Old Beirut’s New Walking Tour

IMG_5871

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.

IMG_5862

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.

My First Visit to Tripoli

The men in the mosque

The men in the mosque

While waiting for the bus to take us there, a few Americans told me about how they had been living in Lebanon for over two years and still hadn’t made the trip to Tripoli. I think I relieved their guilt when I told them that, after 15 years, I had never been either…and I’m Lebanese. After posting a few photos and sharing my trip with friends, their reactions were, “shu akhadik 3a trablos?” (what made you go to Tripoli?). I need justification for going to a place that is a fundamental part of my nation’s history.

Mira Minkara has been organizing walking tours of Tripoli since last year and also does a separate tour dedicated to Oscar Niemeyer’s abandoned architectural projects there. I can’t say that the tour was well-planned: we didn’t go to the crusader’s castle or the valley of the churches because the priests were out for Sunday lunch or enter the Taynal Mosque because it was prayer time and there was a funeral right after. We also didn’t get to walk through the city streets like a local. Compared to other walking tours I’ve been on, I did not feel like an inconspicuous fly on the wall experiencing an area’s dynamic. When you’re in a group of over 40 people, mostly foreigners, being led through tight low-ceiling alleys by a woman yelling through a megaphone, you tend to stand out. At some point, as we were all buying kaak and barazi, a store owner jokingly yelled out, “el ingleez ehtalo elbalad!” to his friend across the way. It means “the English have occupied the country!”

Mira walked us through the old souk, various hamams, and a few khans. Unlike Beirut, Tripoli’s older parts are not mixed with the new ones. Old and new Tripoli are separated but, like Beirut, its heritage sites are under the threat of development: the site where the Ottoman serail once stood is going to be converted into a parking lot.

The old souk itself feels more authentic than that of Byblos which has become more commercialized: catering to the tourists looking for fez hats, belly-dancer scarves with dangly gold coins, and fossil replicas. Tripoli’s souk has yet to be overrun with that sort of merchandise or clientele. The hamams, some renovated and some rotting, are magnificent. Hamam el Nouri, hidden behind a saj place, is aging beautifully. I’m a fan of the way it’s disintegrating naturally. Hamam Ezzeddine, on the other hand, is freshly painted and adorned with roll-up banners explaining each room and process. I do hope that the renovation stays true to its original design but I won’t deny that architectural botox can remove some of the historical spice. When you enter a space that was once occupied by the Ottomans ages ago, you want to feel that. It would be a shame to wipe away the wrinkles, dabbing some foundation on the rough edges should be enough for preservation. Khans, inns with a courtyard, were areas that seemed to be dedicated to one type of craft. Khan el saboun for soap makers, khan al khayateen for tailors, and so on. The soap makers were my favorite. Besides the smells and spirals of colorful bricks, it was endearing watching an old man tell his young daughter where the mint-scented soaps were. It was a family business of craftsmen. I’m a sucker for artisanal families.

OTHER TRIPOLI TIDBITS:

  • In a workshop loaded with copper and brass pieces, we found a man hammering away at a bowl. Some artforms are still alive if you look for them. I got a little copper rakweh (Arab coffee pot) for $5. What a steal.
  • Outside of Mzaar Saydit Younes, a small altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a veiled Muslim woman was asking a Christian woman about sainthood and differing beliefs. When I see Lebanese people trying to understand one another rather than argue over what they believe in, I am comforted that we are not all sectarian sheep.
  • An Arabic-speaking German woman living in Ras el Nabaa, who previously lived in Egypt, was talking to the table of other Lebanese while she ordered her own hummus. I’m pretty sure we all assumed she’s a spy. That’s just how it is.
  • Hamam el Abed was named as such because an escaped slave from Akkar used it as a refuge before he was murdered there. It’s the only operational hamam left but it’s only for men.
  • Although I want to believe that our Lebanon hasn’t been tainted, I saw ISIS stickers on the plaque of a tomb. Uh oh.
  • New Arabic word: tawashiya means eunuchs.

