Beirut, Part II

The road in from the airport proved uneventful. I had arrived in Beirut for the annual Salon du Livre Francophone, and a representative of this event insisted on meeting me at the arrivals area with a car and driver.  En route into town I began to get my first in many lessons in the complexities of Beirut urban stratification. Passing through a grim district of high-rise housing projects and decay she noted that “this is one of those Muslim quartiers in which you don’t want to walk alone,” immediately identifying herself as a member of the other side of the religious divide.

Shortly thereafter we were traversing a chic residential area. As we passed upscale boutiques and hip cafes, I remarked that this quartier seemed rather BoBo. Her reply was just one word:

“Christian.”

*****

I started counting Porsches. My first morning in Beirut I took off alone for an extended walk from my hotel into the heart of downtown. Since the cessation of the war in l990 Beirut has experienced a building boom that continues today. Luxury apartments. Luxury hotels. Luxury boutiques. American-style shopping malls. High-end cars everywhere. When six Cayennes passed me by in the first fifteen minutes I decided to maintain a numerical inventory of the number of Porsches that cruised in my direction that morning. Twenty-six by the time I completed my walk ninety minutes later. Then there was the Versace boutique selling a leather jacket in its window for $7200. And the jewelers with Rolexes and Patek Philippes. And the outposts of Armani and Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren. And the enormous Virgin Megastore right in the reconstructed ‘historic quarter:’ a hint of the now-decimated architectural wonder that was Beirut before warfare and mercenary property developers leveled its visual grandeur.

A local radio presenter later told me:

“There’s an apartment building here which actually has an elevator for your car to bring it up with you, so you can park it adjacent to your pad”.

And when we were passing through a corner of the new historic quarter he noted:

“I just heard the other day that a condo here costs around $25,000 per square metre.”

Another Lebanese friend, a photographer, observed two rather Botoxed women, dripping bling-bling, leaving a shopping mall laden with designer shopping bags. He shook his head.

“We don’t really want to build a country here” he said. “But we certainly do love buying things…”

TO BE CONTINUED