city slicker Beirut
Monday 27 November 1995
Don't mention: Independence. The Syrians entered Lebanon (or invaded it - depending on your political bias) during the 15-year civil war, promising to end factional fighting. Six years after the last shot was fired, the Syrians show no signs of budging and the average Lebanese is distinctly sensitive on the subject. Don't expect protest marches, though. The Syrian secret police force is a sanctuary for good old cold war values - censorship, torture... and appalling dress sense. Avoid conversations with moustachioed men in loud paisley shirts and plastic leather-look jackets.
Who's in charge?: In theory, Lebanon's no 1 is chubby Rafic Hariri - millionaire businessman, prime minister and compulsive resigner (four times to date). But in reality, the boss is Syria's Hafez Al-Assad, whose Vulcan-like mug is plastered over every Beirut street. How bad is it?: With the town centre reduced to rubble - most buildings are decorated with innumerable bullet holes - and power failure wherever you flick a switch, central Beirut has an engagingly post-nuclear feel to it. But reconstruction is in the air. PM Hariri has awarded a multi-million dollar contract to re-build the famous Place des Martyrs to an international company, headed by R Hariri. And earlier this year - a sure sign that peace is here to stay - the teachers went on strike.
Typical Beirut sights: Horrendous traffic accidents. Fifteen years of war, no government, no law and no police have made Beirutis the world's most fatalistic drivers.
To experience the full horror, take a service taxi - Lebanon's battered alternative to a public transport system. With no rules, anything goes. Popular diversions include driving the wrong way up motorways doing 70mph, while gesticulating wildly with both hands, and potholes that can swallow a Mini. Most Beirutis accept the odd collision as part of the fun - but avoid old Volvos. For some reason, Hezbollah drive nothing else.
Money: The Lebanese accept all the world's currencies gladly - except the Lebanese lira, of course. With the lira plunging from a healthy 2.5 to the dollar before the civil war, to a close-to-death 1,500 now, everything is quoted in dollars. You can buy a Kalashnikov ($75) or a top judge ($100,000), if you know where to look. But watch your change - Beirut is the world capital for forged $50 dollar notes.
Guns: Less and less fashionable. Since the war ended, the mobile phone has become the accessory no one can be seen without.
Attractions: In the daytime, there are plenty of reminders why everyone, from Brigitte Bardot to Marlon Brando, used to winter here. Ski all morning, swim in the Med all afternoon.
Entertainment: West (Muslim) Beirut is where the action is. Pre-war hacks start at the Spaghetteria with osso bucco and gossip, then on to the Blue Note for jazz, while American University students hang out at Harry's Bar and Henry J Beans. If you're into something more authentic, head north to Jounieh, where you can join the Middle East's campest dance bunnies at play.
Food: Lebanese food is the best in the Middle East. Try the hummus Beiruti, followed by mint-flavoured tabbouleh, Kibbe zghartawiyi (grilled tennis balls of wheat and lamb) and, if you've room for any more, Lebanese pizza (lahmi bi ajin). But best of all, fresh fish from the Med, fried quickly and washed down with a bottle of arak - Middle-Eastern Pernod.
For the ideal combination of brilliant views, good food and late-night Corniche posing, try Ar-Rawda or An-Nasr on the Rawche shore.
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