On a beautiful morning in spring, sunbathers relax at the posh La Plage beach club on the edge of downtown Beirut. La Plage is part of the famous Café D’Orient and is where the elite of Beirut come to see and be seen.
Lebanon – Long Read

A shared belief in partying

Photo by Jason Florio

Lebanon – Long Read A shared belief in partying

Hello Lebanon, a tiny country locked in between hostile neighbors Israel and Syria, and the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations in the world where wine-making is a 6,000-year-old tradition. Some Lebanese are Muslim, others are Christian, but all share a common belief in partying until dawn. There is one set-back: some clubs prefer you to show up in a Ferrari.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

I was lucky enough to see Pepe once. Sitting in a dark corner of his famous Fishing Club in Byblos, dressed in a smart blazer with a peaked sailor’s cap protecting his ageing eyes from the strong Lebanon sun, he looked much as he must have in his glory days.

A few years later, in 2007, Pepe Abed died at the age of 95 but I still go to visit his restaurant, though it is not what it once was. Maybe it never was: nostalgia adds a gloss to everything. The walls are hung with faded black and white pictures of stars of the 1960s, Bardot, Ekberg, Brando, Sinatra, Niven and countless pretty young women (“Beautiful women are my vitamins,” he quipped in old age) and the menu offers the same fresh seafood and chilled white Lebanese wine. But history has moved on, and several nearby restaurants serve better food, concentrating on the present rather than living off past glories.

Byblos was once a major port for exporting papyrus and hence gave its name to the Bible. Some say it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, dating back to 5,000BC, but we can never know and most cities in the region, from Damascus to Jericho, have some claim to the title. The Roman columns from which the 12th-century Crusaders formed the castle walls of Byblos show that many civilizations have come and gone, without paying great heed to the question of what went before. Pepe’s philosophy was also to live life for the moment, even though the restaurant is full of priceless artifacts “liberated” from the town’s archaeological sites and the seabed around. Born just outside Beirut, he lived in Mexico for a long time before settling down back home as a jeweler in the late 1950s.

But the inner party-goer soon turned to the tourist market, opening a Mexican-themed club called the Acapulco that started a minor empire. When Lebanon’s civil wars broke out, Pepe retreated back into his quiet outpost in Byblos, a Maronite Catholic enclave. He was a survivor, as you have to be in this troubled corner of the world. “We are Phoenicians by habit: merchants and travelers,” says my Byblos guide, Waad Khalifé, on a recent visit. A deeply learned man, the thoughts flow out of him as fast as he can form the words in English.

“We are Arabs by language. People get confused between Arabs and Muslims; they are not the same thing. There are many religions in Lebanon, all with Arabic as a language.” In fact, Lebanon is 54 per cent Muslim, split into five different sects from Sunni to Alawite, and 41 per cent Christian, with eight different sects from Maronite to Greek Orthodox, with 4 per cent Druze and a tiny number of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.

Pepe may have been a prophet

However, I wonder if there is not even another religion in Lebanon, of which Pepe may have been a prophet, as all the young people I meet seem to share a fervent belief in partying. In Beirut, the nightclubs on Monnot Street heave until dawn. It’s the place to see and be seen, with women in tight dresses tottering by on high heels, while the men show off their bling or cruise past slowly in dark-windowed 4x4s or noisy supercars. It’s quicker to walk from the city center but that’s not the point. The action has flowed over into the Gemmayzé district next door, with trendy bars and cafes springing up everywhere. In a February visit, the city seems to me to be buzzing but locals are less impressed. “Everyone is away skiing,” they insist.

During the day, walking in the warm Mediterranean sun along the seafront Corniche, Beirut’s open-air living room, that seems hard to believe. Families stroll together, courting couples stare into each other’s eyes, old men play backgammon on benches and fishermen dot the offshore rocks. I walk as far as Pigeon Rocks, two huge slabs that stand in the sea just off the upmarket Raouché district, where I eat an ice cream in the afternoon sun. But, next day, driving up to the Bekaa Valley, snow is what I see around me. The soldiers at checkpoints slap their arms against their padded uniform jackets to keep warm as they watch the steady stream of traffic flowing to and from the border with Syria. Trucks labor up the steep hills as oncoming drivers squeeze through oncoming traffic by somehow inventing another lane.

The valley is 16km wide and 120km long, and lies above 1,000m less than an hour east of Beirut. The view from my bus window is of flat fields full of vines, for this is the home of Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s most famous winemaker. Watered by the melting snows of Mount Lebanon, this is the home of some of the world’s earliest vineyards, revived in 1857 by Jesuit missionaries in need of altar wine.

