Walking the streets of Beirut, it’s not uncommon to spot a stucco apartment building with glass balconies and verdant plants dripping down the rooftops. It’s also not uncommon to spot, just next to it, a blackened shell of a building, a relic from Lebanon’s Civil War.
What’s interesting is that, while Lebanon’s economy, tourist industry, and infrastructure suffered from the war, its party scene seemed to thrive even more than it had before the war.
Recently, Vice published an article entitled “Fighting for the Right to Party in Beirut”, a piece that examines the juxtaposition between the virulent political climate surrounding Lebanon – very literally pushing at its borders – and the Dionysian revelry pulsating between the walls and on the roofs of its nightclubs.
The angle? To show that “valuing nightlife in a tumultuous city isn’t as superficial as it may sound.” In the article, a nightlife aficionado named Yousef Harati explains that partying is often “the only escape” from the violence within the country, and that this type of an outlet has provided a “surreal energy.”
This I wanted to see, so on our first night, the four of us dressed to the nines, shimmying into recently-purchased dresses, coiffing our hair, and decking our eyes out in mascara and liner. It seems a silly thing to even elaborate on, but it’s rare that one dresses to the nines in Cairo. And if you choose to, you do so with the knowledge that you are making yourself more susceptible to sexual harassment in the streets, because the attitude is very much one of “she dressed like that, so she was asking for it.”
Beirut offered a much more accommodating alternative. Though we certainly turned a number of heads as we tottered in clacking heels to a mezza restaurant Loraine had been raving about, it was more the look of interest than a salacious, vacant stare.
Discovering that the place was closed for Eid, Loraine took us down Main Street to one of her favorite joints, a little back alley place called Bread Republic. There, we sampled cocktails and the local beer, Al Maza, a decent brew that, if anything, is a hell of a lot better than Egypt’s headache-inducing Sakara.
Afterward, Sally was set on cocktails at February 30, a bar situated on the corner of Rue 78 and Main Street down a road known as the Alleyway. A quirky affair, – its tables and chairs propped themselves up on mannequin legs while other forms of seating dangled from the ceiling – the place looked as if it had crawled out of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. Unfortunately, seating was unavailable, so we took two steps across the road and plopped down at a slightly more conventional place called BistroBar.
“This place just opened two days ago,” Loraine said. “They had a huge opening event and drinks were free.”
Almost immediately, a burly waiter approached our table and swiveled a little cocktail menu toward us, gesturing to a list of zesty little beverages with refreshing titles like “Cucumber Express” or “Thyme Gimlet.” We ordered those and a North Coast something-or-other and then kicked back to the sounds of a casually dressed and clear-voiced guitarist belting out Robbie Williams.
“This place is really packed,” Sally observed. We all agreed that it had a cool vibe.
“Beirut is really hipster,” Loraine reminded us. “All the bars and restaurants are into that artsy stuff.”
And it makes sense. If you consider how many artists flocked to Beirut pre-revolution, it seems logical that many remain, and that an atmosphere of eccentricity is still pretty pervasive. Walls bear murals, graffiti, Banksy-inspired pieces and politically charged messages. It’s grungy, it’s vibrant, it’s urban.
Something about the Alleyway reminded me of both Philly and New Orleans, if both had been plucked from their locations, dropped in a blender, then pureed out onto the streets of a Middle Eastern country. It was familiar, yet completely different from anything I’d experienced before.
It was after twenty minutes of waiting for our drinks that a scattered-looking but very amiable man approached our table eagerly, asking if we’d ordered yet. We told him we had.
“Who took your order? Was it a guy who looked like he goes to the gym all the time?”
Why yes, we told him, it was. He asked again for our orders before slipping off into the crowd and returning apologetically with four very promising-looking drinks. We clinked glasses and sipped, and all I have to say is that I ordered the wrong thing.
Don’t get me wrong. The Cucumber Express was the perfect mixture of crispy vegetable and whatever vodka was in there, but the Thyme Gimlet deserved the crown.
My encyclopedia states that arak is Lebanon’s liqueur, much like Greece has its ouzo and Turkey its raki. I did not try the arak – Loraine advised me against it and I don’t like anise-flavored things anyway – but I can easily say that, when in Lebanon, you need to try the thyme-infused drinks. Served with a perky sprig of thyme, the drink was a balanced blend of sweet and crisp and powerful. I downed my cucumber cocktail and ordered one myself.
After the live music ended and the stage suddenly and surprisingly vanished into the floor, a table promptly slid over where it had been, the harried-looking man returned to our picnic table and asked how we were doing. As it turned out, he owned the bar – as well as two others elsewhere in town. He introduced himself as Osama, then grimaced.
“I know,” he said warily, as a number of Osama’s I met in Egypt also have done. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I said, pointing to Laina and myself. Before we could introduce Sally or Loraine, Osama interrupted, surprised.
“America? You’re brave to come here,” he said. “Your parents must be angry with you!”
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Loraine told him. “It’s just fine here.”
“But to come all the way to Lebanon!”
We informed him that we’d actually only come from Cairo, and he looked visibly relieved.
It was an odd reaction, but not entirely unexpected. America is quite a hike for a four-day excursion to Lebanon, and with jet lag and the Middle East all over the news, it’s no wonder he thought we were out of our minds.
“If you haven’t experienced Lebanon’s nightlife yet, you have to make sure you do,” he told us. “There’s a great bar in Hamra called Cle.”
“Is that one you own?” Sally asked.
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “But there’s also a lot of weird places you should check out. Have you been to B018 yet?”
“Is that the underground one?” Loraine asked.
Laina also seemed to know it, and Osama went on.
“Yeah, it’s just outside the city. It’s an after-hours club that doesn’t open until two, but it’s built on the site of a massacre. The roof opens up, too.”
Of course, I wanted to go there. Now. But it was late, and since the live music had disappeared and we’d downed four expensive cocktails each, we felt it was time to go home.
Besides, we had a cave to see tomorrow.