Back in 1965, it wasn’t hard to make Beirut look good. Lebanon’s capital was a playground for the jet set, visited by movie stars and millionaires alike, counting Brigitte Bardot and Peter O’Toole as regular visitors. The Beirut harbor was host to the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship and the U.S. Sixth Fleet would anchor and send its sailors ashore for a week of riotous leave. It was not the type of city whose safety levels you’d expect to find being debated in today’s online travel forums.
These photos were taken by Carlo Bavagnoli for American magazine LIFE, and they paint the picture of Beirut when it offered La Dolce Vita in the Middle East. But I imagine a travel photographer commissioned to recreate such a spread today might find this a little more of a challenge.
It’s not that the people of Beirut have lost their freedom, their spirit or the taste for the good life. It’s still one of the biggest party towns in the Middle East, despite the devastation of civil war and ongoing conflicts still playing out on the city’s doorstep. There are extended periods of peace and stability without incident, but when you check into a luxury hotel and you go to open your bedroom curtains to check out the view, you’ll see a bombed-out building right in front of you. Urban ruins are just part of the scenery in Beirut today, and that doesn’t make for glossy magazine spreads.
The Saint George Hotel Beirut was gutted during the 1975-1990 civil war hasn’t been restored since.
The mountains of Mzaar, where the Lebanese still typically ski in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon, and then party all night.
I went onto a forum on Quora.com and found a user asking the question: How do I convince my parents that Beirut isn’t that awful? The American high school student thinking of applying to the American University of Beirut for college wrote “they wouldn’t even acknowledge that as an option because they think that I’ll be kidnapped and forced to join Hezbollah.”
In the responses to the question, a former resident and American employee at one of the international schools (in 2007) had a few things to say that I thought helped paint an accurate picture of Beirut today:
I went from a fairly predictable life in the US to a city that:
- to an outsider, feels like a Jason Bourne movie most days of the week, with roadblocks, tanks, and automatic weapons on every other corner.
- is full of people — the greatest in the world I can honestly say — who want nothing more than to get to know you as a foreigner, even as an American.
Lebanon is one of the few countries where I made many close local friends from outside the expat community.
If you’re into late nights, the club scene is the hottest in the region. If you’re into a quiet pub night with friends, there’s no shortage of those either. And I guarantee you’ll leave with a few more friends than you came in with. The food is the best you’ll ever have when it comes to ME cuisine. After all, Lebanon is home to the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of the ME. It’s also coastal, so you can find some real decent seafood. In the valley you’ll find the oldest wine vines on Earth. Needless to say, it’s good wine.
I could go on and on. I get nostalgic whenever the subject of Lebanon comes up.
You can read the full response and others on Quora.com.