Your Man in Beirut

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April 6th 2011
Published: April 6th 2011
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Dear All

Greetings from Beirut! I’m now in Lebanon, my 62nd country after having already ticked off my 61st a couple of days ago when landing in Damascus, Syria – I guess I can go home now (!). Only joking, I still have another 15 days of amazing travel left in this region and am looking forward to it very much, if it’ll be anything like these last 3 days which have been just great!

Touched down in Damascus on Sunday evening, and was met at the airport by a pre-booked taxi taking me to the hotel I booked in the centre of town. A very strange thing it is indeed, having experienced it before in both Caracas and Nairobi, arriving in a new city, new country, late in the evening and having to go straight to bed. Drove through the city with a whole new world out there to explore, but unfortunately had to try to get a good night’s sleep before being able to explore it properly the next day. It was a tad more bizarre also with the fact that the hotel I’d booked was a particularly ramshackle affair, with one main courtyard and countless corridors, stairs and nooks and crannies leading off it to the various parts of the building which seemed to have been added at later stages in no particular order. Spent the first night in a cardboard box of a room, with a cut-out peephole through the cardboard-made wall to the room next door (blocked that off with toilet paper straight away!), and the next night moved to an even more modest room which was nothing more than a converted cupboard under a staircase with a bed in it, Harry Potter-style. To top it off, when the cleaning ladies upstairs were at it, it leaked dirty water through the ceiling!

But anyway, if accommodation is all my trip is based on then it wouldn’t really be a great one so far. But Damascus really did make up for it the next day. Not a particularly modern, cosmopolitan city by all means, despite having nearly 5 million people living there, it did possess a certain old-world charm with its old medina full of souqs, old houses and mosques which appear as yet untouched by rampant tourism. This meant that you weren’t yelled at to buy the wares of the sellers wherever you went, accosted by little children wanting to be your guide, or having to keep a hawk-eye lookout for thieves and pickpockets. A lovely little place, whose Umayyad Mosque, being the third most holy site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, was just beautiful, as was a nearby garden-filled house known as the Azem Palace. And to top it all off, I actually walked along “Straight Street” – a literally very straight street, where St Paul stayed after his conversion on the Road to Damascus, I believe at the house of Judas, though couldn’t quite find the house myself (!).
And despite what everyone might think in the West, everything is really peaceful and calm there. The people really do love their president, despite what the Western media might want to report in its bill to sell papers, and despite what Western politicians might state in their bid for control in the region. What a loaded comment, apologies for any offence caused here, but my point is that as I imagined, everyone I spoke to in Syria so far loves their president, and his picture appears on every other street corner, shop and car window. The taxi driver taking me to the bus station yesterday even showed me a video of him on his mobile phone on the way there, with very strong, powerful music in the background. I do need to check what’s happening there at the moment on the BBC website shortly, as I’m sure whatever happens there is censored in the press to some extent, but you’d have no idea there’d be anything out of the ordinary – if anything, the people seemed to want to go out of their way to tell me, a representative of the West I guess, that they actually did want their president.

So, one full day in Damascus, followed by a night under the stairs not sleeping till past midnight due to many comings and goings up the steps, took me to yesterday when I took a shared taxi across the border, over the Lebanese mountains, and down to the hip and happening capital of Beirut, sitting in a funky little café 5 minutes from my hotel in the east of the city. And really looking forward to a good night’s sleep tonight, as last night I was put in another poor choice of room right next to the reception, with the phone ringing past midnight and again not much sleep – tonight I’ve been moved to what appears to be a nice and quiet room, hopefully my first proper night’s sleep on this trip so far. Although it really has been a great trip so far, I also do appreciate a nice room and a restful night…

