Beirut – Fascinating Glamour and Urban Decay

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Located on the Mediterranean Sea with a coastline of extraordinary beauty, it has for centuries been an important cultural and economic center in the Middle East.

Google Earth

It has long been a “safe haven” for refugees fleeing from neighboring countries who find the hospitality of the Lebanese people there.

The irony of fate, combined with the irresponsibility of human beings, made its port the scene of the biggest non-nuclear explosion in the history of mankind.

The event devastated the capital and consequently submerged the country in an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis.

If it is unavoidable to talk about conflicts when talking about Beirut (and Lebanon), it is also unavoidable to talk about how extraordinary its people are.

This is a city of extremes to which no one can remain indifferent, but I can assure you that what matters is beyond what we see in the news, the best are the people.

Exploring Beirut

It was a trip that allowed us to break preconceptions and visit places not explored by the common tourist, through the sensitivity of João Sousa, a portuguese photojournalist living in Lebanon.

I arrived in Beirut late in the night and knew that, given the crisis in the country, electricity is scarce.

Seeing a metropolis, once considered the “Paris of the Middle East,” immersed in darkness, was to fall into the reality of what we would find in the following days.

Beirut, despite all the vicissitudes, is a cosmopolitan city, where a mix of religions, cultures, and races coexist.

It is a mixture of glamorous buildings and wide avenues in the European style, a legacy of the French occupation, others the result of emigrants’ money, with precarious neighborhoods resulting from former refugee camps, where architectural decay and urban chaos are striking.

Sabra and Shatila

Among them are Sabra and Shatila, occupied mostly by Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, best known for having been the scene of an attack in the 1980s, perpetrated by Israeli military forces, which the UN considered an act of genocide.

Today, daily life is tranquil in the neighborhoods, amidst the decay of the buildings and the poverty inherent to those who fled their countries with a handful of nothing.

The people are hardworking, hospitable, and make a point of telling their life stories, many of them still deeply marked by the recent past, but with their eyes set on the future, which is expected to bring better days.

The children play freely in the street, the adults dedicate themselves to their professions, and the easy smiles from everyone make us feel welcome.

Bourj Hammoud

Then there is the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood with its curtains that dance with the wind on the balconies. It is a residential neighborhood with a lot of commercial activity, occupied mostly by Armenian refugees and their descendants.

There we had the privilege of meeting a very special lady, Marie Mangassarian, who, at the age of 101, is part of the thousands of Armenian refugees who went to Lebanon to escape the regime in their country between 1915 and 1939.

On the day we went to visit and have lunch at the Badguèr Art & Craft Heritage Center, created by her daughter to preserve the traditional arts of her home country, Marie made a point of welcoming us.

She played the piano and sang, but above all, she spoke about the importance of accepting each other without prejudice or reservation. It was the icing on the cake of a fantastic lunch with Armenian flavors, in the heart of Beirut.

Khandaq al-Ghamik

Less known to the Western world, and definitely not visited by foreigners at all, is Khandaq al-Ghamik. The neighborhood has a long history (and reputation) of armed conflict and poverty.

Most of the buildings show deep degradation and signs of war on the walls, but they also display urban art.

It is not a common place to visit in Beirut, in fact most Lebanese don’t go in there and we only visited it because we were with João who, as a photojournalist living in Lebanon, knows the place and the people who live there.

It was a unique experience exploring the neighborhood, meeting the people, and having the opportunity to see a different reality within the melting pot of cultures that is Beirut.

Gemmayze and Mar Mikhail

I would like to say that after such history-laden and energy-heavy visits, we had gone to visit the most typical neighborhoods of the city, Gemmayze and Mar Mikhail, where we saw only beautiful things.

And we did see, indeed we saw many beautiful things.

But Beirut suffered a brutal explosion in August 2020 and when we were there, almost a year later, the scars of the destruction were still open, clearly visible to anyone who walks through these neighborhoods, near the port of Beirut.

This is where the impact has been felt most violently. It is deeply heartbreaking to see that so much time later, because of total government neglect, people are still unable to get their lives back on track, either personally or professionally.

The Port Area

It was in this context that we came across victims and relatives of victims of the explosion, who were holding a vigil/protest, in search of a justice that is slow in coming.

There are no answers for what happened, no responsibilities assumed, no apology from those responsible. There is only the anguish of not getting justice!

If the destruction in the neighborhoods surrounding the port is brutal, when you get to the port, the image is overwhelming.

But no matter how much we look at the images in the most diverse formats, nothing gives us the slightest idea of what those people lived through.

The Egg

However, Beirut remains a fascinating city with the grand mosque right next to the “Egg,” both emblematic elements of the city, each in its own way, and an entire Downtown filled with cafes and restaurants with stunning views of the Mediterranean and buildings that take us back to more auspicious times.

