The Experts' Guide To The World: Beirut

 

It's Hariri's table, just to the right of the main door, the seat with its back to the street, just where he always took café au lait, just where he took coffee with friends seven minutes before he was assassinated. The murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri – via the UN tribunal's indictment of the supposed murderers – has placed Lebanon as close to the abyss as it has been for many years. And for a few weeks after his Valentine's Day massacre in 2005, along with 20 others, the Etoile restaurant kept a coloured photograph of the dead man, grey-haired, smiling wanly, upright at his seat.

No one sat there. Then the picture disappeared but I still avoided the chair. Respect, I suppose. But others would sit there and – because I knew Hariri quite well – I took the chair one day and now quite often sit at the table. Outside, the French Moorish-style parliament building still stands across the pedestrian square, its corrupt MPs (there are some uncorrupt ones) dropping by for coffee, nodding at the British reporter reading his L'Orient-Le Jour newspaper and sipping his café au lait.

There's a wonderful 1934 clock tower outside, a gift long ago from Lebanese-Brazilian émigré Michel Abed. Before the 1975-1990 civil war, the clock was moved out of town to the old Sin el-Fil railway yards, opening up the Roman forum beneath. Then, a few years ago, they covered over the forum and put the clock tower back, all yellow stone and swooping, slightly fascist fluting.

But the Place de L'Etoile remains distinctly Lebanese. There's now a museum beneath the parliament, which would allow you to wander in semi-darkness to look at the forum – except the Speaker of Parliament believes this would be a security risk, so the public is banned from its own archeological sub-parliamentary treasure.

The "Etoile" Square was originally called "Abed Square" after the clock-tower's donator, then the French mandate thought they preferred the "Etoile", one of whose irradiating roads would have run straight across town to the Forêt des Pins, where the French embassy still stands. But the Lebanese didn't like this political perspective, so they built the "Grand Theatre" 300 metres up the street to close off that part of the "star". Besides, the Beirut municipality has now renamed "L'Etoile" as Martyr Rafiq Hariri Square.

Across the Roman remains, there is now a Kuwait Street on one side of Martyrs' Square (Lebanese-Syrian martyrs, these ones, hanged by the Turks in 1915) to remind us which boring emirate paid for another local museum; and there's also a Jacques Chirac Street, perhaps because Hariri was said to have funded the former French president's election campaigns.

It's strange how life – or death – revolves around places you come to love. I watched the first Syrian tank thrash up to the doors of parliament in 1975; I stood in the lovely 14th-century Saint George Orthodox Cathedral opposite for the funeral of poor ex-Communist leader George Hawi after he was murdered in a series of post-Hariri assassinations. And 100 metres away, there is the Crusader Church of Saint John, built in 1150, converted into the Omari mosque in 1291.

My café au lait is always served piping hot, just like Beirut's history. And everything I look at in these streets was restored post-civil war by the company whose largest shareholder was Rafiq Hariri.

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent of The Independent

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot