BORDERLINE CRAZY BEIRUT
Gay travellers to Lebanon can expect history, hummus and handsome habibis. Guns, bombs and refugees are part of the package and we reveal the truth behind Beirut Pride.
Gay travellers to Lebanon can expect history, hummus and handsome habibis. Scary passport controls, refugee camps and soldiers you aren’t allowed to photograph are also part of the package.
BEING STOPPED and questioned by immigration officials upon arrival in a foreign country is never a pleasant experience. Being interrogated by immigration officials in seemingly lawless Lebanon is terrifying. So began our trip to Beirut.
We’d heard conflicting reports from friends who’d visited before. One gay couple went for four days and had such a great time (“lots of fun and great sex”) that they extended their stay by another 10 days. Needless to say, they didn’t really explore the sites of the city. More accurately, they spent their time acquainting themselves with the city’s men. Which all sounds like fun.
However, another well-travelled couple we know ended up being interrogated for five hours as they were leaving, had their camera film taken, and were told to “never come back to Lebanon – your types are not welcome here”.
Thus it was with some trepidation that my husband and I agreed to go on a trip to Beirut with a good friend and his husband. One of them comes from a Lebanese background but was born in Australia. Just to make it even more complex, his parents converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses and so, coming out as gay, he has effectively been cut off from his family and his background. This was supposed to be his trip back to his homeland, to seek out his heritage, to get in touch with his roots. Instead, upon arrival, he spent three hours being interrogated at Beirut Airport, while the three of us waited anxiously.
Two years earlier, we’d all travelled to the lost city of Petra in Jordan, via Israel. Israel and Lebanon are not particularly friendly. In fact, “enemies” doesn’t even come close to describing the feeling of animosity between the two countries. The Lebanese refer to Israel as “the occupied country of Palestine”. Israel stopped putting stamps in people’s passports years ago so they could still safely travel with them to other Arab and Middle Eastern countries. What they fail to tell you is the yellow sticker plastered on the back of your passport instantly identifies you as having been to Israel. One of our group, unfortunately, had left a miniscule bit yellow sticker on his passport and was immediately detained and taken away, worryingly, behind closed doors.
Somehow, playing the gay card worked in his favour, though. After two hours of insisting he hadn’t been to Israel he finally broke down in interrogation and admitted that he had, but only en route to Jordan. He also told them he was gay, married to his husband and that we were also a married gay couple. The Lebanese security team proceeded to confiscate all of our passports, briefly, to photocopy them but withheld our friend’s passport, telling him he needed to collect it from the Military Tribunal the next morning at 8am. In other words, we were finally free to go to our hotel for the night. Phew.
The next morning our anxious friend spent three fretful hours at said palace of justice. Emblazoned on the outside wall of this building is a quote from Albert Einstein, but attributed to Harrison Ford – Einstein being Jewish, you see. After some bureaucratic formalities, our travelling companion was handed back his passport, and some paperwork in Arabic, and told he could go. A somewhat sinister start to the trip but our vacation could finally begin.
We spent the next five days exploring Beirut and the countryside. We ate some of the most delicious Lebanese food imaginable (desserts made of rosewater, baklava filled with octopus, enough hummus to sink an army of lovers), visited historic sites that make Italy and Greece seem puny by comparison, and managed to somehow forget we were staying in a country that is literally on the brink of a war, constantly, with its southern neighbour Israel/Palestine, not to mention the on-going Syrian conflict to the north.
That may be why everyone and everything is so on edge in Lebanon. People seem weary from their own civil wars and subsequent conflicts with Israel/Palestine. There’s very much a live-for-today mentality with little thought or planning whatsoever for tomorrow. Beirut constantly feels as though something dangerous or frightening is about to erupt, and yet the former “Paris of the Middle East” is now the place the Arab world goes to relax and party.
To that end, we went out and discovered openly gay Arabic bars where we danced freely and without concern. Simply walking down the street we attracted the intense stares of swarthy Middle Eastern hunks, their hungry eyes seemed to attempt seduction in a single glance.
Around five million people reside in Lebanon including one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees. The Palestinian refugees, which number in the hundreds of thousands, are not counted in that population figure. Driving to the spectacular Roman ruins of Baalbek (an hour-and-a-half by car) we passed countless Syrian refugee camps as it’s just seven kilometres to the Syrian border, but there are also Palestinian camps.
Outside the historic site – arguably one of the most impressive archaeological finds in the world – vendors tried to sell us bright yellow Hezbollah T-shirts, proudly emblazoned with guns. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation in many parts of the world, but here it is the military arm of the Hamas government that rules Lebanon.
“I have lived here all my life and I don’t understand Lebanese politics,” one weary guide told us matter-of-factly, “so you have no chance to understand if you are just here for a few days.”
Travelling between cities, the constant security checkpoints were a reminder that we were moving across dangerous terrain.
