Bey — Beyrouth — Beirut. A city with three familiar names and a hundred uncomfortable identities, demarcations and allegiances. Which side do I begin with then?

Some places, even people, are like this: words about them tumble one over the other, like in a congeries, and you operate in angst when you have to even think about them. Thus, in angst, I think of Beirut. I left a piece of my soul there.

Perhaps it is because it is not Europe, or the Americas, or any other place that you know endless people that have left, lived and come back from. It still feels like the present tense, the city and the overly elusiveness of it all. Being in Beirut is to be abundant in stories. In one of the oldest regions in the world to be continuously inhabited — the Levant — it is one of the oldest cities in the world, founded, they say, in 3000 BCE. It ought hardly be a surprise then, this abundance.

There is a measure of overwhelm that sets in even before the plane fully lands. My first sight are of its edges. It is awash with orange-yellow lights from tall buildings — brighter at first, near the coast, then tapering away as the land stretches into the surrounding hills, whereupon the number and the brightness reduce. There it is, the first note on how demarcations work, just like elsewhere, in this oldest of cities where the wealthier breathe the sea in more than those that make do with the mountain air and the militia.

Beirut overwhelms because you realise the moment you step outside the airport into the balmy late-evening air that this city will have so many things that you will want to write home about. At its heels comes an understanding that you are inadequate, too, to do so in the space you are allowed on the postcard, that the language you have borrowed does not have all the words.

I do not go to too many places or do many things. I am trying to cram in as much as possible instead, in the few days there, enough to construct a surficial larger picture. Something that would mean that I went there, that I saw the city and that I got back.

‘Paris of the Middle East’ is what it was apparently called. Progressive, modern and cosmopolitan. It is an age that the ones who lived then speak and write of with indulgent yearning; those too young to remember see it predictably to have been a version of utopia. The Lebanese Civil War changed everything. Fought between 1975 and 1990, it is still a speck in the rear-view mirror, too recent to be distant enough to try and move on from. The war is everywhere. I don’t get out of the city to sightsee — time is too short, and it doesn’t seem wholly safe yet to be a non-local and be sauntering about. I am repeatedly told that Lebanon is so very beautiful outside of the city, that the mountain air is purity itself and that I must come back when things are quieter at the various fronts. I promise to.

The war defines everything. It is still in the souls of people. I read that children are not taught about the Civil War because it was so recent. The relative peace that holds is still fragile and complicated to be included safely in textbooks. The Downtown is sharp and shiny, the result of a post-war frenzy of building. But the by-lanes and older parts of town still flaunt the sniper marks on the walls. As do the old cars operating as taxis — called ‘service’ — and the dents on men who drive them. It was only a year ago that Beit Beirut, the first publicly funded museum and memorial for the war, was opened. The building, still sporting the scars, was called Yellow House or Barakat Building. It sits bang on the Green Line that separated the Muslim sections on the west and the Christian sections of the city during the war. Owing to this strategic location, it was used as a forward control post and sniper base. The opening of this museum and research centre is a much-required step forward in acknowledging the amnesia around the war, of beginning to think of ways to heal.

The not-healing parts of people masquerade as road rage and wild partying, someone tells me. The former, I see among taxi drivers, their driving veering too suddenly from a crawl into recklessness. It doesn’t help that most speak only Arabic, so communication is at best through single words, wild gestures and guesswork. The wild partying is what a lot of people from Europe and neighbouring countries come for. Typically, a party would start after midnight and spill into the morning. Signs of obvious denial in the all-out joie de vivre is both laudable, and a bit sad.


As with everywhere I go, I walk a lot. It is more fun here because my phone doesn’t work, so I cannot take refuge in the convenience of Google. Maps are a luxury — most places are unmapped, addresses are merely a placebo. “Ask, ask, ask,” people tell me when I ask for directions to some place, after they have told me the next few turns ahead. You stop people and ask a lot, which feels delightfully quaint. Except when you are walking through the many military-controlled areas with check-posts surrounded by barbwire, filled with sand bags and with a soldier with a gun — there, you put your camera back in your bag, head down and walk quickly ahead. The man behind the gun looks up lazily. You even ask for directions, for no one else stops to speak. He points you the other way in thick, broken English and a smile, and you acknowledge that he is human too. In Beirut, you don’t have to look for conflict zones, so enmeshed are they in the quotidian that a man with armour and gun, by the wayside or in a jeep with colleagues, is at best an ugly dab in an otherwise gorgeous photograph.

