On my first night in Lebanon, there are fireworks and a ruckus. A local by-election has just been held in a Christian area of Beirut. The two candidates were the sister and the uncle of the Interior Minister. When the votes were first counted, the Minister’s father claimed that his daughter had won. His brother contested the result, and now he has won. The fireworks are the uncle’s supporters’, the ruckus his niece’s.
Lebanon was the war of my teenage years, as Bosnia was the war of my adulthood. It was background noise in my schooldays, and I remember very few things about it: Terry Waite’s beard; the Human League song, dark and booming, testament to the fact that Lebanon used to have a definite article. Also, that the producers of Star Wars had clearly pillaged the Lebanese phone book when they were looking for character names (Lorth Needa etc). The fighting Lebanese were indisputably foreign, because the complexity of their wars was usually distilled to ‘ethnic hatreds’, like the Bosnians’. Only occasionally – on the grounds that Beirut was ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ – were they also ‘just like us’.
A Lebanese friend drives me through Beirut. The Baghdad highway at peak bandit time is nerve-racking, but this is scarier. I suppose all these lunatics have reflexes sharpened by years of shell-dodging. Even my friend gets nervous (he moved to South Kensington years ago and is out of practice). I try to concentrate on the sights.
They’re the ones you read about in tourist brochures: the blue Mediterranean, looming Mount Lebanon, the mosques and churches, side by side. And then there’s a statue of a shopping trolley, a massive structure overlooking the ringroad as if it’s the best and biggest symbol Beirut has of its much trumpeted rebirth. Newspaper stories about Beirut often include the words ‘phoenix’ and ‘ashes’ in the headline. An expat professor of architecture here says that when he arrived in 1999 there were three decent bars and seven decent restaurants. Now there are three hundred bars and seven hundred restaurants. New establishments are opening all the time; they stay in business, on average, for three weeks.
Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, who lives in Sursock Palace in Sursock neighbourhood, is the matriarch of one of Beirut’s grand families. In 1960 she founded Apsad, a heritage organisation. It had its work cut out during the war, but peace keeps it even busier: ‘Beirut had five hundred houses worth saving after the war, and most have been pulled down.’ In a small, ambitious country, land is worth more than historic property. On one occasion, she says, there was a demonstration to save a house. The Ministry of Culture responded by promising to list it, and the protestors left at midnight. The owners demolished the house by 4 a.m. At the Foreign Ministry – another palace – the driveway is lined with fresh tree stumps. ‘We cut them down,’ a guard says. ‘There was a delegation wearing white suits. They didn’t want to get them dirty.’
When you have a country to rebuild maybe heritage is indulgence. Or maybe it’s something else. Beirut’s architects talk about ‘collective amnesia’: building over unpleasant history is the best way of erasing it. Bernard Khoury is an exception. His BO18 nightclub was built on the site of a massacre in a Palestinian refugee camp. The clubbers sit on coffins, and the whole thing is a bunker. He built another bar in a war-damaged house, and preserved the knackered façade by wrapping it in metal. He doesn’t want people to forget.
But Beirut is very busy forgetting. The biggest example is downtown, the area around Martyrs’ Square that used to house the souqs and the bustle. Now the recently opened art deco Virgin Megastore presides over emptiness; the rest, for the moment, is car parks. ‘Whatever you have come to write about,’ the professor of architecture says, ‘you’ll end up writing about downtown.’ He’s right. Every dinner conversation turns to Solidere, the company charged with the reconstruction of Beirut. There are reasons for discontent: the war damaged 40 per cent of the souqs; Solidere destroyed the remaining 60 per cent. It dispersed several thousand small traders and stallholders, and dispossessed hundreds. It knocked down scores of historic buildings, and offered Solidere shares – not doing so well, recently – as compensation. Anyone not involved with the company is probably suing it.
But Solidere is untouchable, because its biggest shareholder is Rafik Hariri, the billionaire Prime Minister and a friend of other billionaires. Everyone has an opinion about him, and a well-honed selection of rumours. He sold his wife to a Saudi prince, they say, which is how a middling company accountant, as he was then, won his first construction contract and was “ set on the road to power and riches. He has his lieutenants stand by his bedside every morning waiting for orders, as if he were the Sun King. During the wars, he funded all sides and sold arms in all directions, so that – unlike most other Lebanese politicians – he was never seen as a militia leader. As a branding campaign, it obviously worked: Hariri was forced out of office between 1998 and 2000, but otherwise he’s been firmly in control since 1992. He likes to call himself Mr Lebanon, though as his plans to rebuild Beirut have landed the country with a $25 billion debt, many Lebanese have other less charitable names for him.
A conversation in a well-appointed drawing-room one day, with two Beirut aristocrats:
‘Hariri is a shit.’
‘No, he’s shit in a bag.’
‘Yes, shit in a plastic bag.’
‘No, he’s shit in a velvet bag – all soft on the outside but shit through and through.’
I see Hariri’s second wife from afar one evening, across a few tables at a gala dinner. She wears diamonds and looks like Nefertiti. Sitting next to me is the Minister for Transport, apparently a good and able technocrat. I can’t judge him on either of those merits, because he’s too busy on his mobile phone to talk to me (but then he does own the phone company). Between calls, he passes notes to the Minister of Finance on the next table, amid much laughter. ‘Oh, they’ve just received some death threats,’ my other neighbour explains.
