Back in December, when the Santa Ana winds blew through Southern California, I heard that a celebrity had off-handedly described his neighborhood as left "like Beirut." This was at the same time I was traveling through Lebanon with my toddler daughter. It occurred to me then that when most Americans think of Beirut, they still conjure images of the war that consumed the city from 1975 to 1990.
People are slow to change their minds about places. Twenty years have passed since Beirut began rebuilding.
Today, Beirut is a metropolis renewed. Everything destroyed in the worst of those years seems to have been transformed into or built over with a new building. When one thinks about the religious diversity of the region, which is Shi'ite, Sunni, Catholic, Protestant and Greek Orthodox, one must imagine how many people possessing opposing points of view worked together to reconstruct what they all consider home. Though the buildings are often devoid of personality, the downtown center emulates European capitals where visitors can take leisurely strolls. There are no cars in this center, and it is pleasant enough, but one really gets the sense that the construction of it is all so brand new.
I found the construction disconcerting only because I know the land on which it sits was densely inhabited for thousands of years before Christ. Gone is the sense of the old and the weight of history. Paper over this with thousands of advertising billboards and there it is, the modern Middle Eastern city.
Beirut sits on the Mediterranean, which lends the city its beauty. The surrounding area is also a mountainous region, so a visitor can realistically be skiing on snow covered peaks one morning and be down at the beach by the afternoon. In addition, the city is increasingly notable for incredible food, an increasing number of art galleries and a pulsing nightlife scene.
What Beirut seems to be known best for these days is what happens after dark. The clubs, bars and restaurants are international destinations in themselves. This exotic city is hardly a desolate, war-torn town. This is a city on the brink.