Gorgeousness is everyplace too. It is, after all, the famous Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea is as blue and as beautiful as I have always known she would be. Late one Friday morning, I walk along the promenade at Corniche, the swish neighbourhood. The azaan is sounding off from a mosque somewhere. Several men are fishing and the waters are the colour of that perfectly-imagined translucent blue. The air is balmy, but barely humid, and every breath is imperceptibly salty. The Corniche is a nearly five-kilometre walkway where people fish, jog, walk or hang out at. In front lies the blue sea, the summit of Mount Lebanon on one end, tall buildings behind, and a long line of palm trees in their forefront. Some trees are said to still bear the marks of bullets from the war — they are still healing too. I am there on a weekend morning, and while some fished, some had got their catch for the day and either gone home or sat on the sharp rocks for a little picnic, swim and sunbath. Beautiful men and women with skin the colour of unripe olives walked the promenade with dogs or jogged with friends. I imagine they would then go back home to luxuriate over a gorgeous spread for breakfast that would segue into lunch and thereafter.

Such is the food that only dwelling on it would do it justice. When they say that Mediterranean food is the food of the gods, they say true words. Zaatar-stuffed croissants, halloumi cheese, thyme-flavoured sauces, olives, olives and the freshest, juiciest of olives, a bean soup called fowl (which I now cook once a week), cakes and cupcakes with the hint of mahleb and cinnamon, salads with a dash of pomegranate molasses, the hummus — oh the hummus! — and tabbouleh and labneh, then the most colourful of fruits — all doused generously with a river of the subtlest olive oil. That is just the breakfast I have everyday there. Lush is the only word I want to describe the cuisine. Dwelling is what this kind of spread requires of you, and you adhere. It is what you see people in the innumerable cafés and restaurants doing. “Life is meals” — James Salter. Indeed.


Every other neighbourhood has these cafés in abundance — as if to fiercely reiterate the age-old wisdom that cafés are where the well-heeled, or the liberals, or the intellectuals gathered to live and make sense of their lives. So it is in the neighbourhood of Hamra Street, the centre of intelligentsia in the ’60s and ’70s. It is where the American University of Beirut is, where Librairie Antoine with its large French collection of titles is, where lies the cutest little bookshop called The Little Bookshop run by Adib Rahal, the nicest of booksellers. The trilinguality of Beirut is most apparent in Hamra, for herein lies the Arabic from the country’s antiquity, the English of the American dollar that is regular currency alongside the Lebanese pound, and the French influence from being long under France’s rule. The names of Hamra and other famous neighbourhoods — Sassine, Mar Mikhael, Ashrafieh, Gemmayzeh — sound like names off Calvino’s Invisible Cities . They sound, to my unused-to ears, intriguing, mysterious, of the other world while just as much rooted in the now and the real.

The East-West blending of the everyday in Beirut is just another nuance of its complicated history. It isn’t a city that one ‘gets’ in a few days. Unlike the knowingness that comes with how long and how much other cities have been used in books, in music, in films and in far more public consciousness, Beirut has not been a character long enough to have lost her reticence to the outsider. I do not hope to get her, for I do not have the requisite language.

Here instead is Jan Morris: “Is she (Beirut) really a great city, this wayward paragon? Scarcely, by the standards of Berlin or San Francisco, Tokyo or Moscow; but she is great in a different kind. She is great like a voluptuous courtesan, a shady merchant-prince, the scent of jasmine or the flash of a dazzling sandal. She has scarcely achieved greatness or even had it thrust upon her, but greatness has often spent a night in her arms, and a little lingers.”

Deepa Bhasthi is a writer living and working between Bengaluru and Kodagu