Beirut is rich in history, culture, and gastronomy. It makes you want to stay a little longer to get to know its smiling, open-hearted people, always willing to help.

In spite of the regrets, Beirut is and will always be the “city of lights on the Middle East,” as it was once dubbed in comparison with Paris.

It may not be from the electric light that becomes scarcer day after day, but it is from the light of the soul of its people, who do not stop constantly fighting for better days.


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Google Earth

É, desde há muito, “porto de abrigo” de refugiados que fogem dos países vizinhos e ali encontram a hospitalidade do povo libanês.

Quis a ironia do destino aliada à irresponsabilidade do ser humano, que fosse o seu porto o cenário da maior explosão não nuclear da história da humanidade devastando a capital e, consequentemente, deixando o país submerso numa crise económica e humanitária sem precedentes.

Se é incontornável falar-se de conflitos quando se fala de Beirute (e no Líbano), é também incontornável falar-se no quão extraordinário é o seu povo.

Explorar Beirute

Foi uma viagem que permitiu quebrar preconceitos e visitar lugares não explorados pelo comum turista, através da sensibilidade do João Sousa, fotojornalista português a viver no Líbano.

Cheguei a Beirute já a noite ia longa e sabia que, tendo em conta a crise que se vive no país, a eletricidade é escassa, mas ver uma metrópole, outrora considerada a “Paris do Médio Oriente”, imersa em escuridão, foi cair na realidade do que íamos encontrar nos dias seguintes.

Beirute, apesar de todas as vicissitudes, é uma cidade cosmopolita, onde convivem uma miscelânea de religiões, culturas e raças.

É uma amalgama de prédios glamorosos e avenidas largas ao estilo europeu, uma herança da ocupação francesa, outros fruto do dinheiro dos emigrantes, com bairros precários resultado de antigos campos de refugiados, onde a decadência arquitetónica e o caos urbanístico são gritantes.

Sabra e Shatila

Entre eles estão Sabra e Shatila, ocupados maioritariamente por civis palestinianos e libaneses, mais conhecidos por terem sido palco de um atentado na década de ’80, perpetrado por forças militares israelitas, que a ONU considerou um ato de genocídio.

Hoje em dia, nos bairros vivesse o quotidiano com tranquilidade, entre a decadência do edificado e a pobreza inerente aos que fugiram dos seus países com uma mão cheia de nada.

As pessoas são trabalhadoras, hospitaleiras e fazem questão de contar as suas estórias de vida, muitas delas ainda profundamente marcadas pelo passado recente, mas com os olhos postos no futuro, que se espera de dias melhores.

As crianças brincam livremente na rua, os adultos dedicam-se à suas profissões e os sorrisos fáceis de todos fazem com que nos sintamos bem acolhidos.

Bourj Hammoud

Depois há o bairro de Bourj Hammoud com as suas cortinas que dançam ao sabor do vento nas varandas. É um bairro residencial e com muita atividade comercial, ocupado maioritariamente por refugiados arménios e seus descendentes.

Lá, tivemos o privilégio de conhecer uma senhora muito especial, a Marie Mangassarian, que com os seus 101 anos, faz parte dos milhares de refugiados arménios que foram para o Líbano em fuga ao regime do seu país, entre os anos de 1915 e 1939.

No dia em que fomos visitar e almoçar no Badguèr Art & Craft Heritage Center, criado pela sua filha para preservar as artes tradicionais do país de origem, Marie fez questão de nos receber.

Tocou piano e cantou, mas sobretudo, falou da importância de nos aceitarmos uns aos outros, sem preconceitos nem reservas. Foi a cereja no topo do bolo de um almoço fantástico com sabores da Arménia, no coração de Beirute.

Khandaq al-Ghamik

Menos conhecido pelo mundo ocidental e, definitivamente, nada visitado por estrangeiros, é Khandaq al-Ghamik. O bairro tem uma longa história (e reputação) de conflitos armados e pobreza.

A maioria dos edifícios apresenta uma degradação profunda e sinais de guerra nas paredes, mas também exibem arte urbana.

Não é um lugar comum para se visitar em Beirute, na verdade a maioria dos libaneses não entra lá e nós só o visitámos porque estávamos com o João que, como fotojornalista a viver no Líbano, conhece o lugar e as pessoas que lá vivem.

Foi uma experiência única explorar o bairro, conhecer as pessoas e ter a oportunidade de ver uma realidade diferente dentro do caldeirão de culturas que é Beirute.

Gemmayze e Mar Mikhail

Gostava de dizer que depois de visitas tão carregadas de história e de energia pesada, tínhamos ido visitar os bairros mais típicos da cidade, Gemmayze e Mar Mikhail, onde vimos só coisas bonitas.

E vimos, de facto vimos muitas coisas bonitas.