The closest I come to Mr Lebanon is his worst enemy. Fady El Khoury says: ‘Hariri hates my guts. He says he has two problems in his life – that he can’t get thinner, and me.’ El Khoury’s family used to wield great power in the city, because they own the St George Hotel; and the St George, a smallish building on the waterfront, was ‘the jewel of Beirut’. Richard and Liz once had a suite; Kim Philby came to stay. Dizzying deals were sealed over handshakes in the bar. Timothy Leary stayed here with some Black Panthers during his Middle Eastern study tour of revolutionary movements. The late Marquess of Aberdeen, as he wrote in the Oldie recently, would stay at the St George and make whoring trips to Mme Janette’s, two minutes’ walk away. It was where Arabs went to see women in bikinis. Its waterskiing competition was world famous. Since the 1930s, the St George had sat alone on a peninsula, lording it over the Mediterranean.
These days, its scaffolding is draped with black netting. El Khoury has been trying to reopen it since 1992. ‘During the war, someone called. He said there’s a rich man called Hariri who’s interested in the hotel. He asked for plans. There were soldiers inside. I said: “There aren’t any plans. Why don’t you take your friend and go and measure the place yourself?” Maybe that’s why he hates me.’ He laughs as he says this. But he also says he needs to take Valium these days before he can talk about his troubles.
In 1976, during the War of the Hotels, militias occupied the seafront properties and shot them to bits. The St George caught fire; but so did the Intercontinental Phoenicia, which is now open and flourishing. It benefits from the lucrative trade of Gulf Arabs who come here to escape the desert air, and who these days don’t feel welcome outside the Arab world. They’re heralded as the saviours of Lebanon’s postwar tourist industry, and if the St George were open, they would be four deep at the bar.
The hotel’s non-opening is a long and complicated story involving sea rights and beach rights, lawsuits and decrees. But the essential ingredient is a six hundred square metre patch of water in St George Bay and its accompanying waterfront, to which the hotel was given rights in the 1930s by Government decree. Over the years, like so many other beach properties in Lebanon, it spread, by stealth and squatting. Then Solidere arrived, and claimed the area beside the marina as part of its ‘new and exciting waterfront’. It plans to berth five hundred yachts next to the shiny forty-storey tower it will build on landfill, opposite the hundred thousand square metre ‘Souqs Centre’ retail development that will replace the car parks in Martyrs’ Square. Solidere is planning a glittering Beirut, and the St George is in the way. In 1995, all previous agreements giving El Khoury the right to the seafront were cancelled. When Hariri was out of office, they were uncancelled. When he returned to power, they were cancelled again.
In the meantime, guerrilla tactics. An eight metre concrete wall, blocking off the St George’s sea access, was built by Solidere ‘to provide protection from tidal waves’, though the last tsunami was over a century ago. In February, police descended on the marina and demanded the removal of the fifty boats ‘trespassing’ there. El Khoury protested, but the boats went. So did El Khoury, who took his yacht and set out for Cyprus, though he soon gave up and came back, ‘because I was tired’.
Today, the St George Beach Club is open for business. Its patrons are forbidden to moor their yachts in the marina, swim in the sea or stay in the empty hotel behind them. Their view, which used to be uninterrupted Mediterranean, is the eight metre wall on one side, Solidere building sites on the other. ‘There’s nowhere else that hypercapitalism and hypersocialism have come together like in Beirut,’ the expat professor says. ‘It creates absolute power.’ Even the jewel of Beirut has little chance.
It’s possible to be charitable about Solidere. Brashness may be the only way to get things done. ‘Nobody agrees on anything here’ is something all Beirutis agree on. (One downtown building had 4080 owners and 780 tenants.) ‘But you can’t reconstruct a city and exclude its inhabitants from the reconstruction,’ a woman who has been relieved of her four buildings says. The stallholders and small traders of the downtown souqs, in what was one of the few truly mixed areas of Beirut, have moved away; and when the shops are luxury and the centrepiece of the Souqs Centre is a Galeries Lafayette they won’t be coming back. The few streets that have been restored have reconstructed Ottoman façades, freshly scrubbed cobbles, deserted glossy restaurants. The new Beirut wants bustle, but reeks of absence.
Throughout the city, there is empty building after empty building, erected in anticipation of the tourist industry that would spring up in peacetime, and of the return of the million Lebanese who left during the war. Neither has happened, and neither will happen so long as the next-door neighbours keep fighting and strong-arm monopolies continue to scare off investors.
There has a been a flurry of assassinations in Beirut recently. El Khoury says he’s still ‘in action’, though. Most of the time he sits in his office, a cement annexe to a hotel that is ready to be renovated but won’t be. He has cameras constantly trained on the marina, ready for the next incursion by Solidere, the next spurious sea-wall. ‘They’ll probably fill it in next, just to get more land.’ In August, Solidere inaugurated its $230 million marina, where the St George’s one used to be. “ On the black netting over the scaffolding, El Khoury has hung pictures of the hotel in its heyday and banners that say: ‘Is it possible that this glorious tourist landmark survived a war only to be destroyed? Is it permissible?’