BOR­DER­LINE CRAZY BEIRUT

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT - by Marc An­drews

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.

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