Right now, Tripoli has a reputation for being dangerous so most tend to avoid heading that direction unless they have to. But what was our excuse when things were calmer? Perhaps it’s more about the fear of the unknown. The ripples from terror that affect Tripoli don’t reach our capital city with the strength you would expect. Unless you are from there, what happens in Tripoli might as well happen in Iraq; the reactions are the same. To a lot of the people of Beirut, Tripoli is far, off in the north, almost its own state. In reality, it’s less than a two-hour drive away. Next time you’re there for halawit el-jibn from Abdulrahman Hallab, take a stroll in the city too. Buy a bar of soap. See Lebanon.

Taking a Walk in Mar Mikhael

IMG_1856

As part of the In Mar Mikhael event, two walking tours were given this weekend. I went along for the afternoon activity this Saturday thinking that I knew a lot about the neighborhood I spend so much time in. Seriously, Google thinks I live in Mar Mikhael because I’m in Ashrafieh (work and play) so much. Turns out, there’s more to this place than I thought.

IMG_1846_2

The beginning, EDL

The tour began in front of Electricite du Liban where we were divided into 3 groups departing every 10 minutes. Since I opted for English, Elisabetta was our guide, and started with a brief intro about the Brazilian-influenced EDL building. It was built in the mid 1960s, designed by a Lebanese architect, Pierre Neema.

From EDL walking toward the rest of MK, there is a new geometric modern building with a green wall on one side, home to Gallery Tanit. This building is the only one that respects urban law because of the existence of a sidewalk. Most developments disregard this and it results in what I call “l’extinction du trottoir,” leaving us to navigate between parked cars hoping we’re not pummeled by a service driver. From this spot, you can see the three different forms of architecture found within MK: 60s, modern, and classic French. Across from this mammoth is an old house of two architectural styles conjoined with a common stairwell, a practice that shows there used to be consideration for economy of space.

IMG_1799_2

Tobbagi Gardens

Behind these lovely old homes is the Tobbagi Gardens, a private space that is open to public visitors. It’s made up of terraces and planting areas and is the biggest green space in MK.

IMG_1806_2

Mr. Tobbagi talks to us about the Fouad Boutros Highway Project

Sadly, the gardens are now at risk. If the Fouad Boutros Highway Project is implemented, the gardens will be destroyed; the neighboring building next to Mr. Tobbagi’s has already been expropriated. The only other green space in MK which is across the road has also been bought and will soon be gutted & developed. Besides the fact that these buildings are solid representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with. For now, the Project is on hold because of the local and international media coverage but no one knows how long that will last.

IMG_1849_2

Massad Stairs 

The walk continued to the colorful Massad stairs that were featured on Vogue.com the other day. This staircase, painted by the Dihzahyners a few years ago, are semi-private semi-public and the place where a Save Beirut Heritage sit-in was organized. I hate to say it but the stairs have undergone a lot of weathering since their first coat of paint. Besides being a site for activism and artistic expression, the stairs also serve to connect the residents of upper Ashrafieh with Mar Mikhael. For example, St. Georges Hospital employees and visitors can use it to jump into a bar for happy hour after a long week since the hospital sits up the street from the top of these stairs. Be careful at night though; sometimes there are punks chucking eggs at unsuspecting pedestrians below.

IMG_1839_2

Vanina

Mar Mikhael used to be a predominately Armenian neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Armenian population shifted over from Qarantina and still make up a big portion of the residents living there now. The area is in full gentrification with the arrival of the new generation who are transforming Mar Mikhael into a bustling creative hub. Of course, with them comes the gastropubs and boutiques that the artsy crowds with purchasing power attract.

The walking tour’s sole purpose was to show us that Mar Mikhael has different facets but it was originally a residential village. If you walk into the alleyway where Vanina has opened its first shop, you can continue into an open courtyard of neighbors that still live like the days of old MK. Some buildings have been restored (mainly to be home to new restaurants like Les Fenetres) but the majority of property owners find it easier to sell than to salvage and/or fight the developers. That, and it’s more profitable for them on a personal level.