Now in private hands, Chateau Ksara has planted more familiar varieties, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, while pushing a more youthful image and developing a thriving export trade. A massive recent investment from France has brought expertise, barrels, corks and stylish bottles to the vineyard here. The cellars, dating back to Roman times, stretch for miles underground and are filled with stacks of bottles covered in dust: a priceless hoard.

Perhaps surprisingly, France is the biggest export market and the French make up most of the vineyards foreign visitors, with Germans and British the next biggest groups. However, most visitors are local and communications manager Rania Chammas says: “The Lebanese know little about their wine heritage and are surprised to learn so much. It makes my job very satisfying. It is also the best kind of one-to-one marketing.” The increase in demand is good news for local farmers, who are finding a better return by planting vines than on former crops that included hashish and opium and a tasting reveals that the wines can hold their own on the world stage. “Why are you surprised?” asks Jamil, my local guide. “We have been making wine here for 6,000 years!”

The most complete temple of the Ancient Roman world

This long history is apparent in nearby Baalbek where the Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, is the most complete temple remaining of the Ancient Roman world. The Temple of Jupiter beside it, the largest the Romans ever built, even retains part of its roof. These two unique treasures lie in a sprawling site where the few visitors are swallowed up by archaeological rubble on a grand scale.

The foundation stones of the Temple of Jupiter each weigh twice as much as a fully laden Jumbo jet. How were they moved the 1km uphill from the quarry? No one knows. At the quarry, Abdul Nabi al-Afi, a retired army sergeant, has taken it upon himself to clean and maintain a site that had become the town’s informal trash tip. One stone, nearly complete, remains in place. Nicknamed “Hajar el Hibla” (Stone of the Pregnant Woman) for its supposed ability to cure infertility if you touch it, it weighs 1,000 tons, making it one of the largest monoliths ever quarried. A second stone nearby is thought to weigh even more.

The ever-smiling, grizzle-bearded al-Afi and his son run a small souvenir shop to earn a living, from where he can still keep an eye on the quarry. “If I turn my back on it, it will become a garbage dump again,” he says. Every visitor is offered coffee, whether you buy anything in his shop or not, a manifestation of the warm Lebanese hospitality that gives it such a special place in my heart. He only asks that you sign his “Golden Guest Book”.

Baalbek, called Heliopolis in Roman times, is one of the wonders of the ancient world. The dull modern town is now a Hezbollah stronghold, with its only energy seeming to come from shops and hawkers selling T-shirts bearing the symbol of this militant Shi’a Muslim group: an arm waving an AK47. I saw Hezbollah – “The Party of God” – at work in the ruins of West Beirut following the 2006 war with Israel, when it provided support such as clean water and rehousing when the government was conspicuous by its absence. Its grass-roots appeal is obvious so I can only hope that any money tourists are handing over for such second-hand thrills is going to fund the party’s hospitals and agricultural development programs.

I look for a bar to start my own party

Back in Beirut, I look for a bar to start my own party. I am turned away from B108, the hip underground bunker where the tables resemble coffins and the roof slides open so you can dance under the stars. Judging by those who are allowed past the magic velvet rope, my mistake was perhaps not turning up in a Ferrari, flashing thick wads of dollars, with two scantily-clad blondes on my arm. Not a mistake Pepe would have made, I guess.

Such sights are the norm outside any club in any city in the world, of course, although some locals resent the growth in tourism from what they call the “Arabs”: visitors from the oil-rich Gulf states. “The Arab men drink expensive whisky and stare at the girls,” one Lebanese youth tells me in a nightclub, shouting over the sound of Arabic hip-hop. “They call them bad names for dressing in short skirts and not wearing veils but, if they are such good Muslims, what are they doing drinking in night-clubs?”

Tensions are perhaps inevitable given the wide disparity in wealth and cultural differences around how much you should flaunt it. Lebanon has always been a westernized country, famously dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East”, and it must be a shock when, tempted by the mild weather to visit somewhere Arabic is spoken, devout followers of Islam discover Lebanon is half-full of party-loving Christians.

The Lebanese have a warm, Mediterranean outlook, coupled with a tradition of Arab hospitality, making it easy to find new friendships here. The foundation of life is the extended family, always important in the Middle East but doubly so in Lebanon during the hard times when it was all you could rely on. Look around in any café and you will see several generations enjoying each other’s company. Young people live at home until they get married and that adds to the mix of ages, binding different generations together. It is also a reason for the party-until-dawn atmosphere. “If you live with your parents, you have nowhere to take your girlfriend home to,” a Lebanese friend laments.

Entry to most clubs is free but booking is essential in all the most popular and drinks are usually ordered by the bottle. Most don’t kick into action until 2am and stay open until 5.30am. The music goes on until the sun comes up over the Mediterranean. However, 4am is the parental curfew hour for many couples, so I notice the clubs start to empty around then.

