Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a personal tour of Beirut from a good family friend, Dr. Rebeiz. Dr. Rebeiz grew up in Beirut, attended AUB, completed his fellowship and residency at Duke, and returned to Beirut shortly after to work as a cardiologist at the AUB hospital. He met me at Starbucks (guilty) and seemed to have no problem picking me out of the crowd even though we’d never met before…guess it’s pretty obvious I’m not from around here. He took me on a walking tour of the streets surrounding my apartment – I’m very centrally located and near a lot of popular restaurants, bars, student hangouts, and of course the AUB campus. Then, we drove up into the mountains just 15-20 minutes outside of Beirut into a small town. Even just a short drive out of the city, the scenery (and weather!) is noticeably different, and I can definitely understand why many people either commute to Beirut from these smaller mountain towns or have weekend homes here. There are even bigger mountains a little bit further away (which we didn’t visit) that are very popular in the winter months for skiing and that sort of thing – apparently around March, the weather is such that there is still snow on the mountains but it’s still warm on the coast, and Dr. Rebeiz says its common to hit the slopes in the morning and be on the beach by the afternoon. Um, sign me up!!! We did the scaled-down version of this, and drove from the mountains to the marina area (Zaitunay Bay) which hosts an unbelievable yacht club and a lot of yummy looking restaurants I want to try out. (One of them, St. Elmo’s, was named in a list of best brunch spots in Beirut – too much to hope that it’s the long lost cousin of Elmo’s in NC??? Probably). Finally, Dr. Rebeiz took me to a beach club where I had an incredible view of the Lebanon coast. Most beaches in Beirut are private beach clubs where you can pay an entrance fee for daily access, and each apparently has its own personality – some more rowdy, others more family friendly. My apartment is about 10 minutes walking distance from the beach so sounds like I have weekend plans!
In addition to getting a great introduction to the city and a zillion restaurant recommendations, it was really interesting to talk with Dr. Rebeiz about his experiences growing up in Beirut and learn about his take on some of the American perceptions of the Middle East. He also gave me a good overview of Beirut’s history, including the civil war, tensions in the region, etc. When we were down by the marina, he pointed out an interesting building to me. Like many other buildings in the area, the Holiday Inn was completely destroyed during the civil war. However, unlike other properties in the area, which were rebuilt and are now the city’s most exclusive (and absurdly expensive) hotels and residences, the Holiday Inn remains exactly as it was in the aftermath of the war, bullet holes and all. My computer/internet is being disagreeable and not letting me post a picture, but google “holiday inn beirut” for a striking visual. It’s an unmissable (and to me, scary) reminder of Beirut’s history.
On that note, after talking with Dr. Rebeiz yesterday I realized I have a lot of blanks to fill in on the history of the region…add that to the reading list! On a related note, one thing that came up in my discussions with Dr. Rebeiz yesterday was the issue of safety in Beirut. I mentioned that I was surprised with how safe I felt – certainly safer than I’ve felt in European cities like Paris or Rome (or Durham) in terms of petty crime and pickpockets and that sort of thing. Dr. Rebeiz agreed with my assessment – he noted that mugging, street violence, etc. is basically non-existent in Beirut, and that I am in fact probably safer on a day to day basis than I would be walking around say, some of the shadier parts of a major city like New York or Chicago. The difference is the overall security of the region – Beirut is much more likely than New York to have large – scale outbreaks of violence or serious threats to political stability. I wanted to point this out because there are a lot of misconceptions about the Middle East (the existence of the “Middle East” as some sort of monolithic entity being one of the greatest in itself), and I think the issue of day-to-day safety is an interesting one to consider.
I spent the day doing some research and reading articles at Café de Prague, since I promised Dr. Rebeiz yesterday that I wouldn’t go back to Starbucks now that I had been introduced to the area and learned some cool places to check out. It was very Open Eye Café-esque (Carrboro shoutout!) and a nice change of scenery from Starbucks. For those of you who think I just hang out in cafes and go to yacht clubs around the city, unfortunately that is not the case. My supervisor, Professor Yassin, has been in Amman this week so I’ve been doing some research he assigned me on social innovation and healthcare. I’ll be going into the office and meeting Professor Yassin for the first time tomorrow morning, and I’ll be learning more about the project we’re working on this summer. This post is longer than I expected, so I’ll save the work details for next time.