Peace Brings Prosperity and New Dancers
by Mark Balahadia
posted September, 2010
What a difference five years can make! The first time I visited Beirut was December 2005, only a week after Gebran Tueni* , politician and editor of An-Nahar* , was assassinated. I arrived to a Beirut that was tense from Tueni’s death and the previous assassination of former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri*. However, I still managed to make a lot of new friends and have fun.
It is also hard not to forget what has happened since my last trip. A brutal war with Israel, a political stalemate, civil unrest and President Michel Suleiman* being sworn in to broker a unity government happened in such a short amount of time.
However, it was now finally peaceful in Beirut this year. The Lebanese resiliency and ability to rebound from crises is what encourages many of its citizens to live life to the fullest extent, and this passion is what lures tourists and expatriates every year.
With its fabulous nightlife, this small Arab nation has a reputation for being the “party capital” of the Middle East. Lebanon is also known for its extraordinary cuisine and the country’s cultural riches including the Roman ruins of Baalbeck* in the Bekaa Valley , the Beit Eddine Palace in the Chouf region of Mount Lebanon* and Becharre, the hometown of Gibran Khalil Gibran* . It is an experience unlike any other, and I made new friends when I last visited, including well-known Belly dancer, Suha Deeb, whom I hosted for several workshops in the Washington, D.C. area.
It was time to come back, so I decided to visit this May. This time around, Beirut was less of a culture shock for me. The first time I came, I spoke little Arabic; however, since then, I decided to build upon it, and I have now learned enough Lebanese Arabic to construct full sentences, make requests and comment on things. Although most Lebanese are trilingual (either French and/or English), it does help visitors to know some Arabic. Not only do you gain a much more profound understanding and respect of another culture, but I also found it was much easier to get around and get things done because my Arabic was better.
Traffic is still horrendous in Beirut! My hotel is in Gemmayze, a neighborhood north of Achrafiyye in East Beirut. My room was facing a busy highway near Martyrs Square; so most days, I woke up with the sounds of traffic.
At night, across Martyrs Square, there is a giant roof-top party at the An-Nahar building, blasting music so loud that you could almost feel the ground shake!
Another acute difference from 2005 is the amount of construction. There are cranes all over Beirut erecting high-rise apartments. Many Beirutis are saddened by the loss of historic and traditional buildings in the name of progress. The housing boom in Beirut is catering to overseas Lebanese and Gulf Arabs who have the money to buy properties. However, there is still beauty to be had including Sanayyeh Park, Beirut’s (only) famous public garden with its gorgeous oleander trees in full bloom and old neighborhoods like Gemmayze, which has retained that old Beirut flavor that was almost completely obliterated during the country’s 15-year civil war. Still, all I heard from many people was about how “Beirut is becoming ugly”. However, there is an organization called “Save Beirut Heritage” that is working to save historic buildings for future generations.
Yet, this is a country obsessed with beauty. The people of Beirut are always dressed to impress. Plastic surgery is rampant, and a recent survey concluded that one in three Lebanese women have had some “work” done.
There are even vacation packages for those who want to visit Lebanon and go under the knife. The Ethiopian maid at my hotel had her eyebrows tattooed in that drag queen-esque style that is prevalent among stylish Arab women because her Lebanese boyfriend likes it. Lebanese men are also known to get work done: liposuction and hair restoration being the most popular procedures.
Another change is how expensive everything is. A taxi ride in and around Beirut was once 5,000 LL (approx. $3.50) but has now doubled to 10,000 LL (approx. $6.50). This may not seem like a lot of money but many people’s salaries have remained the same. The same goes for pretty much everything, including housing. The only item that has remained steady is food. A Mana’eesh with jibne and za3tar is still only 2000 LL (approx. $1.50). I wonder how the normal people of Beirut can get by with this inflation.
Nightlife is legendary in the city, with its embarrassing wealth of bars and clubs. It is a national pastime for the country’s youth to party like there is no tomorrow. There is a scene for everyone, from Lebanese restaurants with the traditional entertainment of singers and Belly dancers to European style nightclubs with unique and modern décor.
Beirut is also the only place in the Arab World with a vibrant gay culture. I went to one bar called “Bardo” that was filled with buff, handsome men with too much attitude for their own good. The music was obnoxiously loud, and the drinks were stiff. I left the bar quite happy!
Speaking of traditional restaurants, there are many that offer live entertainment including dancing. Some of these establishments include Awtar and Bsat El Rieh in the downtown and Nahr El Founoun (lit. River of Artists) north of Beirut at Nahr El Kalb (lit. River of the Dog).
