Born again

Some said the city would never recover from its vicious civil war. But out of the rubble, Beirut is swinging again, says Rabih Hage
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The Independent Travel

A few years ago, you could have asked almost anyone from Beirut's older generation about their city and you'd have heard the same reply. The city would never be what it once was. Of course, nostalgia plays its part. Those over 50 longed for the time before the civil war that wrenched Beirut in two, they remembered the days when it was the Paris of the Middle East, a booming, bustling, multicultural melting pot, and also a centre for the world's luxury industries alongside London and New York. Well, speak to the same people now, and you'll find that even their opinions are shifting.

A few years ago, you could have asked almost anyone from Beirut's older generation about their city and you'd have heard the same reply. The city would never be what it once was. Of course, nostalgia plays its part. Those over 50 longed for the time before the civil war that wrenched Beirut in two, they remembered the days when it was the Paris of the Middle East, a booming, bustling, multicultural melting pot, and also a centre for the world's luxury industries alongside London and New York. Well, speak to the same people now, and you'll find that even their opinions are shifting.

I left Beirut when I was 10 and went to live in France, then London. The last time I returned to the city of my birth was in the summer. These photographs, taken by the American photographer Stephanie Sinclair, show how quickly life has changed in the city. It's a testament to those Lebanese who have rebuilt their capital, and to a younger generation determined not simply to restore former glory but to make Beirut better than ever.

First came the rebuilding. Bullets shredded the city, destroyed buildings, tore up the infrastructure. That took time to repair - at least 10 years. In the past three or four years, a group of ambitious entrepreneurs have begun to reinvent the city. It's racked up quite a debt. But it's worth it.

Take Bernard Khoury. He's a friend of mine, a fellow architect. His projects are always bold and new, but they're linked to the past, they resist the danger of a slip into collective amnesia. The restaurant pictured here is one of his. What you're looking at is the lobby. To get to the dining-room, you stand on one of the wooden platforms at the side. They're lifts, and they're going down - this is Yabani, Beirut's subterranean Japanese restaurant. And that's the building's link to the past. In the war years, people headed to the safety of basements for their parties.

But buildings are not everything. It's people who make a city come to life. I have friends who, even in 1976 and 1978, would go out on the Rue Monot, to clubs sandwiched between sandbags. The Lebanese know how to have a good time. Look at the people in these photographs. Food and drink have always been a huge part of Beirut's way of life. The traditional Sunday lunch is the meal your mother doesn't have to cook. You all pitch up at a restaurant at around 11am and leave at 7 or 8pm.

Liquid, the cocktail bar you see pictured, is immensely popular. But it's not the only one. The open-air Sky Bar, on top of the Palm Beach Hotel, has a great view of the bay, plus a Jacuzzi and pool. The city's DJs produce some of the best slick lounge music in the world. Download some music by the REG Project if you want proof.

Beirut has always been a welcoming city. Hospitality to visitors is a source of pride. What else would you expect from a city where you can wake to the simultaneous sounds of the Muslim call to prayer and Christian church bells? It has always felt Western with a touch of the Orient, a place where great cultures meet.

Now the tourists are returning. But so too are the Lebanese. I believe a person's character can be shaped by geography. It is certainly true in Beirut. Each dawn, the sun appears from over the mountains, then heads out across the sea to set beyond the horizon, leaving a beautiful pink sunset. It draws the mind with it. The Lebanese have a need to go abroad, to see what's beyond the horizon; then they bring their ideas back home.

There's a long way to go. If the war had not happened, Monaco might now be playing second fiddle to Beirut. Dubai would be a very different place. Florida might not have become the centre for the world's élite boat shows. It feels like a long time since the end of the civil war in 1991, but now, finally, life is back in the centre of Beirut. And that makes me happy.

Middle East Airlines flies five times a week from London Heathrow to Beirut. Fares start at £270 return plus taxes (around £70). For reservations, tel: 020 7467 8000 or go to www.mea.com.lb

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