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Eat, play, love - Beirut

On honey moon in Beirut, a city synonymous with conflict, Omar Mouallem finds a culture keen to make food, not war

 

There is a famous picture, taken by war photographer Jay Ullal in 1983, showing a Christian bride and Muslim groom crossing a ravaged neighbourhood along Beirut's Green Line, an invisible yet powerful east-west divide that kept their religions apart until 1990.

Twenty-nine years later, an interracial, intercultural newlywed couple wade through the pool of a five-star hotel overlooking this former war zone. My bride and I have come here, to the Lebanese city synonymous with war, to celebrate our love. This despite our government advising against "non-essential travel" to Lebanon, my parents' home before they emigrated to Canada to escape the 1975-1990 civil war.

Peering over the pool edge, we see polished stone buildings and pavements, Parisian street lamps and flower gardens. We see a few tourists, but mostly Beirutis, shopping and dining in a city suffering a devastating tourism season. After all, conflict is still raging nearby, about 85 kilometres away in Syria, and also in Lebanon itself, where sectarian violence has erupted in Tripoli.

Not that you'd know it, looking out over Beirut. In fact, this downtown looks nothing like the one I saw in 2007. So much has appeared in the past three years, an ongoing attempt by public-private company Solidere to return Beirut to its 1960s glory. The sounds, however, are familiar; my brain has been absorbing a cacophony of car horns for three straight days.

Seemingly against the odds, Beirut has blossomed around the weeds planted by civil war and an ever-teetering economy and government; around the masked men burning cars near our hotel on the first night of our honeymoon - we were oblivious to the destruction until we read about it the next day; around the bullet-pocked office building standing directly opposite a new 1.7 million-square-foot mall, Beirut Souks, frequented by the wealthy and their foreign nannies.

I am serving as husband, guide and translator even though, prior to our honeymoon, I had spent no more than 48 hours in Beirut, tending to visit instead my parents' hometown, in the Bekaa Valley, on trips to Lebanon. And my Arabic? As I like to say, " shway, shway" ("little, little"). Luckily, many Beirutis are trilingual - on top of Arabic, French is still in their back pockets from long-gone colonial times, and then there is, of course, the worldwide lingua franca of English. Furthermore, our hotel has become a landmark in the three years since British hospitality group CampbellGray opened it. So, to get to it by cab, shway Arabic suffices.

Le Gray is a bastion of the new Beirut, with its rooftop pool, three chic restaurants and a swanky blue-lit piano bar. The modern design is complemented by old-fashioned class. I learn this the hard way while hastily ordering lunch at Gordon's Cafe. "With all due respect, sir," says the notepad-wielding waiter, "but ladies first."

Ten minutes from the hotel is Zaitunay Bay, a seaside promenade of outdoor dining, beach clubs, designer stores and yachting. The former landfill site has become the buzz of the capital since opening in December - and buzz or no, the promenade offers a blessed relief from the horns and traffic.

On Saturdays, the western entrance to Zaitunay Bay is occupied by Souk el Tayeb, Beirut's first farmers' market. Founder Kamal Mouzawak is Lebanon's Jamie Oliver, bringing people together through food in various ways and under the slogan: "Make food, not war".

I meet Mouzawak at Tawlet, his off-the-beaten-track restaurant in the city, which has a different matriarch in the kitchen every day. The chef du jour serves the recipes of her village buffet-style or, better yet, family style; while there are some smaller tables, patrons are encouraged to sit at the long communal table running through the middle of Tawlet - the name translates as "table".

Tawlet is a bold concept, but Mouzawak doesn't like the word "concept"; he much prefers "human development project".

"In a country where people are fighting because of their differences, we can celebrate our diversity and look for similarities," he says. "And what better common ground than the land and product of the land, the culture, and the cuisine that we make out of it?"

We share a delicious buffet, not unlike one my mother might make at the end of Ramadan, but Mama, in this instance, is Hana Khatour, from the southern city of Jezzine. We join a diverse party that includes Mazen Hajjar, the impassioned producer behind 961 Beer, Lebanon's only microbrewery. After pairing his darkest ale with Khatour's heaviest fried kibbeh (croquettes of ground meat), and halva sweets with a red from a rack containing all of Lebanon's 90-odd wines, we say goodbye and head to Kab Elias, to see my grandmother, my tata.

Because Lebanon is small - about a third of the size of Taiwan - it takes just 45 minutes to drive from the western edge to Kab Elias, a town close to the eastern border with Syria. Our only public-transport option, though, is to squeeze into a small van with 11 others.

The driver winds around mountains at thrashing speeds and prefers to ride down the centre line rather than in one of the lanes it supposedly divides. I've done this enough times to call it an adventure but Janae, my wife, would happily pay him triple the 5,000 lira (HK$25) fare to drive like a sane person. Her second shock comes when she steps out of the van and, despite the brevity of the journey, into another world. Towns like my family's are more representative of Lebanon than cosmopolitan Beirut. In Kab Elias, a blond Canadian woman is gawked at, political portraits signify the dominant and therefore affiliated religion (in this case, Sunni) and you can't rely on English.

Fortunately, I know this town well. I lead Janae past the concrete steps where I played marbles when I was seven, up the alley where I shot firecrackers at my brother when I was 12 and to my grandparents' apartment, to see Tata, who hasn't bombarded me with kisses this way since I was 21. She's saved them up, not just for me but for my wife, also.

A day of visiting, eating and familial kissing zips by like the van that takes us back to Beirut, where we spend the last two nights of our visit on Hamra Street.

Once Beirut's commercial hub, Hamra remains its intellectual centre due to its proximity to the American University of Beirut, its sprawling pavement cafes and its lack of religious/political propaganda. It is inhospitably cramped, with rows of concrete buildings blocking views of the sea and often keeping out the sunshine, too. Yet it's clearly the preferred hangout for hip Beirutis.

There is no sign of recession in the bars lining its alleys, where patrons mingle outside the separate seat-ing areas, nor in the 24-hour diner, Leil Nhar, where they go to sober up. And, despite Beirut Souks being the "It" shopping centre, Hamra's shops remain open into the night.

One of its coolest boutiques here is Three Wise Donkeys. Just opened, it boasts sleek computers that let you take control of your fashion. You choose your T-shirt's cut, colour, size and then a print from one of the international designers in its network. It is here that I find the perfect souvenir - the perfect metaphor - for this city and our honeymoon: a design of a crudely drawn heart-shaped balloon that grows from Arabic writing that reads: "All you need is love."

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways www.qatarairways.com flies from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there on to Beirut.

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