Tag Archives: Beirut

Beirut: planetarium with the Al-Amin Mosque in the background.

The Corniche in Beirut


This is Beirut.
Soon after I left Belfast in 1991 I met a guy in a bar. Both avid travelers, we talked about where we wanted to go next.
“Beirut”, I said, “in Belfast I learned that people live lives and the media writes stories mainly to make money. The difference between those realities is fascinating”.
He shook his head, “You’re crazy, lady”.
“Not at all. I’ve done Belfast. I just need to visit Beirut and Belgrade and then I’ll be done. I want to know if we’re all being duped by newspaper headlines”.

Then I fell for him. We got married, had kids, traveled a fair bit but I never got to Beirut – until this year. My friend Karin was there interning with the UNHCR. We chatted, me at my desk in Google Seattle, her in her little hostel room in Beirut.
“Come over. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.”

The local, national and international news were full of reports of the war in Syria. Journalists filed stories about the war and tensions in neighboring countries including Lebanon and Jordan “from Antakya” or “from Beirut”.
“Is it safe?” I asked Karin, the words feeling like something someone else would say even as they came out of my mouth.
“Totally. It’ll be great.”
She had been there almost three months. Convinced that an opportunity like this doesn’t come every day I booked flights.
Days later the papers were full of bombings in Tripoli. Oh well, too late now.

I lined up at passport control at Beirut airport with a hastily completed visa form in hand betting on a lackadaisical border guard. The form was pretty specific: in return for generously providing visas on demand at ports of entry, the Lebanese government asked travelers to provide a local address and phone number. Not an outrageous demand by any stretch, simply complicated by me totally forgetting to ask Karin for her address – and my phone was dead so I couldn’t even call her.

The border guard wasn’t impressed. I was curtly and dismissively escorted into a small room populated by a bunch of equally stern and forbidding-looking (armed) guards. My escort deposited me and disappeared back to his post with no explanation.
Lovely. When in doubt, play the girl card…
“I’m so sorry. I’m such a ditz. My phone is dead…”
The officer in charge looked as me with about as much respect as if I’d crawled out from behind the dingy battered sofa in his drab, industrial, grey office.
“My friend, I’ll be staying with her but I don’t have her address…”
He held an old-style telephone receiver in hand. His stare bellowed “Lady, can’t you see I’m busy? You wait until I’m ready for you!!”.
I persisted in my friendliest voice “I just need to charge up my phone and then I can call my friend…”
Now he really couldn’t believe my impudence. He gestured to a junior guard who beckoned me out the door and pointed out a power socket on the wall – still on the wrong side of the border checkpoint.
I thanked him profusely and rummaged in my bag for socket converters and power cords.

Five minutes later my phone had a smidgen of charge, enough for me to open my email. I had to lean across the barrier marking “no-man’s-airport-land” and Lebanon to connect to the airport free wifi. There was no-one left at the border checkpoints except a couple of bored guards who stared at me as I leaned over the barrier shamelessly, an internet hussy. I smiled back.

Karin’s phone number in hand I marched back into the office waving my visa form out in front of me. The officer was possibly less happy to see me than the first time, now he had to actually deal with me. Thankfully, a couple of quick phone calls later the form was filled out to his satisfaction, my passport stamped and I was on my way – and I knew that Karin hadn’t given up on me and was waiting in arrivals.


Later that evening Karin took me on a walk along the Corniche in central Beirut. From her hostel in Ain el Mreisse just below the American University we walked along the water, past the upscale yacht club all the way to Martyr’s Square and then through the eerily remodeled souk area to Place de L’Etoile.

Corniche comes from the french word for ledge, usually used to describe a road on the side of a cliff or a mountain with the ground falling away from the road on one side and rising on the other. The lower part of the Corniche in Beirut, the part that we walked, felt much more like an Esplanade, a broad generous path full of Beirutis enjoying the summer evening.

“Color” is the single word that pops into my mind as I recall that walk. Maybe it was the summer evening sunshine or maybe it was the light reflecting on the Mediterranean. My first impressions of Beirut from that evening are peopled with groups of young men smiling and calling out to us cheerfully as we passed, young families, rambunctious children and girls wearing headscarves in every color but black.