Mas Beirute sofreu uma explosão brutal em agosto de 2020 e quando lá estivemos, quase um ano depois, as cicatrizes da destruição ainda estavam abertas, bem visíveis a quem passeia nestes bairros, junto ao porto de Beirute.

Foi aqui que o impacto se fez sentir com mais violência.

É profundamente desolador ver que tanto tempo depois, por total abandono do governo, as pessoas continuam sem conseguir reerguer as suas vidas, seja a nível pessoal, seja profissional.

Zona portuária

Foi neste contexto que nos cruzámos com vítimas e familiares de vítimas da explosão, que faziam uma vigília/protesto, em busca de uma justiça que tarda em chegar.

Não há respostas para o sucedido, não há responsabilidades assumidas, não há um pedido de desculpa por parte dos responsáveis. Há apenas a angústia de não conseguir justiça!

Se a destruição nos bairros confinantes ao porto é brutal, quando se chega junto ao mesmo a imagem é avassaladora. Mas por muito que vejamos as imagens nos mais diversos formatos, nada nos faz ter a mais pequena ideia do que aquelas pessoas viveram.

The Egg

No entanto, Beirute continua a ser uma cidade fascinante com a grande mesquita ali mesmo ao lado do “Ovo”, ambos elementos emblemáticos da cidade, cada um à sua maneira, e toda uma Downtown recheada de cafés e restaurantes com vistas estrondosas sobre o Mediterrâneo e edifícios que nos remetem para épocas mais auspiciosas.

Beirute é rica em história, cultura e gastronomia. Faz-nos querer ficar por lá mais um bocadinho para tentar conhecer melhor as suas gentes de sorriso e coração abertos, sempre disponíveis para ajudar.

Apesar dos pesares, Beirute é e será sempre a “cidade luz do Médio Oriente”, como antes foi apelidada em comparação com Paris.

Pode não ser da luz elétrica que escasseia a cada dia que passa, mas é da luz da alma do seu povo, que não deixa de lutar constantemente por dias melhores.

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15 thoughts on “Beirut – Fascinating Glamour and Urban Decay”

  1. What a fitting title to your piece. It’s great to see that you took the time to see the contrast in Beirut’s shiny bits and its dilapidated parts. Your photography and words present a fascinating city, would love to visit myself one day. Particularly love the people shots.

  2. Pingback: Lebanon – One Epic Journey »

  3. That was a very interesting meeting you had with the lady 101 years old. It must have been a captivating conversation.
    I was lucky to have visited Lebanon just before the explosion and so was shocked to see it on the news a few weeks later. I didn’t get to the areas you explored which I had heard about but was so impressed with much f the modern architecture there and the creativity of the buildingsboth old and new.

    1. Beirut is an incredible city that, despite the critical situation, continues to have a very special glow. The mix of buildings with modern architecture, with those from the colonial era give it a very interesting atmosphere.

  4. This was a fascinating read! You don’t hear of many people travelling to this area. I loved reading how lovely and optimistic the people are. To me it’s the people that make the destination so special. Great post!

    1. Beirut and Lebanon in general are quite underrated by ordinary travelers. It is not a very obvious destination, especially for us Westerners. But it is definitely a country worth visiting, especially for the people and the cuisine! Thanks for reading

  5. I’ll admit I didn’t really know much about Beirut past the obvious conflicts that dominated the news when I was growing up. I’m glad they have come out the other side, and even more glad to hear how amazing the people are, and so welcoming despite the hardships they’ve endured. It’s always interesting to see how places deal with the aftermath of wars. Many bulldoze it all and create everything again, but there’s something special about seeing how Beirut used some of that urban decay and made beautiful things and art from it

    1. Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular are experiencing a massive humanitarian crisis as a result of recent events in the country. Since 2019 things have been quite difficult for the Lebanese, however, it is a country that is well worth visiting and has a lot to offer

  6. The people of Beirut are resilient. You can see the life stories in the faces you capture of this underrated city. I find it fascinating that areas like Khandaq al-Ghamik and “The Egg” remain important reminders of the war-torn past. I can tell how impactful this was on you through your camera lens.

  7. thedctraveler9b7e4f7d4d

    Wow! I did not know much about Beirut and really enjoyed learning a lot about it here. You can really see the complicated history here with resilience to show for it. The urban decay is a powerful memorial to the wars and a reminder of the past.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed your experience in Beirut and meeting its people far away from the touristic centre. I’m sad to hear that little is done to support the people and manage to resume their lives before the explosion. I wanted to read more of your wandering around the city and learn so much more about life and the struggles there. Thank you for sharing your story and pictures with us!

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

  9. Loved reading this post and how there are so many layers to Beirut and Lebanon as a whole. You can’t talk about or show one side of the story without acknowledging and discussing the other. And I loved how you explored multiple neighborhoods and saw how they each differed from one another, especially the less touristy ones.

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