Beirut – Impressions before visiting

My drawing of how I expected Beirut to look before I visited

I don’t expect Beirut to be quite this colourful; more muted versions of these colours.

Falafel, traffic, dirt, Mediterranean, pale and dusty yellow, hectic, tomatoes, rocks, apartment blocks, hummus, bullet holes, mountains, sunshine, rain, old French buildings, halloumi, concrete, cars pipping, colourful clothes, cats, street food, Arabic writing, spices, lots of tatty posters, taxis.

As I think about what to expect of Beirut, I am very much aware that I’ve read quite a bit about Beirut and Lebanon recently so I guess my expectations are probably a bit different now to how they were when I first thought about going there. I have never been to the Middle East before.

I think it will be quite hot (bearing in mind anything over about 20 degrees celsius is hot in my world) and dry with lots of dust, pollution, noise and flies. I’m not sure where the “flies” thing comes from but I always associate heat with insects, largely because I don’t like heat or flies so they get clumped together. However, having said that, I am led to believe it rains a fair bit, in which case I expect the dust will become mud and it will be very dirty and messy. Black snot! I don’t mean that to sound negative but neither am I going there for the weather.

Traffic will no doubt be pretty wild, both in terms of congestion and not adhering to my perception of traffic rules. I think there will be lots of vehicle pipping and road rage. I’m not sure if there will be effective traffic lights. I also think there will be less delineation between pavement and road than I’m accustomed to.

Smells. I think there will be lots of different and strong smells, from traffic and oily smells to baking bread. I am hoping food smells will be in abundance. I also think people will wear perfume and aftershave, which are smells I always notice in Paris.

From what I’ve read, there are a lot of new buildings being constructed so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot of construction dirt and noise. I hope there will be lots of older buildings remaining but I know massive chunks of the city were destroyed by war. I think I will see buildings peppered with bullet holes. I know such buildings existed, but whether they remain I’m not so sure. Again, I have an inkling about this from reading about the Lebanese French connections but I reckon a lot of older buildings will resemble more run-down buildings in French cities. I know it’s not France but I’m actually picturing the back streets of Naples as I ponder crumbling French architecture. Actually, I think Beirut will be reminiscent of Naples because Naples is a bit wild, crazy traffic, crumbling architecture and lots of talk of food and eating. Interestingly, despite considering myself someone who is easily overwhelmed by busy streets and pavements and lots of noise, I found Naples quite thrilling. But I also needed a break from it after a few days. But when I left, I wanted to be back. Hmm, I’ve read that people are often like that with Beirut, ie they want to leave, leave and then appreciate its charm much more and want to return.

I don’t expect it to be a beautiful or pretty city and I think buildings will be largely slightly yellow and many more blocks of flats than houses. I also think a lot of shops will be at the bottom of apartment blocks and not just on the ground floor.

I have been led to believe there will be a lot of stray cats. I now have an image of cats and kittens everywhere, so full of people, cars and cats.

I think the coastline will be more rocky than beachy around the city area but will be quite dramatic. I think the port areas will be busy and full of movement. I am not expecting much green space in the city centre area and expect it to feel quite dry and soily. I can’t quite get my head around the fact it’s the Mediterranean. On that basis, I think the recreational beach areas will be sandy and pretty with palm trees. I think the sea will be busy with boats and cargo ships.

As ever, I’m particularly excited about going to markets/souks. I expect them to be vibrant, colourful, busy, higgledy piggledy and really frenetic. I think they will be busy and a little bit overwhelming. I think there will be big areas with street food and that it will smell wonderful. I think stall holders will be friendly and enthusiastic about their produce and sampling will be de rigeur. I love places like that when people are enthusiastic about their food and want you to try it.

As for food, that’s one of the main reasons I decided to go to Lebanon. I think there will be street food, restaurants, bakeries and stalls pretty much everywhere. I expect to see lots of people hanging around stalls, eating food and chatting to others. I think food will be central to a lot of conversation and social life. I am also desperately hopeful I will see the bread with a hole in it, hanging off the handlebars of people who sell it along the streets – have I read too much into that one photo I saw of such a scene?!

I am looking forward to drinking Lebanese coffee with cardamom. I have been told it’s more about the tea than the coffee though. I will be experimenting with a lot of both and fully expect to return home proclaiming to everyone that Lebanese coffee is great. It will not taste the same at home, that will be disappointing and I will see looks of “yeah, yeah, whatever” from everyone I waffle on to about it. And they will be right.

I think people will generally be very friendly, warm and welcoming. I haven’t met many Lebanese people but all I have met have been open, warm and chatty. I think food and the people will be two of the most positive aspects of my trip that I will look back on.

While I know there is a lot of construction work going on, I don’t know that it will be cutting edge modern; new rather than ultra modern.

Returning to the subject of food, while there are few things I don’t like, there are quite a few things I’m not particularly keen on. Interestingly, a fair few of those things are Lebanese staples. I suspect I will overload on tomato, cucumber, raw onion and chickpeas (including falafel and hummus) as they are all things I merely don’t mind rather than really like. I am very curious to see how long, if at all, it takes for me to tire of these things. However, I fully expect to appreciate that all food I eat will be fresh.

I have written out a list of places I want to see, eat at and visit. I have a bit of a niggle that noise and busyness will stress me out a bit. I also wonder whether I’ll find it a happy or sad city. I mean, I do know a bit about Beirut’s troubled, tragic and volatile history and I’m really curious to know whether you get a real sense of that just walking around (eg seeing signs of shelling on the sides of buildings). Alternatively, there might be a really positive vibe from a city going about its business and rebuilding itself as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city by the Mediterranean. I think because of pictures from years ago, seeing Beirut devastated by war, I think of it as being a poor place. I don’t think it really is. Maybe I’ll find it a bit confusing.

Will I love it or hate it? I am very unsure. But, against the odds, I think more likely I will love it. I also don’t think eating falafel in Lebanon will make me love falafel but I’m certainly going to try. If I don’t eat halloumi every day, I will be disappointed and if achieving that simple target results in my no longer loving halloumi, I will be distraught.