Rock the kasbah

The bullet-scarred landscape of Beirut is home to the best club scene on the Med. Bye bye Ibiza, says Toby Manning
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The Independent Travel

It's 11pm on a humid Thursday evening in East Beirut, and already it's busier than Saturday night in central London. Phalanxes of girls parade down Rue Monot, cling-wrapped in Gucci and DKNY. Young men in designer suits leap out of open-topped sports cars, throwing their keys to the parking valet. Queues are already forming outside some of the area's many bars, even though, in Beirut terms, the evening has barely begun.

It's 11pm on a humid Thursday evening in East Beirut, and already it's busier than Saturday night in central London. Phalanxes of girls parade down Rue Monot, cling-wrapped in Gucci and DKNY. Young men in designer suits leap out of open-topped sports cars, throwing their keys to the parking valet. Queues are already forming outside some of the area's many bars, even though, in Beirut terms, the evening has barely begun.

"Nothing stops Beirutis from going out," enthuses Roody Jhalil, a 19-year-old student. "It's only at night that the city really comes alive. People are determined to have fun, to forget about how f---ed up the economy is, what a mess the whole country is in. So people go out nearly every night."

Roody is too young to properly remember the civil war, but up until eight years ago there was plenty stopping Beirutis going out. "The streets were full of snipers," remembers Tony Shakar, now 29. "There was no nightlife of any kind. There wasn't even any electricity. We used to play cards by candlelight and then go to bed early." In the last couple of years the whole scene has blossomed dramatically amid the rubble. It may not be the new Ibiza, but Beirut exudes an unusual, hedonistic energy and excitement that overwhelms its more jaded Western counterparts.

As with Cape Town and Belfast, Beirut's proximity to danger - until its withdrawal last month, Israel was known to mount the occasional air raid and the entire region remains volatile - lends the city a certain frisson, though typically those who live there have no fear. "Occasionally the windows will vibrate from some explosions in the distance," says Anne Renahan, who came for a short stay three years ago and ended up staying, "but no one coming to Beirut is going to have a bomb dropping on their heads - civilians are not the target here."

Entrepreneurs are making the most of it. Against a backdrop of concrete high-rises, ancient sloping streets and grandiose red-tiled villas ornamented with bullet holes, a gaggle of bars, clubs and shops are sprouting up with astonishing speed. Unlike the bombed out husk of the old Holiday Inn next door, The Phoenicia Hotel, once centre of the high-life that saw the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando and the pre-exile Kim Philby partying in the Sixties, has dusted itself down and is now doing slick business in suitably decadent splendour. (Play out your Cannes fantasies walking up the immense red carpet to the lobby, where live-size nymphs recline nonchalantly.)

Over in West Beirut, nudging uncomfortably against the typical Third World parade of hawkers and tat traders, other shoots of new development have started to emerge. A brand-new Starbucks, a Body Shop and a designer sportswear shop stand next to the shattered windows of the once-splendid Cafe De Paris, and are frequented by carefully coiffured girls whose largely European dress-sense mixes French sophistication with a large dollop of Italian va va voom. They may be out shopping, but they look like they could hit a dance podium at any second.

The main thrust of nightlife, though, has relocated to the Christian East, to Achrafieh. "When I first arrived there was maybe one bar around here," says Anne Renahan, surveying the evening's hubbub. "Now it seems like every time you walk down Rue Monot, there's a new place opening." Recent additions include the very popular Sushi Bar and the Tribeca bagel shop. Even in Achrafieh, however, you can't escape the war, a military check-point squatting slap in the middle. "After a while you don't even notice it," Renahan shrugs. Unless you attract their attention, of course - as our photographer does. Asked not to take pictures, his slow compliance is met with, "That's an order," and a fractional - but persuasive - nod at the AK47.

The evening's activity starts in the bars. Some head for the arty Zinc (complete with soft porn slide shows and DJ stacked behind the bottles); some for Circus's marquee-like space, done out in red, blue and gold shroud-like drapes. Others prefer the more down-to-earth Babylone, or the very Western Pacifico, where to the DJ's background of Latin grooves you can quaff from the largest list of cocktails you'll ever see - at some of the largest prices. (A favoured saying in the tourist trade is that the city has the prices of Tokyo and the services of Bombay.) Otherwise the national tipple is whisky, served in lethally large measures, drunk straight with lots of ice. The women are flamboyant and flirtatious, and with no drug culture bar a little hashish, they accept drink after drink. It is perhaps sensible then that food is also a big part of Beirut bar culture. All the bars have restaurants and drinks come accompanied by nuts or local delicacies such as lemon-marinated raw carrots.