IMG_1853_2

Pharaon St

We popped out from the Les Fenetres entryway to walk down the Internazionale alley. Nasawiya’s old location is where In Mar Mikhael is having their Behind the Object exhibition till the 24th of this month. After making this quick stop, we walked down to Pharoan St. Don’t feel bad if you have no idea where this is because I didn’t know it had a name either. Pharaon St. is the street where PaperCup and Frosty’s Palace are. If you’ve ever been to Mar Mikhael, you probably know which street I’m referring to now. If not, you should check out both places. The owners are sisters. Have a coffee and grab a book then walk across the street to inhale a burger and milkshake.

This strip of shops and specialty bookstores make up the “creative cluster” where all owners have made a joint decision that no bars will open on the street there, keeping it quieter than the other crevices of the neighborhood. Next to Papercup is the Maroun Naccache Theatre, the first in Beirut and where they put on Moliere productions. The church on the same road is where the neighborhood got its name. The church was originally in Qarantina. The women felt uncomfortable by the presence of soldiers there so they relocated to its current location in 1855 and, like much of Beirut, it was destroyed then reconstructed several times to make it bigger. The last works date back to 1972 and it has been the main place for community congregation ever since.

IMG_1825_2

A facade leftover to be incorporated into a new tower

Train Station and Bus Warehouse

Mar Mikhael is also home to one of the main train stations that was used when we had a railway that ran along the coast to the north. Rather than create museums or public spaces out of relics that link back to our past, it seems we only know how to reinvent our dilapidated public transportation systems into nightlife venues. After the old train station of Mar Mikhael was used for multiple DJ events, it was morphed into a high-end bar by BO18 management. The abandoned bus graveyard/warehouse is Uberhaus’ station for their indoor electronic raves while Garten is closed until the summer.

Vendome Stairs

Collectif Kahraba’s Aurelien Zouki met us halfway up the Vendome Stairs to talk about Nahna wel Amar wel Jeeran, the yearly festival that happens there. With a name meaning “us, the moon, and the neighbors,” the festival is comprised of visual/musical performances and public interventions in a public space. Through this, they promote collaboration between different fields who join forces to create a neighborhood event. The collective sees itself as a theatre company that puts on free accessible cultural events that involve the residents of the neighborhood in the planning and whole production. For example, Nawal and Camille, two old neighbors on the Vendome Stairs, participate by composing songs and cooking food for the audience and host guests. Once, a puppet performance was done on the building rooftops; the puppets were based on the known neighborhood personalities like Nawal and Camille.

IMG_1832

Nawal and Camille

All these attempts at inserting cultural practice into our daily lives is at risk when homes are replaced by towers. The way the community interacts changes because they function like a village. Breaking this dynamic through modern urban development kills the human aspect of the community.

One intervention done is the bench found at the halfway point of the staircase. Designed by Christian Zahr, he saw that there was a need for a “break” on the way up the steep climb, especially for the elderly that live in the homes of this part of Ashrafieh. The bench that is built like a staircase itself pokes fun at the fact that there’s no public institution taking care of the residents’ needs or the public space of the city.

IMG_1827_2

Grande Brasserie du Levant

Located on the Badawi half of the area, the Brasserie opened in the 1930s and was the oldest brewery in the Middle East. It was where Laziza Beer was made. The brasserie as “La Grande Brasserie du Levant” was closed in 1995 but an entrepreneur used it to produce a beverage at a later stage. With little success, it finally closed in 2003. There have been talks to transform it into lofts or a cultural center but no official decision has been made due to a dispute between the owners. This was where GAIA Heritage held an exhibition last July featuring the work of 15 creatives.

IMG_1855_2

Other MK Fun Facts

  •  The graffiti portrait done by Phat2 at the Mar Mikhael Gas Station is of his sister
  •  Internazionale was a garage between 1954-1970s
  • The army barracks facing the Grande Brasserie were built by the French
  • Brut l’atelier is an open workshop where you can go use their tools and workspace to collaborate and/or assist on handmade projects
  • Across from the Brasserie is a colorful staircase leading back up to an alley by the Vendome Stairs. There used to be a festival there every year until the organizer passed away.

