It may be a cliché but Beirut indeed is a city of contrasts. Possessed of some of the friendliest locals on the planet, it was also, in 2012, the scene of one of the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts. While you’ll find beautifully restored colonial relics and old mosques delicate-looking minarets Downtown, venture towards what was once the Green Line and you’ll find buildings still peppered with bullet holes and missing chunks of masonry. The filthy smoking exhausts of the city’s beaten up taxi fleet, manned by frantically chain-smoking drivers, are in direct contrast to the sparkling navy blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea to one side, and the towering snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon Mountains on the other. Beirut might have suffered more than most other capitals but it’s also one of the most vibrantly alive places in the world.
In a city packed with more beautiful people than Hollywood and with just as many silicone additions, vibrantly alive Beirut translates as parties. Visitors to the city will find the Middle East’s youth partying hard in Gemayzeh, and studying hard at the American University of Beirut, one of the region's most prestigious educational institutions. They'll also find bars and cafes on Rue Hamra and the Corniche, where old Lebanese men and women gather to play cards and smoke. Beirut is home to the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East but it sits side by side with religious conservatism, and it’s not unusual to spot party animals streaming out of a gay bar as further up the street, other locals start their day with an early morning visit to the mosque.
Out towards the mountains, they’ll find local sports addicts gearing up for a day on the slopes of Qurnat as Sawdā’; at 3,088m (10,131 ft) high, Lebanon’s highest peak. But despite the rejuvenation, restoration and general air of fun, reminders of Lebanon’s dark days are everywhere – and you don’t have to go far to find them.
From 1975 to 1990, the nation experienced a virtual lockdown as political and religious factions fought for power. South Beirut remains home to the infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and there’s no shortage of political demonstrations to avoid. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.
The city still bears visible scars from the nation's bloody civil war, including bullet-riddled buildings and bomb sites. Although the war ended a long time ago, Beirut's reputation remains intricately tied to its volatile past. Some Lebanese like it that way. They think it gives Beirut an edge, although explaining that to one of the inhabitants of one of the city’s southern refugee camps might prove difficult.
But despite the darkness, Beirut remains a symbol of hope in the frequently troubled Middle East as a place where people have managed to put their differences aside – however grudgingly – and make compromise possible. The result is an intriguing, often unpredictable, clash of old and new, conservative and liberal, east and west, secular and religious. In short, it’s nothing short of exhilarating.