The Experts' Guide To The World: Beirut


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The Independent Travel

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