IMG_1857_2

BeBeirut: A Walk with Ronnie

IMG_7569

Ronnie telling the story of Martyrs’ Square

Ronnie Chatah, founder of Walk Beirut, used to run a hostel in Hamra located behind Makhfar Hbeish. He also used to give his guests a walking tour of the city as part of their stay. Back then, the tour would last up to 8 hours. Gradually over time, he was told he had a knack for being a guide to the city and decided to branch out creating an official walking tour open to all willing to spend part of their weekend exploring the city on foot. Walk Beirut has been going for 5 years now; the stops have changed with time depending on the level of relevance of neighborhoods and safety issues. It was initially launched in 2006 but went on hiatus after the July 2006 war with Israel. Now going continuously since 2009, Walk Beirut is a great way to reignite the love of your own city or to discover it as a foreigner – even if you’ve lived here all your life. Tours now last around 4 hours and you need to reserve a spot ahead of time (tickets are $20/person). You can find them online here and check out their Facebook group here and I will be posting a mini interview with Ronnie within the next few days.

IMG_7558

The harem rooms are the solitary rounded windows sticking out, Ottoman architectural influence

The tour is more like listening to a story about our beloved city with a buried past. Ronnie touches on a lot that is wrong with the country but in an entirely factual manner; a very “it is what it is” bittersweet ode to how the city has been crippled by exterior forces but mostly by itself yet still remains to get under your skin. From the architectural influence of the Turkish and the French to the reason we still use American dollars as currency, there are many factoids that even locals will find surprising. For example, the original rotating rooftop bar was at the Holiday Inn, the almost-40-year-old relic towering behind the Phoenicia Hotel. Home to “the original SKYBAR” as Ronnie put it, the hotel was only operational for one year before the civil war broke out.

IMG_7568

Foreigners in front of Trad “Boutique” Hospital

The tour caters mostly to tourists – I met a Dutch freelance photographer, a few Americans, and two British ladies vacationing here after one had won tickets to stay at Le Gray at an auction in the UK. I found it disconcerting that foreigners seem more heartbroken by our history than our own people. In Samir Kassir’s “Beirut”, Robert Fisk wrote, “I am suspicious of foreigners who tell me they love Beirut. I love the life I live in Beirut, but I think you have to be homegrown – or at least Arab-grown- to claim a city like Beirut as an amour.” It can be argued that those who visit do not have to endure the everyday troubles that residents deal with; they can live in the romantic fairytale and leave before reality strikes. Plus, they probably don’t deal with electricity cuts. Beirut is a self-loathing lover you don’t want to leave because you know she can be beautiful if she just opens her eyes and tries – magical in all her attempts to shine no matter how many times she falls. However, it is still upsetting that foreigners are moved by the story of Martyrs’ Square, a piece of our history that seems to have been neglected. One phrase stuck with me personally during the walk through the ruins of Roman baths located below the Ottoman-built Grand Serail Parliament Palace and literally underneath the French-built bank buildings: “We chose reconstruction over preservation.” We have chosen reconstruction over preservation in the past one too many times, maybe it’s time to preserve our country’s legacy instead of restoring its self-destructive patterns.

We should appreciate the contradiction that makes us so dysfunctionally wonderful but we should work to better it because our beautiful country is sinking again, and we can’t continue to blame others for its fate. As unfair as it may be, it is up to us – the youth- to change things. We need to resuscitate and revive the Beirut that is asleep beneath the ruins and damaged exteriors. Complaining may make you feel better about a current situation but that only gives temporary alleviation; making the decision to change is the only solution for improvement. Lebanon, you are so frustrating only because of your wasted potential. I want more for you. You are richer than any nation because you have culture, history, and pride – things that cannot unnaturally emerge from the sands: they flow in the veins of your people and in the waters that wash away layers of destruction every few years.

Enough drowning, it’s time to swim.