On the streets of Tehran, the sea of black chadors felt to me like a surprise slap in the face. The absence of color hurt my eyes and my heart. Even though I know that Lebanon has a large Christian community, it is a predominantly Muslim country. Subconsciously I arrived in Beirut expecting Tehran. The riot of brightly-colored headscarves with matching shoes and bags or a headscarf complimenting a gaily patterned top made me practically giddy and lifted a weight I hadn’t realized I was carrying. The Corniche that evening was, for me, a rainbow of bright, strong colors and it made me want to laugh out loud.

The Corniche is also the Avenue de Paris and on the Avenue de Paris the true heart of Beirut calls in honking horns, drivers barely observing lane markings and treating traffic signals as nothing more than a suggestion. Vibrancy of an entirely different kind. It was traffic like I’ve never experienced before. It made Hanoi and Beijing with their schools of motorcycles seem positively pedestrian. Traffic in Lima or Rio can be navigated fairly successfully if the driver remembers to look only ahead and move quickly – at least there cars on the left drive left and cars on the right drive right. In Beirut such directional obeisance is noticeably absent. It’s chaotic and raucous but strangely, it works.


At the far end of the Corniche we nodded at security guards and passed into another world. Like a World Showcase in Disney’s Epcot the Zaitunay Bay area is the Middle East re-imagined. It could be Vegas or Sydney or the South of France. The restaurants are modern, the yachts new and extravagant, the ambiance exclusive. To walk into this area on the turn of a corner was bizarre and almost disappointing, “I thought I came to Beirut, where is this place?”. Thankfully the cacophony of car horns was still audible.

We walked through Zaitunay Bay and out the other side where the Corniche is no more and instead we needed to cross a four-lane highway on our way to up Martyr’s Square. For the second time that evening I felt the dissonance of Beirut’s post-war recovery acutely. Where the marina area is ultra-modern, Martyr’s Square is a historical landmark. The Martyr’s statue in the center of the square is bullet-riddled. Beirut yesterday, meet Beirut tomorrow.


The shell of a planetarium stands, like a skeleton on one side of the square all rubble and bare concrete bones. The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, domes in glistening blue tile with a gentle twilight glow on the yellowed stones, in the background. Lebanon old and new? I wish I could say. Planetariums obviously, are like orthodontia, nice to have but nowhere near as necessary as a functioning place of worship.

By now I was flagging, feeling my jet-lag in every step. We passed the Roman Baths and I barely noticed (!!). We walked down the new pedestrianized streets toward Place de L’Etoile and the fruity smell of flavored hookah was overpowering and nauseating. My treat for the evening was a silver moon over the brilliant domes of the mosque visible behind St Georges Greek Orthodox Cathedral. OK so the current cathedral building is fairly new but the original church dates from 400 A.D. This, this layering of history and culture, this is the Beirut I’d come to experience and try, meagerly, to understand.

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At the UNHCR offices in Beirut

There are easily 200 Syrian refugees waiting in the yard opposite the UNHCR offices in Beirut. Maybe 300. Men, women, children, so many children. Old people, young people. Couples, extended family groups. Waiting to register. Waiting to ask about their registration, looking for information.

The space is maybe 80ft by 40ft. A building lot without a building, just a couple of temporary 2-person offices and a construction crew building a platform for another office. The offices are on the north and east sides of the space. The new office will be on the west side. People are waiting under tarp shelters or standing in lines waiting in the central area. There are mostly men in the lines, the women and children wait oh so patiently in the shade. There is not enough shade, not enough plastic lawn chairs, no food and no water.

My friend Karin is doing a survey of pregnant and nursing mothers. She has a translator with her. I’m just tagging along and taking pictures. The kids, like kids everywhere pose, giggle and playact for the camera. It doesn’t take long before people start asking me questions. I feel so useless as I repeatedly hold up my hands helplessly.
One man wants to know if I’m a journalist. Another asks if I can help him reach relatives in the U.S. and Germany. One, speaking English pretty fluently explains that he’s a deserted Syrian Army soldier who just wants to find work – but the Lebanese are no longer respecting his UN registration # as valid ID.

I can feel the frustration sin the people who approach me – the ones that I can understand. The waiting is difficult. It’s very, very hot. It’s noisy and dusty. Those are their wives ineffectually fanning themselves. Those are their children sitting in the dirt.

