafe with an outdoor garden and fountain. "Here you find people who are French-educated, Arabic-educated, British- or American-educated."

For most of the 20th century Beirut served as a capital for many of the Middle East's intellectual and artistic refugees and outcasts. So it's here where the Arab world expresses itself most freely--in Arabic, French, and English (and most Lebanese are eager to add a fourth language since three doesn't seem like such a big deal). Moreover, this tiny country of 4 million people and 18 different religious sects is obsessed with politics--local, regional, and international.

Those interwoven, multilayered politics are what touched off the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990, providing an opportunity for neighboring Syria to occupy Lebanon for another 15 years until 2005. With the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri last February, hundreds of thousands of people from all religious sects and communities took to the streets in unison to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops to forge a new future.

"You could tell something was in the air," says Maher Chebaro, a leading nightlife impresario and owner of L'O restaurant in Gemmayze. "I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but with all the people I see coming through the restaurant and all the young people in the neighborhood--musicians, artists, journalists--I just knew something big was going to change in Lebanon."

While "cedar" revolution initiated a process of national reconciliation, the country is not yet in the clear, as a series of car bombers and assassins have attempted to terrorize the country. But a few aren't going to make the Lebanese fold. "We recover quickly," says Lteis. "The Lebanese are always optimistic."

As a sign of that optimism, restaurants and bars are opening all over, as are other new projects, like the Arab world's first magazine for gays and lesbians, Barra (Arabic for "out"). The editor in chief is Munir Abdullah, a writer and activist who also tends bar at Walimat Wardeh, a small and stylish restaurant-bar in Hamra, the heart of predominantly Muslim West Beirut.

Barra gives Abdullah, his staff, and other contributors a chance to be direct, with articles in Arabic and English, on explicitly homosexual issues--from gay artists and art to gay politics. Though some gays and lesbians feared that such a magazine would further distance them from the rest of the country and the region, Barra's success has exceeded expectations. "We've sold 500 print copies," not bad for a magazine without large distribution, he explains, "but over 5,000 have been downloaded from the online site."

Perhaps it seems strange that such a small country is leading the way for other Arab nations. It's not just that Muslims and Christians have coexisted for such a long time; the Lebanese are descendants of the Phoenicians, a seafaring society that became one of the world's great civilizations precisely because they were open to new things. Much is made here of various cultural influences existing side by side--a church next to a mosque, a girl in a miniskirt next to another wearing a veil, and bright store windows next to millennia-old Roman ruins.

If Beirut has taken in foreign influences, it's useful to remember that Lebanon has also shaped the outside world. The Lebanese are fond of reminding visitors that there are 14 million of them, but only a fraction live here. The diaspora, about 10 million strong, is spread around the globe. Like their ancient forebears, the Phoenicians, they've gone to see the world, learn from it, and remake it in their image. Some Lebanese, it turns out, never return, even if they're always thinking of their beautiful country. Once you get here you'll see why.

ESSENTIALS BEIRUT (Dial 011-961 before all phone numbers)

ACCOMMODATIONS There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in Beirut, many of them considerably more budget-conscious than those listed below. But if you're not traveling in style in Beirut, you're only getting half the picture. Hotel Albergo (137 Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi St., 1-339-797, $270 and up), a 19th-century Ottoman villa located in Ashrafieh, the city's main Christian area, is far and away Beirut's most stylish hotel. It features 33 suites with a rooftop pool, restaurant-bar, and first-rate Italian restaurant, Al Dente, downstairs. Right across the street from the much more famous Intercontinental Phoenicia, the Monroe (Kennedy Street, 1-371-122, $150-$200) is younger, hipper, and cheaper. Part of the vast European chain, the Movenpick (General de Gaulle Avenue, 1-869-666, $185-$285) doesn't get enough respect. OK, the food's merely good, not great, the rooms are a little pricey, and the area's one of the least interesting in Beirut, but the private beach is one of the best in the city.

RESTAURANTS Beirut is the food capital of the Middle East, combining traditional Lebanese cooking with influences from, among others, French and Turkish cuisines. The following restaurants go one step further: The health-conscious vegetarian version of Lebanese cuisine at Walimat Warcleh (Makdessi Street. Hamra, 1-343-128) is excellent, and the decor is charming. Manager Munir Abdullah, editor in chief of the Arab world's first gay and lesbian magazine, presides over a warmly inclusive, sometimes raucous scene. Sure, you didn't come to Beirut for Italian food, but the home-made pastas at Fennel (Weavers Center, Clemenceau Street, 1-363-792) are excellent in this bright, stylish restaurant in Clemenceau, one of the city's traditional quarters. Get there for lunch and check out the furniture gallery upstairs. Casablanca (Minet al-Hosn Street, Ein al-Mreisseh, 1-369-334) offers excellent but pricey Lebanese wines, Asian-Arab-Euro fusion cuisine, and Cuban cigars in a beautiful two-story Ottoman mansion right off the Corniche, the Mediterranean-adjacent promenade.

BARS AND CAFES In Beirut the most crowded bars always draw the biggest crowds, even if the bar's about the size of a really big walk-in closet, like Torino Express (Gouraud Street, Gemmayze, 3-611-101), second home to Lebanon's small but growing bourgeois-bohemian set--filmmakers, actors, and journalists. The drinks are cheap, the music is good, and the scene is always hot, sweaty, and sexy. One of the few places where you can actually hear the person you've been trying to chat up all night, Le Rouge (Gouraud Street, Gemmayze, 1-442-366) is good for late-night snacks and Lebanese wine. Coffeehouse and sandwich shop by day, Prague (Makdessi Street, Hamra, 3-575-282) is Hamra's most happening bar with the city's best music come nightfall.

NIGHTCLUBS There's a lot of dancing in the city but not a lot of dance space, which means, like most Lebanese, you'll likely wind up dancing on tables, chairs, or someone's shoulders. The alpha and omega of Beirut's gay club scene, Acid (Sin El Fil, 3-714-678) is about a 15-minute cab ride from downtown Beirut. Designed by architect Bernard Khoury, BO18 (Port Road, Karantina, 1-580-018) is one of the most notorious nightclubs in the world; it is an underground cemetery-bunker built on the ruins of a onetime Palestinian refugee camp. The morbid theme partly explains the intensity of the scene. Arrive after 3 A.M. and stay long enough to see the roof open up to a Beirut sunrise. Find links to sites on OutTraveler.com.

The cityscape, shot from a hot air balloon that rises in downtown Beirut from a fixed cable; 15-minute balloon rides are $10.
THE OUT TRAVELER RATINGS: BEIRUT

Gay-Friendly Fair
Legal Domestic Partnerships Poor
Adoption Laws Poor
Antidiscrimination Laws Poor
HIV Information Fair
Gay Scene Fair
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Author:Smith, Lee
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jan 17, 2006
Words:1996
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