An insider's guide to Beirut's forgotten relics and hidden gems
From local eats to abandoned houses, writer Nasri Atallah decodes the art-rich Lebanese capital
Nasri Atallah is a writer, entrepreneur, creative producer and the author of Our Man in Beirut (Turning Point Books), a collection of essays about city life in Beirut from his popular blog by the same name. Here is his list of the top eight places to visit in Beirut, including historic sites, beautiful works of art, local eats, cool venues for drinks and quirky slices of Beiruti life:
1. Haigazian University (Mexico Street, Kantari): In the 1960s Lebanon had its very own space program thanks to a group of dedicated students at this university founded by Armenian evangelicals. The program shut down due to regional fears, but today a replica (actually an art piece by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige) of one of the rockets stands in the forecourt as a tribute to those dreamers (the project is the subject of a documentary, The Lebanese Rocket Society).
2. Torino Express (Gemmazye): This one isn't off the beaten track at all, and figures in pretty much every guide to Beirut. But I can't leave it out. Torino was one of the first bars to open in the now post-trendy Gemmayze district. It has always been a haunt for Lebanese freethinkers, foreign correspondents and transient backpackers. And a place where many a bad decision has been made in the red neon haze.
3. Khandaq al-Ghamiq (Bachoura): This area, bordered by the glitzy, empty and contested Solidere-developed downtown on one side and the Monot and Gemmayze quarters on the other, remains absurdly one of Beirut's poorest areas. I recommend visiting as a sign of respect to the people the city doesn't want you to see, and stopping for foul — traditional Lebanese breakfast — at Mataam Abou El Nour.
4. The Green Line: Omnipresent in news reports from the '80s, today the green line is hard to find, and hardly memorialized at all by any official plaques or monuments. But walk down from Sodeco Square to Martyrs Square and you'll be walking down the no-man's-land that separated east and west Beirut for so long.
5. Stork (Minet El Hosn): A relic from the '60s — along with Epi Club next door — this strip club (and, presumably, brothel) is right behind the most exclusive hotel in town, The Phoenicia. The bouncer's nicknamed Hummus, and nothing inside has changed since Brigitte Bardot came to Beirut at the height of her fame (and didn't like it very much).
6. Ahla Aalam (Jnah): A hole in the wall (literally), it is more drive-thru than bar. On one night sitting on the sidewalk in front of it, I saw everyone from cab drivers to vans full of Fijian UN peacekeepers stop by the side of the road and have what was undeniably knock-off Chinese vodka brought to their car window (I tried it – a lot of it).
7. The Sioufi Villa (Achrafieh): There is a house in the heart of middle class Sioufi that has sat abandoned since the end of the war, covered in overgrown flora. I climbed into it with a crew from Beirut Jam Session who were filming a music video for The Wanton Bishops, a band I was managing at the time. Rummaging through the dusty artifacts left behind on the ground floor, I found the ID cards of members of the Guardians of the Cedars militia, a small but terrifyingly brutal ultra-right wing group in the Lebanese Civil War, who claimed the racial purity and superiority of the Lebanese. I can't imagine anything nice happened in this place during those years.
8. The Grudge (Manara): The Grudge is the nickname for an absurd building (a liveable wall essentially, four metres at its widest and 60 cm at its narrowest) in Manara that was erected in 1954 by one man for the sole purpose of obstructing his brother's view of the Mediterranean after a falling out.
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