Resurgent Beirut Offers Haven Amid Turmoil of Arab Spring (NY) TIMES) By ANNE BARNARD BEIRUT, Lebanon 04/14/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Down a ramp from Beirut’s clamorous seaside road,
motor yachts bob along a curving waterfront promenade. Tablecloths
gleam white, and bottles of wine sweat in silver coolers. The
boardwalk’s rough planks, a nod to maritime authenticity, present a
design flaw perhaps foreseeable in this city: Women with Louis
Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the
This new luxury playground, Zaitunay Bay, is Lebanon’s latest effort
to recapture the prewar 1960s — when Brigitte Bardot was a regular
and Beirut was a fashionable port of call. But for Arab visitors
seeking respite from fear and uncertainty around the region, and for
Lebanese content to stay out of the storm, Beirut is already back.
“Lebanon brings together the European, the Mediterranean, East and
West,” said Noor al-Tai, strolling the boardwalk in a leather
miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a fur vest, by way of explaining why
Beirut was the logical destination when she fled violence at home in
Iraq. “There is a very friendly atmosphere.”
Beirutis barely pause to remark that Zaitunay Bay sits on the Green
Line, the boundary between East and West Beirut that was a deadly no-
man’s land during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. In many Western minds,
Lebanon’s image remains frozen in old snapshots: sectarian massacres,
hostages tied to radiators, the Israeli invasion, smoke billowing
from seafront high-rises. But, for the wealthy at least, the country
long ago regained its spirit of fun and glamour.
Even this city’s indefatigable night life cannot completely submerge
worries over the grinding conflict in neighboring Syria. But for
Arabs tired of the shelling in Homs, the financial crisis in Dubai,
or political anxiety in Cairo, Beirut is an eddy of peace.
“This country doesn’t change — the people like life,” said Sonia
Bailouni, a Syrian psychologist sunning herself on the boardwalk.
The very divisions that started Lebanon’s civil war have may have
helped insulate it from the past year’s Arab revolts. The war ended
in 1990 after a rigid apportioning of power among religious sects.
The system is fractious and inefficient but allows dissent and keeps
the state weak, with little ability to impose or intimidate.
Amid the Lebanese factions’ mutual mistrust, there is no single
authority to rally against. With Lebanese torn between wistfulness
for change and fear of what it could unleash, an uneasy calm prevails.
It is not that Beirut’s tourism has not suffered. Hotel occupancy is
down, standing at 55 percent for the first nine months of 2011,
compared with 68 percent in 2010, according to the professional
services company Ernst & Young. Many Westerners do not realize that
Lebanon is still safe, and fun. Arab and Iranian tourists fear
driving through Syria, by far the cheapest route.
But the downturn would be much more severe if not for those addicted
to Beirut’s joie de vivre: the Lebanese diaspora, Saudis and
Jordanians on summer pilgrimages to escape the heat, wealthy
Beirutis. For those markets, even war with Israel in 2006 was a
Debris from Israeli airstrikes still littered the streets when bars,
restaurants and hotels reopened their doors.
Then, too, there are benefits for Lebanon in being a refuge. Syrians
seeking peace and quiet have helped offset hotel losses, the Lebanese
tourism minister told Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper: They head to
Beirut for the weekend to avoid clashes after Friday Prayer, he said.
Beirut is also a destination for capital. Syrian businessmen have
moved money to Lebanese banks, and investors fleeing Dubai’s crash
help keep real estate prices high. Ms. Tai, the Iraqi, said she and
her brothers moved their accounting business to Beirut in 2004 after
their Baghdad neighborhood became a battleground for Islamist
militias and American troops.
Besides, she said, she would no longer feel safe at home turning
heads as she did on the boardwalk. Her fire-engine-red lipstick and
long yellow hair were right at home in Beirut.
Ms. Bailouni, the Syrian sitting nearby, has lived in Beirut for
years with her Lebanese husband, and now is bringing relatives from
Aleppo, Syria, to Lebanon, where, she declared, war will not
spread. “We already went through everything and worse,” she said.
Then she combined Italian and Arabic in a makeshift phrase
encapsulating Beirut’s mix of nonchalance and
cosmopolitanism: “Finito la mishkala!” Loosely translated, “No more
Still, there is a hint of longing for the mayhem nearby. Some
Lebanese yearn for ferment in a country that for all its fun remains
corrupt and stagnant. Even an airport border guard, stamping in a
reporter from rebellious Libya, gave a dejected sigh and
said, “Nothing is happening here.”
One Lebanese journalist explained the lack of a “Lebanese Spring”
this way: “We’re lazy, and we’re sectarian.”
Lebanon’s leaders scramble to keep the political peace. Hezbollah,
Lebanon’s most powerful party, backs Syria’s president, Bashar al-
Assad. Rival parties favor Syria’s rebels, and even the Druse leader
Walid Jumblatt, a coalition partner with Hezbollah, calls Mr. Assad a
butcher. Yet such disputes barely budge Lebanon’s pragmatic politics:
the parties are loath to rock the boat as they wrangle for patronage
One sunny afternoon in southern Lebanon, the center of the 2006 war,
the only disturbance was the revving of Harley-Davidsons by a convoy
of riders enjoying the spring flowers. Yet echoes of conflict can
ripple through Beirut’s most relaxing places.
In West Beirut, Hamra’s nightclubs fill with teenagers as usual, but
some now donate proceeds to Syrian refugees. Fadel Shaker, a beloved
pop singer, shocked some fans when he appeared at a pro-rebel rally
with an imam many viewed as extremist.
On the Mediterranean corniche, a popular spot where children ride
bicycles and couples take sunset walks, Syrian migrants have always
polished shoes and served coffee. Now, they whisper that they have
fled government shelling, bringing wives and children into Lebanon.
On a sofa at Ka’kaya, a cozy cafe, two young men shared a water pipe
and watched, on their phones, Syrian videos of bodies and rubble. At
Café Younes, a haunt of professors with laptops, one coffee drinker
berated another for business ties to a Syrian company — “Even if the
public doesn’t know, you know!” — loud enough to turn heads.
Cafes may benefit from the crisis, said Wael el-Far, a purveyor of
restaurant equipment who had sold high-end espresso machines to
several Zaitunay Bay cafes. In tense times, he said, Lebanese “like
to drink and spend money.”
And so they do at Zaitunay Bay. The industrial-chic metal facades at
L’Atelier Art Lounge and the Cro Magnon Steakhouse face the boats,
not the shell of the Holiday Inn, ravaged by mortars decades ago, or
the place where a car bomb killed Rafik Hariri, the former prime
minister, in 2005.
At the end of the yacht basin looms the Hotel St. George, the
1960s “it” spot, now a derelict hull caught in disputes with Zaitunay
Bay’s well-connected developers.
On the promenade, Dina Erfan, a travel agent from Cairo, air-kissed
her Lebanese friends. She had just arrived for a break from Egypt’s
“Where else am I going to go?” she said. “Syria? Libya?”
One friend laughed. “Maybe next year,” she said.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times
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