Karin discovers that none of the women she speaks to know anything about the UNHCR medical services. One woman who is near term doesn’t know where she will have her baby. They all cite cost as an issue for them – UNHCR covers 75% of delivery costs but the family must pay the rest.

There are over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, swelling the population of this small country of 4 million. A few blocks from the UNHCR offices there’s a Palestinian refugee camp – complete with a Yassir Arafat mural. Lebanon, already host to over 20,000 Palestinian refugees, is dealing with Syrian refugees streaming across the border daily. Some are Palestinian Syrians, complicating an already complicated situation.

We lunch with Karin’s co-workers, a talented multi-ethnic bunch of healthcare professionals. They discuss Karin’s findings and some of the issues they’re dealing with coordinating with Lebanese hospitals. It’s all medical stuff to me. I’m trying to process what I observed outside and what I’ve learned – am learning – about relief work such as theirs.

Later we tourist, just by walking through different neighborhoods in Beirut. The scars of Lebanon’s recent wars visible everywhere as rubble on the sidewalks, bullet-holes in walls or shot up, bricked up buildings. The military presence reminds me of Belfast: patrolling amoured cars, soldiers in fatigues with loaded guns, fortified entrances to governmental buildings. We pass coils of razor wire on the street.
“What’s that for?” I ask Karin.
“So they can close off the streets”.

We keep walking. Now I notice the razor wire at every major intersection.
We pass through the Hamra neighborhood near the American University of Beirut, past Starbucks and H+M, past cafes and bookstores. The streets are busy with Lebanese going about their daily business. Frequently little kids hold out their hands to us, begging.
“Syrians”, Karin says, “they’re everywhere”.

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The Room Next Door in Beirut

“I need a shower badly” I said to my friend Karin, “but I just want to take a quick photo of your view”.
“My little slice of Beirut, eh?”
We laughed as I stepped back from the balcony into the simple hostel room that has been her home for the past three months. I surveyed the space taking in the high ceilings, bare white walls and flat tiled floor which felt cool to my feet.
“There’s plenty of room for my sleeping mat on the floor, this will do perfectly”.
She hopped up off the bed saying:
“I forgot to say, I realized the room next door is empty – and the windows are never closed – the lady isn’t around today but we can sort it out with her tomorrow…”
She trailed off, grinning, standing in the doorway of the sliding window doors which partitioned the indoor/outdoor space of her hostel room, her arm pointing across the low wall between her balcony and the one next door. My jetlag-addled brain took a minute to catch up. I stuck my head past her arm and saw that the balcony doors next door were also open, the single bed, desk, chair and closet empty of any belongings.
“You’re suggesting I hop over the wall and sleep there? Good plan.” grinning myself now too, “You’re sure I can sort it out with the lady tomorrow?”
“She’s not around very much but when we find her we can get you a key. It’s only for four nights.”
“Worst case I can leave money with you, right? How much are you paying a night anyway?”
“I pay by the month but it’s only $10 a night.”

That evening Karin gave me a whirlwind walking tour of central Beirut from the Corniche, past the luxury yachts and expensive restaurants on the marina, to the newly rebuilt and eerily quiet pedestrian streets downtown.

We had dinner with some of her UNHCR friends. Over traditional Lebanese food (Best. Hummus. Ever.) I learned about the challenges and complexities of their work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
“It’s interesting work because it’s complex. The Lebanese don’t want any more refugees, healthcare here is expensive and then there’s Hizbollah.”, said Vincent who designs and builds refugee camps.
Our dinnertime conversation ranged over everything from Karin’s research work on c-sections in Syrian refugee population to the public health challenges in these informal tented settlement camps to the practical, political and logistical difficulties of their work.

By 10pm my travel tiredness had caught up with me. We hopped in a servico, a shared taxi, for a cheap ride back to our hostel. Dizzy and barely awake, I clambered over the balcony wall and crashed hard on the bare bed in the room next to Karin’s.

Sometime after 3am I lay awake on my “borrowed” bed. Karin, in her room, soundly asleep and undisturbed by my jet-lagged wakefulness. I grinned to myself and tried to get back to sleep listening to the male voices in prayer-song at a nearby mosque, like a melody above the rhythm of the Beirut traffic.

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