Mention Beirut and what do you think of? Urban ruin, war and destruction? After news of the recent tragedy in the capital, I realised I’ve never associated the city with anything other than scenes of devastation.
Back in the mid 1990s, I worked on a kibbutz in Israel, a few miles from the Lebanese border, where daily life here played out alongside the distant rumble of exploding bombs, which shocked me at first but soon became the norm, alongside regular TV news stories showing scenes of fighting and urban ruin.
Despite these associations, I also realised I’ve never asked myself what Beirut looked like before the war. In a recent bid to educate myself, I did some research on the city during the 1960s, and discovered a set of photos by photographer, Carlo Bavagnoli. They were taken for American magazine LIFE in 1965, and show a vibrant city of intact ancient buildings surrounded by areas of natural beauty, and a popular holiday destination for westerners.
I also read that between 1952 and the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Beirut was the hub of cultural, economic, social and intellectual life in the Arab Middle East, and generally seen as a haven of liberalism, albeit a precarious one.
Intellectuals from the nearby American University of Beirut and leftist politicians and activists, who would sit, smoke and debate politics in one of the dozens of bustling cafes that opened in the 1950s and 60s along Hamra Street, once considered the central cultural hotspot and often referred to as the ‘Soho of Beirut’.
It also became an enclave for wealthy western holidaymakers and the jet-set, after foreign money flowed into the country after the war. The Beirut harbour was also known for hosting the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship and the US Sixth Fleet, which would anchor and send its sailors ashore for a week of riotous leave.
Five-star hotels soon sprung up on the Ain el Mreisse seafront, nightclubs moving into Rue de Phenicie – including the legendary den of iniquity, Les Caves du Roy, and restaurants opening to serve the celebrities and royals that began arriving.
These hotels included the Saint George, which first opened on the coast of Beirut in the 1930s, and in the 1960s became a popular hangout for celebrities, including the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole taking breaks from filming Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan, King Farouk of Egypt, and plenty of others.
Not surprisingly, the city’s journalists – some resident or passing through – could be found hanging around the hotel restaurant and bar hoping to get a good story.
This also led to its reputation as a hangout for spies, including Kim Philby, the infamous British MI6 officer who spied for the Soviets for over 30 years, and is said to have drunk several cocktails every afternoon.
Today, if you Google modern-day Beirut, it’s considered a vibrant party city, but although there are extended periods of peace and stability, urban ruins remain a fact of life. The reality of a trip here less 1960s glitz, rather checking into a luxury hotel and opening your bedroom curtains to the view of a bombed-out building right in front of you. But that’s ok…
In light of the recent tragedy which took place on 5 August 2020, if you’re able, donations can be made to @impact.lebanon 🇱🇧