Sunday, 11 July 2010
Strolling the Corniche
We've had enough of long taxi trips for the meantime, so this morning we walked downtown. It's no big deal. The CBD is maybe 2 or 3 km away and the walk through narrow streets past tiny shops was intriguing. As we neared downtown, the evidence of the destruction of the civil war became more apparent in the buildings, until we arrived at the area near the docks which had been the frontline between opposing factions, and where all the buildings were gone. In their place a new Downtown Beirut is nearing completion. The buildings are of brown sandstone, and about 3 or 4 storeys high. They are seaparated by wide tiled walkways dotted here and there with refined, understated statuary. All has been designed to evoke the Beirut that was once called the Paris of the Middle East; not a copy but a 21st Century evocation of what once was. It's working.
Winding through the stores selling big name European goods we arrive at the waterfront, where the enormous glass towers of hotels rise above Porsche agencies and coffee shops with elegantly quirky names. This is the Corniche, which curves gently around the shoreline. It is Saturday, and Beirutis not at work are out to enjoy the bright clear day. Men fish using strange long rods with no reels. Men swim and sunbathe from the rocks. Women swim and sunbathe in a screened off section of the waterfront. I see a woman in a full abaya jogging. She has a water bottle strapped to her waist: it's about 35 degrees; she needs it. I see another swimming in a burka and yet another fishing from the rocks, the black fabric soaked to about waist level. A couple of girls in shorts and t shirts rollerblade past. Men older than me with impossibly muscled and chiselled bodies jog past in skimpy shorts, their naked backs glistening with sweat.
With a pang of recognition I see the old Intercontinental Hotel, the setting for ten thousand newsreels. It is now restored to its former glory and behind it, one of its contemporaries stands stark and empty, pockmarked with shellholes and rifle fire still after all these years. The yacht club is still damaged though not by the civil war but by the immense car bomb which killed ex President Rafik al-Hariri, probably at the behest of the Syrians, in 2005. The brutal past is not too far past.
We find a leafy, shady coffee shop and order an Arabian specialty: lime juice, slightly sweetened and served in a large glass of crushed ice. We turn and walk back through downtown, which looks for all the world like the downtown of any modern city. The signs are in French and Arabic but it doesn't take much imagination to think you might be in Auckland or Cincinnati or Manchester. Well, maybe not Manchester. We pass a sushi bar, one of the ones with the little train that zims on past with plates of deliciousness, and enjoy the airconditioned coolness and watch a replay of Germany thrashing the Ockers at the World Cup. We catch a taxi to the National Museum and look at the ancient bits and pieces and see a video of people restoring priceless artifacts after some local commander or other lobbed a few shells through the place in the bad old days. War stuffs everything up. Everything of value, anyway. Absolutely everything. We catch another taxi home: fare, 10,000 Lebanese pounds or about $NZ10 and sleep for the afternoon. Despite the recent tendency of the certain and the self righteous to park cars full of TNT about the place, this is a city I could really and truly fall in love with.