20 August 2009

* Sin city of the Middle East

From nudist beach parties and wild bashes hosted by the likes of Paris Hilton, to gay clubs, gambling and showgirls, Beirut is rapidly earning a reputation as the sin city of the Middle East.

Clubbers don't bat an eye in popping $1000 for a bottle of champagne to guarantee attention at a trendy nightspot, where less is more as far as women's wear is concerned, and fireworks displays regularly light up the skies.
Lebanon has seen it all: a bloody 1975-1990 civil war, military occupation, high-profile assassinations, and unending political instability.

Four years ago, Beirut's seaside Riviera Hotel saw an assassination attempt targeting a leading anti-Syrian minister. Today it is keeping the neighbourhood awake as partygoers drink and dance the night away.

"We have clubs in Cairo," said 26-year-old Wafiq, as he swayed to the beat on a hot August night holding a glass of whiskey and puffing on a Cuban cigar.
"But nothing beats this," said the Egyptian, a financial consultant. "I need to come here to unwind."

A record one million-plus tourists visited Lebanon last month alone, according to the tourism ministry, which is expecting more than two million tourists by the end of 2009, a figure roughly equivalent to half the country's population.
Many of those flocking to Beirut are Lebanese expatriates, but Arab nationals have also arrived en masse to take advantage of Lebanon's glamorous nightlife and glitzy shows like

"Hot Legs" at the Casino du Liban, featuring "striptease-style dances", according to the casino's website.

While Lebanon often flirts with the borderline of civil war -- sectarian strife in May 2008 resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people -- any sign of a political detente is quickly followed by a boom in tourism.
Sami, 30, flew in from Germany for a brief reprieve this summer, which he says turned out to be more exhausting than he had anticipated.

Nursing sunburn, he described how he had negotiated his way past scowling bouncers into Sky Bar, dubbed the hottest club in Beirut, before stopping at a 24-hour eatery for breakfast at 3:00 am and hitting the beach a few hours later.
-- 'I'm on three hours of sleep' --

"I'm on three hours of sleep," he said. "I had barely started on my coffee when I got to the beach and my friends threw my coffee away and replaced it with vodka in a plastic cup."
"It's pretty much been downhill since then," said the architect, grinning.
"This city is just so diverse," chimed in his girlfriend Yasmine, a 24-year-old graphic designer. "There's something for everyone. It's just one big non-stop party."
Prices for a bottle of champagne at some clubs run from $200 (A$243) to a staggering $15,000 ($18,250), but regulars at places like Palais Crystal -- modelled after the famed Palais Club in Cannes -- say it is worth it.

While Yasmine and Sami represent an emerging face of Beirut -- a hedonists' haven where spirits run as high as the heels -- others are less enthusiastic.
"It's really fun to go out and see all these people and enjoy the music, but I don't understand the hassle, having to reserve months in advance to go to the same places over and over again," said Rana, 28.

"It's as if this is some social obligation that you have to fulfill or you've committed the ultimate sin of not being 'in'," the Beirut-based stockbroker said.
Some Lebanese proudly retell the story of how during the devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the parties went on, merely relocating their venues to mainly Christian mountain suburbs like Faraya and Brummana.

"It was the same as in Beirut but in a cooler area -- I mean weather-wise," 28-year-old Rania said.

A doctoral candidate in New York, Rania made her reservations at her favourite clubs well before she even landed in Beirut.
But while some Lebanese believe the worst is over and their country has shed its reputation for political turbulence, 25-year-old Ziad, a Lebanese engineer based in Qatar, believes the summer of 2009 is merely a breathing space.

"I think they want us to have our summer before they get back to business," he said, referring to the country's rival factions.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.