Yesterday did a big tour of Beirut, crossing from the former Christian east-side of the city over the “Green Line” which once separated it from the Muslim-controlled west-side (rather like the Berlin wall), towards the beautifully restored centre of the city concentrated around the Place D’Etoille mini-roundabout surrounded by cafes, chic boutiques and the like. After this, a beautifully refreshing walk along the Corniche sea-front through a proper thunderstorm towards the Pigeon Rocks, coastal arches and stacks which are an awesome sight to a Geography teacher like me, at the other end of the city. Then back again through the Hamra university area, focal point of which is the American University of Beirut, the most prestigious in the whole of the Middle East. A truly beautiful city, beautiful setting at the foot of mountains on the coast, and superb people – as in Damascus, absolutely as friendly as can be. An extremely hospitable region of the world, full of smiles and gracious people very willing to help you and practice their English. For instance, a sweet old lady stopped me on the street yesterday while I was checking my map, and helped me along with 10-minutes of advice on the places to go and see in the country. And being a good boy scout, I offered to help her across the traffic-filled street afterwards, but she was having none of it! I feel so welcome here, and again this really is against the West’s general vision of this part of the world being dangerous and full of terrorists.

Admittedly though, there are factions and elements around which are prone to violence, and many say that it will undoubtedly spill over into armed conflict again at some point in the near future. As for the Civil War which raged here during the 1980s, the city of Beirut still bears numerous buildings pock-marked with shrapnel and bullet holes, and countless abandoned and derelict ones surrounded by barbed wire. There is the most amount of military presence I’ve ever seen on the streets, with some roads blocked by barbed wire, spikey metal things and armed officers, which did make me feel a bit nervous walking around yesterday. At one point after the sun had set, I was right in the middle of the city surrounded by dereliction and building sites, not a soul around apart from gun-toting soldiers at each corner, and the only sounds being the rumbling of thunder overhead and the distant wails of mosque muezzins –that was a bit eery to be honest.

And I also changed my plans slightly yesterday, deciding to come straight to Beirut instead of via the city of Baalbek near the Syrian border. This was after having read in Damascus about a group of 7 Estonian tourists who were kidnapped in that region, the Bekaa Valley, only two weeks ago in the town of Zahle. However, after arriving here in Beirut yesterday, I didn’t feel the threat was too great, so took a bus to Baalbek today, passing through Zahle, and as usual found the people as welcoming as ever. Baalbek, as well as housing some of the most splendid Roman ruins I’ve ever seen (see attached photos), is also the political home of Hezbollah, and their flags and party slogans grace the streets. It still felt very welcoming, and not dangerous at all, and I really enjoyed the trip there and back.

So, as you may have gathered thus far, I am having an amazing and very safe time on my trip so far. My next plans are to base myself in Beirut, despite being terribly expensive – prices have doubled since my guidebook was written 3 years ago, which was a big shock to me and an even bigger shock to my bank account – for another 3 days, making day trips to nearby sights of interest, before heading back to Syria up north and continuing my journey from there.

Plan to keep updating as always, so hope you’ve enjoyed reading so far, and hope the photos are good!

Speak soon, bis-salaama!


Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 28


Shrine of St John the BaptistShrine of St John the Baptist
Shrine of St John the Baptist

The supposed resting place of the head of St John the Baptist, also revered by Muslims
President Bashar Al-AssadPresident Bashar Al-Assad
President Bashar Al-Assad

No doubts as to his popularity in Syria

The Corniche, Beirut

31st December 2019
The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

What a fantastic blog and photos, Alex! Love the blog title too! You are a much braver traveler than I could ever be so it was very interesting to read your thoughts about your travel in this part of the world -- especially how welcome and unafraid you felt there. Sorry you had such bad accommodations in Damascus but you certainly didn't let the lack of sleep keep you down.
31st December 2019
The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Thank you!
Thanks very much for this comment! Gosh, it's been a while since I did the Syria/Lebanon trip and wrote this, and then there was the whole civil war in the region just after I'd left. I'm not sure I'd do similar adventures in dodgier parts of the world nowadays, I'm happy to tick off the safer countries now :)

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