| Dr N Harimohan |
Beirut, the very name conjures up Mediterranean haven of pleasure and leisure.
The dusky evenings behind frosted windows, dark coffee in quaint cups served on checkered tables in pavement cafes, the city of Beirut subtly transports you to an exotic Arab dreamland.
This land is also decorated with distant mountains, an aquamarine sea with drifting ships and its nights are filled with colourful dance and songs.
The people of this land are as enchanting as the place they reside in. Full of life, women and men of Lebanon are blessed with extraordinary good looks and their large heartedness enhances their appeal.
It is sad that such people have been subjected to decades of unrest and civil war; forced to live in a country split into two, and made to see horrible sights like snipers firing from the rooftops and bombs blasting on the roads.
During those hard days of the civil war, a green line separated Beirut into two. It was only post-90s that troubles ended when their then President Rafik Harirri brought peace to the wounded land.
But it seems peace was to be a temporary event as tragedy overtook again in 2005 – a bomb took away the much revered president from the streets in the very centre of Beirut. Today we can see a sculpted memorial for the president in the very spot of the assassination with a bullet ridden bombed out empty building in its back ground.
Incidentally the place where I stayed was the well-known hotel Phoenicia facing this spot and I often found myself gazing at it from my balcony lost in deep thoughts.
The history of Lebanon unfolded in my eyes when I made a trip to the National Museum of Lebanon. The museum is divided into sections of Lebanese history from the prehistoric times to now and various artefacts and statues line the small but well-kept museum.
Lebanon has a rich history dating back to the prehistoric times. Conquered and ruled over ages by the sea faring Phoenicians, Byzantines, the Romans, the Greeks, later the Ottomans and then the French – it was finally in 1947 that Lebanon was free to its own.
But the 60s unrest and the long ensuing civil war left the country badly fractured and today Lebanon is slowly yet steadily striving to attain its former glory .
In Beirut, marks of history can be seen all around be it the Roman baths, the Balbak ruins; or the magnificent St Georges Cathedral where the monks hid their treasures in the basement during the wars.
I also got an opportunity to visit Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. This blue mosque with its cobalt dome shines into the skyline as Beirut’s landmark, gazing into the yellow staccato baroque European style downtown buildings.
Later as I was strolling along the turquoise sea lining corniche I entered into an enclosed area which was a world unlike any.
The area had cobbled streets with neatly lined flowers and its pavements were filled with boisterous coffee shops. I could see youngsters, lively and colourful, gazing at the up market malls’ fashion shows, while live TV shows were being recorded and children blowing bubbles in the air.
Suddenly amongst all this merrymaking, a detective walked in with a huge police dog fastened with a chain that went around sniffing for hidden bombs. The detective stopped often to pat children on their heads as they caressed the big dog’s head. I could see armed soldiers gazing at the playful children, smiling benevolently but ready to rise in case of emergency. It must have been a case of false alarm as the peace was noticeable and there was a sense of calm and happiness everywhere.
I also saw a retro wedding car awaiting the bride and groom to come out of the church accompanied by elegant guests. The whole affair almost looked straight out of a scene from the Hollywood classic, ‘Godfather’.
Beirut is a small city; Lebanon has many other lovely places to visit too. There are places where there are snowy hills very close to the city but my short stay did not permit me to go there.
For public transport, one can share taxis or vans which are cheaper but the best option is to walk as climate in Beirut is generally good and it gives you a pulse of the place. I took a yellow cab to the museum which cost me $15 (roughly 1,500 Lebanese pounds); American dollars are accepted everywhere in Lebanon.
After the museum I went to Hamra which is a well-known shopping street. It reminded me of the Brigade road in Bangalore or Jan path in New Delhi, full of shops and restaurants. I window shopped from a corner cafe as I munched into a crunchy sandwich. As I was strolling along the American university hospital to reach the corniche, I met a Tamil worker on the way and stopped to talk to him for a while. In the late afternoon the corniche was quiet and empty but for a few fishing enthusiasts.
Finally I reached my hotel to a well-earned rest.
While the day took me to downtown and its wonders, in the night all delegates were taken for dinner to a lovely sea side restaurant.
We bit into delicious sea food amidst the gentle lapping of waves with salty winds ruffling our hair.
The next day’s dinner was arranged at a small dimly lit restaurant serving authentic Lebanese cuisine.
We were entertained by a talented and an interactive singer who got all of us into the mood of the evening. The female singer who sang next was melodious too.
Though I have had Lebanese food in the UAE, the food here was much tastier because of its authenticity.
After the next day’s meeting I returned by night flight, bidding adieu to Lebanon.
The trip to Beirut, despite being a very short one, made an indelible impression on me which would stay in my memories forever.