Bienvenue a Beirut

Bienvenue a Beirut

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
9 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

‘Bienvenue a Beirut,’ said the cheery immigration man. ‘Welcome to Lebanon.’

This was a very different greeting from the one we’d received on our first visit to Lebanon. Eleven years ago, our first sight upon landing had been of surly soldiers surrounding the aeroplane, AK-47s at the ready. We’d been grilled by airport officials about the reason for our visit and Greg had received a good telling-off for his lack of Arabic.

Back then, our overriding impressions of Beirut had been of a city in complete chaos, and the devastation wrought by fifteen years of war had been grotesquely fascinating. We had driven around the shattered centre of Beirut in a daze, appalled by the sight of formerly elegant hotels riddled with massive mortar holes; of office buildings whose floors had collapsed on each other, top to bottom, like a house of cards; of apartment buildings with their walls blasted completely away to expose the pitiful makeshift camp sites of the homeless who were squatting inside.

Now, first appearances suggested that things were very different. Gone was the dingy, inefficient airport, and in its place was a huge, shiny complex. The thugs with their machine guns were also nowhere to be seen, replaced by men who waved us through with words of welcome and a nod. We were met by Amal and her cousin Sami and chauffeured along the wide, newly built highway towards the city centre. There were no potholes, no mounds of uncollected garbage by the roadside, no checkpoints manned by a duo of ill-tempered Lebanese and Syrian soldiers. And then, ten minutes later, we were there.

Beirut is perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, set against the rugged peaks of the Lebanon Mountains. It is an ancient city – founded by the Phoenicians in around 3000 BC – and its advantageous location at the meeting point of three continents means that it has borne the imprint of many civilisations. Over the millennia, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottomans all staked their claim to the city.

In the nineteenth century Beirut was a leading centre of Arab learning and culture, and by early last century it had grown to become the financial and commercial centre of the Arab world. In the 1950s it was famous as the most European city in the Middle East, a glittering playground for the world’s beautiful people, who flocked here to sun themselves by day at chichi beach resorts and while the night away at casinos and nightclubs. All this was in the good old days, of course, before the country tore itself apart in a bloody civil war that lasted fifteen long years, ending in 1991.

The city centre – or Downtown, as it is now called – is a largely pedestrianised quarter that radiates from Place d’Étoile. Devastated during the war, the city’s heart has been completely rebuilt in golden sandstone, faithfully re-creating Beirut’s former glory days. As we strolled through cobbled streets lined with the smooth façades of brand-new buildings that emulated the French Mandate style of the 1930s, complete with smart wooden shutters and wrought-iron balconies, it was hard not to be impressed by the results of all this industry. We passed pavement cafés and fashionable boutiques selling everything from Missoni to Mont Blancs. Families were out enjoying the warm weather, and outside an ice-cream shop we passed a group of Beiruti babes sporting designer jeans and Louis Vuitton handbags.

Of course, the cost of all this rebuilding has been massive, and the city has been effectively (and controversially) privatised to fund it. There are constant complaints about corruption within Solidere, the redevelopment company that was partly owned by Rafiq Hariri and charged with fulfilling the former prime minister’s dream of a glorious new Beirut. Many residents feel that they have been cheated by the privatisation deal that involved their property being confiscated and replaced by shares in Solidere.

There are also those who believe that amidst all the rebuilding Beirut has somehow lost its soul. That with all the prettification it has become a tame, bourgeois filmset version of its former self. Certainly, there is something surreally perfect about Downtown – and things are very different in the rest of the city. You don’t have to look far to see that the legacy of destruction and chaos remains, unrepaired, in the dismal shantytowns that stretch grimly and chaotically into the foothills behind Beirut.

For now, though, we were happy to be seduced by the vision of this glittering new metropolis arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes. Every other street corner was a construction site, with upmarket hotels, a gleaming waterfront marina and a massive new souk precinct in the pipeline. But the rebuilding progamme has not been solely about commerce: a proportion of the funding has been spent on excavating archaeological sites that were revealed, felicitously, during the course of rebuilding the city. On our previous visit to Beirut, work on excavating the old Roman city had just begun; now we were able to admire the magnificently restored Roman baths and cardo maximus (marketplace) that are tucked in amongst the city’s prime real estate.

Churches and mosques are often cheek by jowl in Beirut, frequently having been built upon the foundations of the other. The massive Maronite cathedral of St George in Place d’Étoile sits right next to the al-Omari Mosque, which in turn was originally built as a Christian church in the twelfth century. To the Lebanese, however, these juxtapositions are nothing new. The entire country is an exercise in contrasts: Christian and Muslim, ancient and modern, Arab and European.

We’d wandered for several hours and now, in the late afternoon, the streets around the Place d’Étoile were eerily deserted. Some girls were playing shuttlecock underneath the square’s clock tower and a few bored soldiers were leaning against a government building, smoking. It was evident that in the wake of the Hariri bombing many locals were nervously staying at home, and we were not surprised to learn that Beirut’s legendary night life was much quieter than usual.

We were dining that evening with Greg’s aunt Houda, who lives in the well-heeled East Beirut suburb of Achrafiyeh. It was still too early for dinner, so we wound our way up through narrow, winding streets lined with antique shops and stylish restaurants to the Hotel Albergo. A drink on its roof terrace had been highly recommended, as had the bird’s-eye view of the city.

One of Beirut’s prettiest boutique hotels, the Albergo is in an old Lebanese mansion, discreetly cloistered behind a high wall and an overgrown front garden. Its foyer is tiled with an exquisite mosaic of faded beige and cream, and the downstairs lounge is dimly lit and club-like – all deep red velvet and leather-bound books. We took the tiny wrought-iron elevator up to the ninth-floor roof terrace just as the city lights were twinkling into life. In summer this would be a lovely place to sit and enjoy a drink, but after shivering for a while in the cool spring evening air we retreated to the comfort of the dining room, where a middle-aged couple wearing matching Burberry shirts were sipping cocktails at the bar. The room was lushly decorated in a kind of Orientalist–Palm Court fashion, with plenty of foliage and a well-assembled collection of antique inlaid Syrian, French and English furniture.

Later that evening we met Houda at Sultan Brahim, one of Beirut’s outstanding seafood restaurants. It is located on the main Jal el Dib highway leading out of Beirut, and the passing traffic glimpsed through its large plate-glass windows gives it a rather suburban feel.

The meal was excellent: exquisitely presented food and faultless service from middle-aged waiters dressed in khaki suits. We began with silky-smooth hummus topped with diced tomatoes, parsley and a sprinkling of pine nuts; a wonderful fresh herb salad of wild thyme and rocket; a suitably smoky moutabal (eggplant dip); and, something new to all of us, kibbeh bi samak. We were familiar with lamb kibbeh, it’s Lebanon’s national dish after all, but we’d never tried a fish version. Finely minced fish and burghul were shaped into the customary torpedo-shaped shell and stuffed with a lightly spiced braise of tiny prawns, pieces of white fish, tomato, onion and red pepper.

For our main course we shared a firm, bright-eyed sea bass selected from the superb display that held centre stage near the front of the restaurant. It was prepared simply – with olive oil, lemon juice and a sprinkle of allspice – and was none the worse for that. We opted to fill what little room we had left with fresh seasonal fruit and chewy cubes of perfumed Turkish delight.

It was an excellent start to our culinary adventures, and as we headed off into the chilly night air I whispered to Greg, ‘One meal down, only another hundred-odd to go’.

Recipes in this Chapter

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