Old Beirut’s New Walking Tour

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Elie, our guide, is the one in blue. Note the train tracks!

Seeing parts of a city on foot seem to be an effective way of really getting to know a place and its history. Because you’re guided by a seasoned resident, the experiential aspect of walking through an alley while being told a story lets the information stick, giving simple streets new layers of existence.

A little over a month ago, I came across a Facebook page for a walking tour of old Beirut. I’ve been on different ones in the past few years – Beirut, Mar Mikhael, Tripoli – all enriching in their own ways. I texted Elie and saved a spot for this past Sunday.

You may wonder why someone would go on a walking tour of the city they live in. Being someone who’s behind the wheel most of the time, it’s hard to appreciate the nooks and crannies of streets you take everyday, not to mention the ones you don’t. If you’re a driver like I am, you rarely get to look out the window and admire what’s around you (other than the scooters you’re trying to avoid) or know what they’re about. And you don’t get to see it through the eyes of visitors or share your view of it with them. The exchange is the most fascinating part about perusing a location with strangers. Besides, as a resident, I want to know as much as I can about my own country.

This Sunday walking tour lasts 5-6 hours and starts in the middle of Ashrafieh. It cuts through Geitawi, Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, breaks at Coop d’etat, and finishes in Bourj Hammoud. Being someone who frequents Ashrafieh a lot and worked in that area for a couple of years, I already knew my way around and was pretty familiar with where we wandered. Elie, who started giving tours about 2.5 months ago, says that the aim is to get people to share stories and talk to each other; he insists “I’m not a tour guide and I’m not about to be.” If that’s the case, then it’s right on the money. The mix of foreigners and Lebanese nationals created conversation about history, relations, food, religion, and politics. I liked seeing what people already knew about Lebanon and what they were surprised to find out upon visiting.

The walk concludes with a meal at Badguèr, an Armenian Heritage Center in Bourj Hammoud. The center was founded by the Mangassarian family and tries to promote artisans and Armenian culture. The restaurant gets their ingredients from the ladies of Aanjar and all the food is prepared in an old-fashion homey kitchen. It was a great setting after a long day; the perfect relaxed way to bond with new companions.

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Bits & Pieces from the Day:

– The meeting point was on Charles Malek Ave at 12:30 pm by the Sagesse school gate across from Leil Nhar. All the foreigners showed up early and proceeded to wait for one tardy Lebanese attendee, staying true to our respect for punctuality.

– A multinational group of 9 was from Doctors Without Borders. Magda, a woman from Mexico City, asked me about the diaspora, the brain-drain, and a typical day in the life of a Beiruti. She saw a lot of parallels between her home and Beirut: the love/hate push/pull of a chaotic city.

– A guy from the Netherlands is here interning for Bassma, a Turkish NGO dedicated to empowering families. He’s interested in international development and said, “Lebanon’s the perfect place to learn about that.” Indeed.

“That’s the most spiritual I’ve ever felt walking into a church and I’ve been to a lot of churches,” said one tourist after walking into the St. Georges Orthodox Church by the St. Georges Hospital (Moustashfa Al-Roum)

– A woman from Finland landed a week ago. She’s here to spend a year working with UNHCR and seems to have already fallen under Beirut’s spell. We were passing by Electricite du Liban when she told me, “I feel like if I had always lived here and I had to leave, I would miss this.” Some people are born here, live here all their lives, but don’t feel that way. And yet, to others, Beirut is the lover you can’t forget.

– Gemmayzeh is named after the Arabic word for sycamore tree (jumayz) because the street used to be filled with them years ago.

The streets of Bourj Hammoud have the same names as the streets of Armenia. I was mistakenly labeled as an Armenian resident of Ashrafieh because I knew about the Laziza brewery and taught the table how to eat mante. #proudchameleon

– Gibran Khalil Gibran and Nabih Berri both attended College de la Sagesse in Ashrafieh.

– Madame Arpi of Badguèr, while talking about the importance of a culture’s language, told us about an Armenian saying that I loved: “Even if you forget your mother, don’t forget your mother tongue.” 

Overall

In comparison to WalkBeirut, the Old Beirut Walk is less researched. It’s more like a friend taking a group through his neighborhood. It’s less structured, a tad less informative in terms of hardcore facts. Again, I’m not a fair judge since I am someone who has spent a lot of time in Ashrafieh; however, for a first-timer in the area, it’s a fine dose of Beirut’s character. Getting access to the Mar Mikhael train station would be an excellent addition to the stops included so attendees can see it during the day in its frozen glory (rather than at night in a club setting).

More residents of Lebanon should attend these tours because you become an additional tour guide and each one of us has their own basket of stories to tell about Lebanon. By attending, you give your unique take on the place you call home, learn about other nationalities, and you may even make some new friends, here and abroad.

Elie is hoping to expand the tour into Sodeco, Monot, and Basta but is looking for interested guides. Stay updated on upcoming tours here – the fee along with dinner/drinks will cost ~$40.

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3 thoughts on “Old Beirut’s New Walking Tour

  1. Pingback: Bambi’s Soapbox: Top 5 of 2015 | Bambi's Soapbox

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