When you watch the footage of the recent devastation in Beirut it is impossible to forget the parts of the ancient city that were so beautiful, mesmeric, even. It is the horror
I first went to Beirut in the late 90s. It was a beaming city, full of beautiful people, incredibly good food, culture, class and incredible history. The Phoenicians had left their mark.
This, despite the 1975 -1990 civil war and economic disaster.
The French, for all their colonial pilferage, imbued on the cityscape the splendid architecture that remains today, albeit irreparably damaged in many parts by the explosion at the port and years of civil strife.
The district of Gemmayzeh was the most incredible find. Its street life, bars and restaurants were truly enchanting, although as a foreigner I never felt welcome at all. I always found the Lebanese excluding, fractious and abrasive, even when I worked with them in Dubai.
The Phoenician Hotel in Beirut was something else, all grand and very welcoming indeed to a foreigner on an expense account. I lost track of the number of times it got restored after bombings and neglect, but the view from my room over the harbour and the Mediterranean was impressive. It is now closed due to the August explosion.
Gemmayzeh was one of the earliest gentrifications in Beirut and its unique, French-mandate architecture is charming, although the port explosion laid waste to many a façade.
Mar Mikhaël is a later addition to the trendy bar and dining scene, but it too has suffered untold damage. It will take another generation to restore old Beirut.
My francophone father loved Beirut in the sixties and would regale us with tales of restaurants, dancing and fine living. He even took my mother there but she was more comfortable in Eilat.
In Johannesburg, we grew up with Lebanese folks and until I went to their country I always wondered why they left. For all the beauty the fractiousness of the country made it, for some, unliveable.
Today it is even stranger.
But the food lives on, all over the world. Toum, a concoction of garlic, lemon, olive oil, egg white and salt is the fruit of the gods. It is the reason Lebanese men marry late.