Friday, October 14, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Sexy Beirut

Today's Off The Beaten Track contributor is Alexander McNabb, who has lived, worked and travelled extensively around the Middle East for over 25 years. Apart from being a very old man with a nasty book writing habit, he is a keen cook, radio host, blogger and commentator on digital communications and social media (which is what he does as a day job).  Alexander can be found at his blog or on Twitter at @alexandermcnabb.

I have a particular fascination for the little village of Shemlan at the moment. It nestles in the mountains high above Beirut, uphill from Aley and  Bchamoun, home to a few shops, a mildly famous restaurant and an orphanage.

Looking out over Beirut from Shemlan never fails to take my breath away. The city is spread out like a glimmering carpet below, the airport runways sitting by the infinite blue Mediterranean.

You can have lunch at Al Sakhra, the Cliffhouse restaurant. It's a fairly traditional Lebanese affair and you can sit by the window popping pistachios and drinking ice cold Al Maza beer as you look out over Beirut below, dishes appearing from the kitchen with satisfying regularity to populate the table. The restaurant itself is fairly large, a favourite meeting place for couples being 'discreet', but also a popular place at weekends. 

The orphanage in Shemlan is the reason for my fascination with the village and the countryside around it, for it was here that the British government-run MECAS, the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, was located until the civil war forced its closure in 1978. MECAS reported through the British Embassy in Beirut. It was here the infamous Kim Philby learned his Arabic and it was from here George Blake was taken to London to be arrested on his arrival, finally unmasked as a Russian double agent, in 1961. The Lebanese, unsurprisingly, refer to it as the British Spy School.

I’ve been visiting Shemlan a lot recently because I’m writing a book that’s partly set in the village during the early days of the Lebanese civil war, the last days of MECAS. Despite many people’s perceptions of Lebanon, that war is long gone now and Beirut has managed to stagger to its feet, dust itself down and once again become a vibrant, sexy and fascinating city filled with life, laughter, art and dazzling vivacity.

Yet the image of Beirut at war persists. One Lebanese blogger, Jad Aoun, likes to catch people using the lazy ‘looks like Beirut’ simile and sends them pictures of today’s city along with a ‘looks like Beirut’ certificate. He’s received a satisfying number of apologies.


It's something I have encountered in my writing life, an oddly jaundiced Western view of the Middle East in general and certainly of Beirut in particular. I have had agents rejecting the manuscript of my second serious novel, with the rather over-complicated working title of Beirut, based on the fact that people don't want to hear about war zones. (I am currently represented by Robin Wade of Wade and Doherty, who is shopping Beirut around various London publishers) The book's about an international hunt for two missing nuclear warheads and is set in Hamburg, Spain, London, Brussels, Malta, Albania, the Greek Islands and, last but by no means least, that most sexy of Mediterranean cities, Beirut.

I love Beirut. I always look forward to visits with anticipation and excitement. I don't live there, so I don't have to experience the city's everyday frustrations (and they are legion) - I can just drop in and fill myself up with wandering around the streets, enjoying Ottoman architecture and the vibrant street life. I wander around stealing locations for books or snapping vignettes, from the Armenian souks and twisting streets of Bourj Hammoud, cabling strewn crazily from rooftop to rooftop, to the upmarket shops of Verdun and Hamra. The architecture’s a mad mix, apartment blocks with balconies hung with dusty awnings, old Ottoman-era houses with Arabesque arches and new, smoked glass office blocks. Every now and then you’ll find a smattering of bullet marks or the shrapnel splash of a shell still visible in the concrete of older buildings.

The city sparkles and jostles, stretched out from the long corniche along the splendid Mediterranean up into the mountains, all presided over by the great white-capped bulk of Mount Sassine. At night it lights up, bars and restaurants serving a constant tide of laughing, happy people - Gemayzeh no longer quite the place to be it once was (and Munot before it), while Hamra is becoming busier again. It feels good to be there.

So I am always pained to get reactions to Beirut like 'This gritty and realistic novel is set in a war torn city' or 'We don't think the British public would be interested in a conflicted city like Beirut'. The first comment made my blood boil even more because the book is most certainly not based in a war torn city. It's based in a sexy, modern city that fizzles with life. (The fact that much of its infrastructure teeters just to the right side of disaster just adds frisson...) The comment just showed the reader had, at best, skimmed a few bits before spurning me like one would spurn a rabid dog. What made it worse was the reference, twenty years after the fact, to the place being war-torn. I should refer her to Jad, really, shouldn’t I?


  1. It's so interesting how we perceive a country or person and find it so difficult to let go of that image. I love that you're trying to turn that around and it sounds like you have an excellent helping hand in Jad's 'looks like Beirut's' certificates. Thanks for such an interesting post!

  2. I have to confess, Alli, the flight path into Beirut International takes you along the coast and I nearly always remember watching, as a kid, the silvery flashes and vapour trails of F16s scything down the same coast on bombing runs.

    But Beirut today is so far beyond the war - it's only four hours from London and certainly well worth the visit! :)

  3. I love your description of Beirut, Alexander. It's clear how well you know and love the city. I've never been there myself but have heard that it is a fascinating and vibrant city. It's very difficult, I find, to break through people's preconceived notions of what the Middle East is like. With persistence you will find the right publisher and I will be the first in line to buy a copy of your book. :)

    In your travels through the Middle East, did you ever go to Iran?

  4. Heidi, you'll have to fight me for the first-in-line position! All these other interesting locales in the book make for a great passport to the world's most interesting places.

    Alexander, Beirut sounds like an amazing place, and I'll admit, before you piece, I too associated war rubble and empty bunkers when I pictured it. Thanks for turning my perceptions around. I so hope you find a publisher soon, because this sounds like a book I have to read. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Your love for Beirut is inspiring, and the Ottoman architecture must be beautiful!!! I must admit that I too viewed Beirut as war torn and sad thank you for giving me a chance to change that thought!!!