Beirut, Part IV

For all its high-rise gloss, its Rue St Honore-esque shopping precincts, its density of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, its pampered ladies who lunch, the other Beirut lurks beyond this gilded veneer – and in fact is just a kilometer or so from its hyper-consumerism.

I spent some time in Bourj Hammoud  – an area ten minutes tops from downtown – with a university lecturer acquaintance. A man in his forties. Well traveled. Worldly. Smart. And still depressed after the breakup of his marriage two years earlier, in the wake of which he’d moved back with his elderly parents in this interesting jumble of a quarter.

“Your friend must be Armenian” a bookseller told me when I later mentioned that I had spent the afternoon in Bourj Hammoud (like Belfast in the days of the Troubles, your choice of quartier defines your heritage and religious allegiance, though my lecturer friend – whom I’ll call Joseph – told me, “A lot of rich Muslims like living now in Christian areas”).

Bourj Hammoud was somewhat rough-and-tumble. We passed women picking through rubbish in skips. We passed by crumbling apartment blocks, outside of which were often parked BMWs. We passed the poor, the indigent. We sat in the garden of his parents’ simple house, sipping thick café Arabica brought by his very silent mother, listening to children’s voices at play in a nearby school, staring out at the luxurious banana trees that defined the tiny sliver of green space amidst this dense urban labyrinth…