I flew non-stop from Guayaquil, Ecuador on my favorite airline KLM to Amsterdam; after a few hours lay-over, I then flew to Paris on Air France, another very good airline; and after staying overnight in Paris, Air France flew me into Beirut, Lebanon.
I snapped a couple of photos while in flight as we approached Beirut. It was a very clear day, and my excitement mounted as I saw these aerial views of what would be my next adventure. It would be my first time to ever visit a country in the Middle East. I was also greatly looking forward to seeing my son, Marc, who would prove to be the consummate host.
The views from the air reminded be of the rare occasions when I flew into Chicago over Lake Michigan with a beautiful view of the Lake Shore, Navy Pier, and Downtown Chicago.
Beirut was considered one of the most modern, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world in the 1970's. Unfortunately, a horrendous civil war began among different groups, but primarily between Christians and Muslims. The war raged on for about fifteen years before it ended in 1990. Tremendous devastation was done to the city. The population of Lebanon, itself, had shifted from approximately 60% Christian before the war, as many Christians exiled to Greece and Cyprus, to possibly forty percent Christian today. No census has been taken since the end of the Civil War, and some believe the percentage of Christians today may be even lower in the country.
Amazingly before the civil war, Muslims and Christians (altogether there are eighteen different designated religious groups in Beirut today) lived pretty much integrated. While the different groups have for the most part coexisted peacefully during the post-war period, they generally do so in their separate neighborhoods. Christian groups dominate the eastern and northern parts of the city. Sunni Muslim groups dominate the western part of the city, and Shia Muslim groups dominate the southern part of the city.
If flying into Beirut reminded me of Chicago. Three things about Beirut would remind me of Cuenca, Ecuador, where I live. Cuenca is a basin nestled in the Andes, and surrounded by mountains on all sides. Beirut (above photo) is also surrounded by low-lying mountains of three sides, but has the shimmering beauty of the Mediterranean Sea along its coastal side.
Beirut at 5,000 years of age is one of the world's oldest cities; very narrow streets and sidewalks, not made for modern day auto traffic; and a great deal of congestion and crazy drivers much like drivers in Cuenca drove when I first arrived seven years ago, but have since become so much saner in their driving habits.
Many buildings, due to the civil war, have been demolished and replaced by newer and even higher high-rises. Others have been refurbished, and even twenty-seven years after the ending the civil war, there are still many buildings riddled with artillery shells waiting their day of renovation. (One of my friends wanted to know if the bullet riddle buildings also reminded me of Chicago (lol).
The population of Beirut is guessed to be about one million, and about two million including the city and its metro area.
Below is the entrance to my abode for the next two weeks.
I was definitely in an upper middle class neighborhood, within walking distance to downtown Beirut, and once again I was reminded of Chicago, as this heavily tree-lined residential area dotted with many upscale shops, restaurants, and pubs and bars; reminded me of a replay of the north end of Chicago around the Rush Street area.
I came to Beirut In May during a perfect weather season of temperatures in the 70's and 80's, and before the humid and hotter weather would engulf the city in just a few short weeks.
Many a late afternoon or early evening, after a day of walking and site-seeing, I would relax on my balcony and enjoy watching the people as they interacted with each other and strolled by, while I took imaginary bets as to whether or not that car was really going to attempt to pass through that narrow way with parked cars on both sides of a very narrow road, followed by another calculated bet as to whether or not as it went for it, if the driver would make it through without a side-swipe. Does that woman really think she can pull that off? Oh my God, she slapped-in her side-mirror and went for it. Oh that motorcyclist just plowed into the back of that car. Ah, a little fender bender, no one hurt.
It did not get dark until almost 10:30 p.m. The family from whom I rented the apartment said it was very safe to walk the neighborhood at night. I would go out to eat at a restaurant, and generally make my way to one of the many pubs after dinner. Sometimes eating and drinking at the same pub, and mingling with the international set that seemed to dot the various bar scenes. I would pass single women on the streets walking solo at midnight or 1:00 a.m. Many of the internationals were embassy people. One Lebanese pub owner with a heavy British accent said he had lived in London for decades before returning to Beirut and opening his pub. He attracted many embassy staff especially from the British embassy. I could tell who the tourists were even late at night. Like me, their noses and eyes were honed onto their Google Maps trying to find their way back to from wherever they came that evening.
Above from my balcony and across the street, one can see the Paper Moon restaurant, an Italian restaurant with very good food, and the absolute best creme brulee that I have ever had to cross my palate. Restaurants like Paper Moon in Beirut generally have patios that are in alcoves adjoining the restaurant away from the noise and pollution of street traffic. A very nice feature of most Beirut restaurants.
Beirut is the most international and cosmopolitan city in the entire Mideast. It does not have the oil wealth of a Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, or Qatar. Nevertheless, it attracts a great amount of international business and investment.
My neighborhood was literally resplendent in new Camaros, BMW's, Porches, and Mercedes Benzes; and this was not the most affluent neighborhood in Beirut.
Below is a series of buildings in my neighborhood to give you an idea of the varied architectural styles and diversity of housing in the area.
Beirut was a mandate of France after the Ottoman Empire collapsed a few years after the end of World War I. I was amazed at how many people spoke French. In fact, I heard more French spoken in my neighborhood than I did Arabic. It is obvious that many middle class Christians in Beirut speak French as if it were their first language. I have no idea how prevalent French is among the Muslims in Beirut, but I would speculate probably less so.
After my two weeks in Beirut, I spent two weeks in Paris. I have little ear for languages, but I could definitely detect a difference in the French I heard in Beirut from the French I heard in Paris. I assume the Beirut French was spoken with an Arabic accent, because it had a harsher sound than the softer accent of the Parisian French. Much like Castilian Spanish in Spain is harsher sounding than the softer lilt of Cuencano Spanish.
Near my place, was an upper scale supermarket with a multiplicity of products from all over the world, which covered two floors. I was envious of the choices we could only dream of in Cuenca, because of the high import taxes in Ecuador. I have only seen this type of escalator (below) once before in Lima, Peru in the two-story Chang Super Market. Coral in Mall Del Rio could use this to facilitate the movement of customers between floors.
Notice that there are no steps. There must be magnets that allow carts and baby buggies to glide up or down while safely remaining stationary.
About twenty minutes from my apartment was a large horizontal upscale shopping mall, with an expansive food court and cinemas--all on the top floor. The food court consisted almost entirely of restaurants. I really enjoyed the feeling of this place, and returned about three times, and even took in a movie. If the movies were not in English, they then had English subtitles.
Be-forewarned, however, Beirut is not an inexpensive city. Prices are quite expensive.
Below, near the mall, was a plaza where a number of streets converged. In Catholicism, May is the month in celebration of the Virgin Mary. It appeared that preparations were being made for an outdoor evening mass.