I do feel seriously under-dressed

Dance floors are tiny or non-existent and clubbers dance around the table they have booked, with many of the girls not shy about dancing on the table tops. I do feel seriously under-dressed, though. The local rule seems to be “Dress to impress, then bring it up another notch”. They party here like there may be no tomorrow – no doubt an essential philosophy in Beirut’s bad times and one I am familiar with from my home town of Belfast.

“Beirut is a relatively small city of 2million and most of the people in any club will know each other,” says my friend. That makes for an intimate atmosphere and I am always swept up in this Lebanese love for life – an unexpected passion more associated with the Latin world. Both male and female clubbers are happy to chat, try out their English and make sure I am having a good time. Like anywhere, the fashionable club of the moment changes from month to month but Palais by Crystal (named for the champagne) is a survivor, staying open despite anything war or business rivals have ever thrown at it. Its history, decadent décor (think crocodile skin sofas), cocktail list and blinged-up clientele make it a must-see.

However, my warmest memories are of tiny bars in Gemmayzé where I become instant friends with the barman and the few other clients, or the cafés where the evening starts. As young people chase the latest night spot, these cafés fill a similar social niche to bars in America or pubs in Britain, somewhere to meet and pass the time by chatting with friends. Each area of the city has its favorite, often steeped in history, to which regulars might have been going for decades. During times of unrest, they have played an essential role in bringing people together and disseminating news. Such cafés are found throughout the Middle-East but Lebanon’s owe much to the French Mandate period of its history and the familiar Parisian tradition of lively social debate over an endless cup of coffee or a beer.

Given Islam’s ban on alcohol, it may be a surprise to find beer, wine and spirits so freely available in many cafés. Drinking to excess, however, is frowned on both by Christian and Muslim locals and the family-friendly atmosphere is part of the attraction. I can see the full story of life here. Children play among the feet of chatting mothers. Office workers dash in for a lunchtime coffee and snack. Couples hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes. Older men sit around playing cards and drinking date juice. In the cool of the evening, the cafés spring into life. The air fills with the fragrant fumes of the water-pipe, leisurely meals are enjoyed, passers-by are rated for style and looks.

Lebanon has another treat in store

Sometimes the party starts right here, as the musicians come out or the sound system is cranked up. A familiar sight is the water-pipe or nargileh (also called a hookah, hubbly-bubbly or shisha in other countries). The highly decorated brass pipes are a popular souvenir and even the non-smoker will be tempted to try a puff by the smell and the ceremony of preparing one.

As the tobacco smoke is passed through water, the taste is much milder than a cigarette (though don’t think it is safer than smoking; it isn’t). Various flavors are available, with watermelon and apple among the most popular, and the man with the coals, for whom a small tip is customary, prepares a new sterile mouthpiece for me and every new customer.

When it’s time to eat, Lebanon has another treat in store, with one of the finest cuisines of the Middle-East. Main meals are often served as mezze which, like Spanish tapas, are small plates of different ingredients, offering a multi-sensory temptation of colors smells and textures. The food is healthy, with a mix of dips, cooked and raw seasonal vegetable, rice and fresh bread and, of course, great fish and seafood, as well as lamb.

Breakfast is a slightly less familiar but still outstanding meal: my personal preference is manakish, a thin bread topped pizza-style with various ingredients such as herbs and garlic, cheese, or even ground lamb (more popular for lunch). Other breakfast dishes range from pitta bread with raw cucumber and tomato, a dip of labneh (a low calory cream cheese), or fuul, slow-cooked fava beans.

Lebanon’s national dishes include kibbeh (ground lamb and cracked wheat), tabbouleh (diced parsley and cracked wheat) and hummus. This famous chick-pea dip is the subject of an ongoing ‘war’ with Israel which Lebanon says is laying claim to a traditional Lebanese dish. Fortunately, it’s being fought mainly through the pages of the Guinness Book of Records with Lebanon currently holding the title (see mini-feature).

Honey-rich nutty baklava is also a staple

Diary fats are reserved for rich desserts, usually tempered with a bitter coffee, although honey-rich nutty baklava is also a staple. If you want to take any home with you, search out a branch of Rafaat Hallab which dates to 1881 and offers a different sweet recipe for every year of its existence. Research is ongoing but so far I have found none I dislike. I became an instant addict on my first visit, a decade ago, and no visit to Lebanon is now complete without a serious tasting session. Don’t tell my dentist, though: lots of sugar is a given.

The national drink is arak, a clear 40% (or up to 80%) proof liqueur distilled from grapes that is part of the anis family and usually ordered with mezze. It is diluted with water, turning it milky-white, but remember to add ice after the water or the fats solidify out into a harmless but unpleasant scum.

The toast is up to you, but I always like to remember Pepe and am glad he lived long enough to see the good times returning to his beloved country.

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