The smell of the Mediterranean was the first thing to hit me when I landed in Beirut, and it remained a constant presence while I visited the still-war-torn Lebanese capital.
The sea was often on the minds of people I met in the ancient port city, linked for centuries to the tides for food, trade and transport, and it remains the reason many returned after the 1975-90 civil war, or why they never left.
Ayman Zarakit, a native of Beirut now working as a banker in Dubai, came back recently to visit his family in this metropolis of 2 million. He took me out one evening to show me the intense nightlife, a far cry from his adopted city.
"We would go to clubs during the July war," Zarakit said, referring to the 2006 war with Israel after Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. "You'd hear the missiles while we were in the clubs. We love to party."
We literally drove over BO18, the city's most famous nightclub, built into an underground bomb shelter. It sits along the infamous Green Line, marked by a downtown highway dividing the city's eastern Christian side and Muslim west during the civil war. The parking lot overflows with Mercedes, Porsches and other expensive cars, many with license plates from Persian Gulf states signifying wealthy vacationers.
"The thing about Lebanon is that we were a service country," Zarakit said. "Education, banking, what Dubai is now, we were in Beirut."
The city's prewar past remains an aspiration for the rest of the Middle East, said Fady Abboud, Lebanon's minister of tourism.
'It's the Apres-Ski'
Speaking from a highback leather chair in his expansive, wood-paneled office, Abboud stressed that tourism is more than expensive infrastructure.
"When you come to ski in Lebanon, it's not just about skiing," Abboud said. "It's the apres-ski, the nightlife of the Lebanese. This feeling is unique."
While acknowledging a perception among many would-be visitors that war still rages, he said Lebanon had nearly 2 million tourists in 2009, almost double 2008. It's a significant achievement for a country of 4 million where tourism represents 25 percent of the gross national product.
"A lot of people thought after 20 years of civil war, we're going to get rid of Beirut and the Lebanese once and for all," Abboud said, "but we proved them wrong."
The city's heart is Place d'Etoile, a star-shaped intersection designed by the French to mimic Paris during the post-World War I Mandate period, when Lebanon and Syria were under French control.
The buildings are a rich mix of styles, with Italian, Ottoman and Art Deco detailing. Almost all of them were damaged during the civil war. Recently completed renovations include a number of outdoor restaurants, giving an ambience that is more south of France than Middle East.
The streets culminate at the Art Deco Clock Tower, built in 1933 and a symbol of the city. Once ringed by olive trees, it has only five that survived the war. Their branches shade men with machine guns and French berets at rakish angles. These ubiquitous guardians discomfit tourists, but I felt safer walking here at 4 a.m. than in New York City. Moreover, they didn't seem overly concerned about terrorists or criminals as they monitored the passing parade. Young Lebanese women with high hair, high heels and skintight pants sauntered by, mixing with veiled women, from no-nonsense nuns to Muslim women who cover their hair yet flirt with their eyes.
'Cocktail' of Influences
The street show reflects Beirut after nightfall, with a strong female presence unknown in most Arab cities. It's what Abboud called "a cocktail" of indigenous and foreign influences that sets it apart from other states in the region.
And some of the Middle East's recent woes have been a boon, according to Jean Claude Hitti, manager of the Bella Riva Hotel where I stayed.
"Dubai's crisis has been helpful. People are choosing to come to Beirut on vacation," Hitti said, adding that 40 percent of his clients are Iraqis, who have marked Beirut as a favorite spot for vacation and business travel.
"They're coming to establish businesses," Hitti said. "Iraqis are particularly good at creating tourism businesses," from buying hotels to opening travel agencies.
They'll also find a familiar landscape. While my balcony overlooks the storied Mediterranean, I also got to marvel at rubble-strewn lots and looted buildings, still empty since the war ended 20 years ago.
Such contrasts were everywhere. The Holiday Inn, pockmarked by missile hits, looms over the ritzy Phoenicia Hotel. The two hotels sit amid a forest of construction cranes, many operating for a real-estate company called Greenline. Real green lines are even embedded into the pavement — speed bumps are brilliantly lit in the color.
The city rebuilds, yet still keeps imploding. Just off the lobby of the Phoenicia is a monument to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a massive bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. It's across the street from the St. George Hotel and Yacht Club, which was destroyed in the early days of the civil war, partially rebuilt, then damaged again in the 2005 blast. Its pool remains open for families to frolic against a backdrop of twisted rebar and flaking concrete.
A few doors down, I came across the handicraft shop Artisans du Liban et d'Orient, its floor carpeted with dried basil leaves, the curious scent beckoning me in. Here I asked Chantal Malouf, an auburn-haired saleswoman, about that day. Her body tightened as she leaned against a wall.
"After the bomb, we closed for two or three months," she said, flicking her right hand in a dismissive backward waving motion. "Tourism went way back," dropping sharply to numbers she recalled from years ago. Within the past two years, though, she said there has been a noticeable rebound.
Along the Corniche
My shopping done, I walked along the Corniche Beirut, the seaside promenade where the setting sun silhouetted the families, teenagers and fishermen along the railing. Encapsulating the entire capital, one stretch of the waterfront offered in succession: a crane hovering over a new tower, a renovated mid-century building, a still bombed-out property, a church and steeple, and a mosque minaret.
For 5,000 years, this has always been Beirut: commerce, war, rebuilding and religion. As a full moon rose and illuminated the night sky, the sound of lapping waves grew stronger and the smell of the sea hit me again. I understood why so many natives return.
(Michael Luongo is a travel writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Editors: Jeffrey Burke, Daniel Billy.