For the car-loving Lebanese, a night's crawl can encompass a much wider area than Achrafieh alone, taking in, say, Manara in the West as well. Here Abu Elie is a shrine to Che Guevara (its eccentric owner likes to reinforce his political points with his extensive armoury) while Caracas attracts a raucous, muslim crowd to its strange collision of Arabic music and Eighties Western pop. Distances aren't much of a factor in this compact city: hair-raising driving is however. Horn-blasts substitute for steering; narrow, twisting streets are seen as acceleration incentives, and indicating is apparently regarded as a sign of weakness. Equally, taxis can be extremely expensive for the unwary visitor: Westerners, thanks to the Sixties and PJ O'Rourke's wartime bar bills, are seen as walking wallets.

This is a country where, for either side of the service divide, money talks. Not just in Lebanese, but in French and pretty good English too. Or sometimes all three at once. "If you've got money in the Lebanon, you most definitely flaunt it," says Shaheen Chaughtai, editor of a local style magazine. "It's integral to the sense of style, and the reason fashion here is so label-orientated. It's just one facet of the very hedonistic attitude - forget about tomorrow, spend today!"

With their extravagant clientele and flamboyant decor, Beirut's clubs recall not just the city's decadent glory days, but Ibiza's too. No late arrival is ever too late (most places open all night), no available space is too small to dance upon, and too much is, of course, never enough. Atlantis, in a renovated Ottoman house near Rue Monot, has a real sight to behold - glass-topped tables full of piranhas and baby crocodiles. It's never long before the customers are dancing on top of these tables, the piranhas snapping vainly at their expensively-shod feet. With the women beating the men hands down in the talent stakes, it's a tie whether it's the piranhas or the men who look the hungrier.

The city's most decadent club is BO18. Housed in a reconstructed bomb shelter, its decor is somewhere between celebrity funeral parlour and a James Bond villain's den. Plush red velvet curtains give way to marble tables and huge wooden coffins, the venue's clientele's podiums of choice. It was just such a coffin that the overexcited Dee Dee Bridgewater fell off last year, causing her to miss her slot at the Baalbek Music Festival.

Just outside the city centre, the Acid club is one of the city's best - and one of its best-kept secrets. It is dominated by a large stone relief of Indian gods and goddesses, while through the swirling dry ice and pumping trance, every available surface, once again, becomes a dancefloor. It's also the unofficial base of the city's nascent gay scene. "As a way of creating networks, the internet has completely transformed gay life here," says Mazen, an ad executive, who can't give his second name. "But it also makes you realise that however freer things are becoming, it's much freer elsewhere. Let's not forget it's still illegal here." This is amply - if surreally - illustrated by the club's habit of separating single sex couples dancing closer than would be considered purely friendly.

While the bars and clubs differ from the UK in relying solely on resident DJs - in BO18's case the owner himself - promoters have started to book one-off events with Western dance acts. Last year the Prodigy played in a huge open-air cinema beneath the city's once trigger-happy flyover. The St George's Hotel near the Phoenicia has played host to ATB and Armand Van Helden (who is part Lebanese), while there's even been a one-off rave at the abandoned Holiday Inn. London's Ministry of Sound has staged nights at Crazy (names aren't Beirut nightlife's strongpoint). Says organiser Claudia Batchelor, "Where clubbers in Britain can be very blasé, in Beirut you get such amazing appreciation. It's a very strange place - not one for the paranoid, but quite an experience."

Such ventures are not easily arranged, however. Amin Abiyaghi's Buzz promotions has brought over Run DMC among others, but, he complains, "because of the uncertainty of the political situation, we have trouble booking people, and even then acts are constantly cancelling at the last minute." Rather than improving this situation, many outsiders fear that Israel's withdrawal will destabilise the country further. Consequently Buzz has put larger-scale events on hold. Ministry's insurers have refused to underwrite any activities for this summer.

Beirutis are split about what the impact of the withdrawal will be - it's still early days. While some feel the all-too-brief post-war period of euphoria may be in danger, others remain more optimistic. "We've had a taste of freedom," says Tony Shakar, downing another whisky at Acid, "and it just gives you a hunger for more. If the Lebanese themselves have anything to do with it, things will never go back to how they were." In the meantime however, there are more drinks to be drunk, beautiful strangers to be flirted with, and podiums to be pounded.