“The more stops there are, the safer we feel,” our guide informed us smiling. “The soldiers are there for our safety. Please take many photos of Lebanon to show everyone that Lebanon is safe and not dangerous, but do not take any photos of the soldiers, it is forbidden.” There-in lies one of the intriguing complexities of Lebanon: a magnificent country, rightly proud of its ancient history, and yet stupefied by its modern history.
Time itself is a rather flexible concept in Lebanon. Things happen when they happen, not at set times you may have agreed on. Eventually things usually take place, but at a pace not confined by the constraints of conventional time-keeping. Our tip: let go of any frustration you feel about this as soon as possible learn to go with the laissez-faire flow of the locals.
In Beirut one evening, I met an elderly, somewhat jaded journalist who had covered many of the wars of the last century and I asked for his take on this unruly nation. “Lebanon is like a phoenix. It will always rise again,” he declared, not so much hopefully as expectantly. “The problem here is there are no rules. I hope the younger generation can fix it.”
Our taxi driver, on the way back to the hotel, seemed to personify the national attitude toward fixing the chaos of modern Lebanon: “Not my problem,” he declared.
Yet Beirut, like Lebanon itself, despite its many attractions remains distinctly problematic for foreigners – gay or otherwise. Try not to let it get you crazy… and scratch off any yellow stickers on your passports before entry, too, please.
IS GAY OKAY IN LEBANON?
In July 2018, a district court of appeal in Lebanon issued a ruling declaring consensual sex between people of the same sex is not illegal. This followed similar judgments from other lower courts in previous years where
LGBT people ended up not being convicted of “sexual intercourse contrary to nature”.
LGBT groups heralded the progressive ruling as a positive sign for a long-persecuted minority. Effectively it means the state has no right to tell people who they can or cannot sleep with.
The reality, however, is that same-sex couples can still go to jail in Lebanon as parliament has not yet repealed article 534 (a one-year prison sentence) from the Penal Code, put in place during French colonial rule over 100 years ago.
Walking down the street we attracted the stares of swarthy Middle Eastern hunks, their hungry eyes attempting seduction in a single glance.
BEIRUT’S JET-SET PAST
The late Anthony Bourdain once eloquently called Beirut a city that “makes no damn sense at all, in the best possible way”. Bombed-out buildings, war-weary residents and constant military checkpoints were not, however, always indicative of the Lebanese capital.
In the post-war boom of the second half of the 20th Century, Beirut was the place to be. Crowned “the Paris of the Middle East” and even as “La Dolce Vita on the Mediterranean”, Beirut had a well-deserved reputation for being a playboy’s playground and a banker’s haven, due to the Persian Gulf oil boom. Well-healed Westerners flocked there for mid-century-style “adult entertainment”, leaving the kids at home with nannies.
An Iraqi friend of mine, now living in London with his husband, told me his mother, unbelievably running around Baghdad at the time in a beehive and mini-skirt, would think nothing of flitting off to Beirut with her husband for indulgent, expensive long weekends.
French actress/sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, the Kim Kardashian of her day and the epitome of ’50s and ’60s cool, was a regular visitor. She brought with her a string of sexy bikinis to debut at the beach in front of her devout press following, both French and international.
Five-star hotels dotted the Ain el Mreisse seafront, discotheques filled Rue de Phenicle and a myriad of elegant cafés and restaurants lined Hamra Street to take advantage of the affluent tourist boom.
The Saint George Beach Club And Hotel played host to Hollywood royalty. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton regularly occupied the penthouse suite. Peter O’Toole took breaks there during the filming Lawrence Of Arabia in nearby Jordan. Actual royalty, like Egypt’s King Farouk, was a regular guest.
The hotel was also infamous for its infestation of Cold War spies. Britain’s Kim Philby and others used Beirut as a place to indulge in their love of espionage, deep tans and water sports.
The hedonistic high times came to an abrupt end in 1975 with the outbreak of the civil war. Four decades later, a battle-scared Beirut has still not recovered from this and subsequent regional wars.
Now, like most of the other halcyon haunts of this era, The Saint George is literally a shell of its former glory, protected by UN peacekeeping forces in a legal battle over its ownership.
Yet the city secretly maintains something of its former glory. Today, behind closed doors, the old playboy playground can still be experienced if you know the right (rich) people. Underground designer bunkers like The Music Hall, where copious bottles of expensive cognac and champagne flow freely like the good times never ended, still cater to Lebanon’s wild, well-off jet set. If that makes no sense at all in today’s Middle East, as Bourdain noted, all that needs to be said is – welcome to Beirut!
Beirut makes no damn sense at all, in the best possible way…
A street poster promoting an LGBT event.
Lebanon: beauty and ruins.
A gay couple explore the Roman ruins at Baalbek, and (below) the coastal region of Byblos.
Beirut: old and new.
Market place: delicious desserts and beautiful homewear goods.