Unfortunately, the current style of Lebanese Belly dance is not “my cup of tea”. It is aggressive, spasmodic and over the top. Just search for “Bassima, Belly dancer” or “Elissar, Give Me More” on Youtube and see what I mean.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see Suha Deeb perform. Currently, she is the featured dancer at Al Dar restaurant, Al Rouche, on the coast of West Beirut near the natural rock formations called “Pidgeon Rocks”. Suha was amazing! Her show was a delight to watch since she is the antithesis of the current Lebanese style. Her costumes are to die for. She has them all made by Rony Eid, who designs for many of the dancers in Beirut. The band was also wonderful, playing old school songs like Yama El Amar 3al Bab by Fayza A7med.
I had the great opportunity of taking a class with Suha Deeb. Suha is a true artist who specializes in an old style of Belly dance harking back to a time when Lebanese Belly dance was very similar to the Golden Age of Belly dance in Egypt. As far as I know, she is the only dancer who is still rooted in this style in the Arab world. She calls her style “el Raqs el 3rabi el Aseel” (authentic Arabic dance) because of this. Her class was challenging but rewarding. Her technique emphasizes on the importance of core strength to execute movements properly. She is also a champion of musicality in dance. Suha plays sagat like a musician and has taken classes in iqaat (rhythm) and drumming. She also included a floor-work exercise routine that I found most challenging. There is no prohibition of floor-work in Lebanon as there is in Egypt, so you will still see many dancers incorporating it in their shows. In the future, I hope to study with her more, so another trip to Beirut is in order.
I recommend a trip to Beirut for dancers who are interested in something a little different. Beirut is not Cairo. It may be more expensive than Cairo, but it makes up for it by being a clean and safe city full of friendly and fashionably dressed people who live life to the fullest by eating delicious food and partying until the wee hours of the morning. There are also many places to see singers and dancers. Plus, for those dancers who are looking for new costumes, you must go to Rony Eid and have him make you a-one-of-a-kind, haute couture quality costume that is better in quality than the costumes in Cairo or Istanbul.
For dancers who are interested traveling to Lebanon, here are some good tips and recommendations:
- Best time to travel to Beirut is during the spring and early fall. It rains a lot in the winter and it becomes ridiculously crowded during the summer months.
- For budget travelers, there are two safe and clean hostels in Gemmayze on opposite sides of Charles Helou Road, adjacent to Martrys Square, called Talal’s New Hotel and Pension Al Nazih.
- There are many great Lebanese restaurants in Beirut. Here are my favorites:
—Le Chef and Tabkha (Tabkha recently opened a new location in Hamra) on Gouraud Street in Gemmayze and Istanbuli in Hamra
–For good cheap eats, there is Bar Bar and Kabab-ji in Hamra.
–If you want to smoke argileh (shisha), go to the seaside café in Raouche called “Al Rawda”, which is a Beirut landmark.
–To watch dancing, I recommend seeing Suha Deeb at Al Dar restaurant in Raouche, Beirut. Reservations recommended. Chamis Bldg., Chouran Street, Raouche, Beirut 961 3 737040 – 961 1 804601
–To watch other dancers, there are:
—-Bassima at Awtar Restaurant inside Hotel Monot in Downtown Beirut-http://www.awtarrestaurant.com/
—-Brazilian Elissar and Izo at Awtar in Zouk Mikhael (North of Beirut) -http://www.awtarrestaurant.com/
—-Lebanese Elissar at Nahawand Restaurant in Dbayeh, Beirut- http://www.nahawandrestaurant.com/
—-Dalida at Bsat El Rih, Downtown Beirut- .http://www.beirut.com/Restaurants-Cafes/Hamra/Bsat-El-Rih/197 – problem link–
—-Mosbah (Male dancer) at Music Hall http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_Hall_(Beirut)
- Current conversion rate for 2010: approximately 1500 LL (Lebanese pounds [lira]) equals $1 USD. Just take the US dollar amount and multiply by 1500. You can also get the USD amount from a price in LL by dividing by 1500.
- Visas: For some countries, including the US, visas can be obtained at point of entry, Please check the General Security website for details.http://www.general-security.gov.lb
See you in Beirut!
These are all photos of Suha from her shows at Masrah Al Madina, in Hamra, Beirut
Gebran Tueni– (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gebran_Tueni)
An-Nahar– the leading Arabic-language daily newspaper in Lebanon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An-Nahar
Rafic Hariri– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafic_Hariri
Biet E Dine-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beit_ed-Dine
Gibran Khalil Gibran- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalil_Gibran
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