May 23, 2006

This is Beirut

Well, it had to happen. I’m out of fresh material from the Middle East until I go back and get more. Iran is next on the list…if the mullahs will let me in. It will be a while before I know one way or the other.

In the meantime, I have more than a thousand digital pictures that no one has seen yet. Here are 30 of them. All were taken in, of, and above Beirut, Lebanon, my favorite city in the Middle East by far.

Lebanon Shore from Balloon.jpg

Mount Sannine rises above the Mediterranean and Beirut's northern suburbs. Photo taken from a hot air balloon over downtown.

Balcony View Day.JPG

I saw this lovely view of the Mediterranean every single day from the balcony of my apartment above the American University of Beirut.

Balcony View Night.JPG

And I saw this lovely view every night. I doubt I'll ever have such a view again from my house.

Solidere from Balloon 1.jpg

Downtown Beirut from the air.

Solidere from Balloon 2.jpg

Downtown Beirut from the air.

Martyrs Square from Balloon.jpg

The top of the Green Line that divided East and West Beirut during the civil war. That big empty space you see was the part of downtown that didn't survive. Martyr's Square is down there. When a million Lebanese demonstrated against Syrian occupation last year, that's where they did it. They filled the whole space. Then they overflowed it.

Moving Cars Solidere.jpg

Solidere, downtown Beirut.

Colorful Windows Beirut Night.JPG

Solidere, downtown Beirut.

Grand Cafe Beirut.jpg

Solidere, downtown Beirut.

Grand Cafe Beirut Night.JPG

Solidere, downtown Beirut.

Italian Restaurant Solidere.jpg

View from an Italian restaurant, downtown Beirut.

Cranes Beirut.jpg

Lots of new construction next to the restored downtown.

East Beirut from Balloon.jpg

East Beirut from the air.

Achrafieh Street.jpg

A street in Achrafieh, East Beirut.

Achrafieh Street 2.jpg

A street in Achrafieh, East Beirut.

Beirut Cemetery.JPG

Cemetery, East Beirut.

Claudias Achrafieh.jpg

Claudia's, Achrafieh, East Beirut.

Corleone Gemmayze.jpg

A gangster-themed trattoria, Gemmayze, East Beirut.

Tribeca Beirut.jpg
Off Monot Street, Achrafieh, East Beirut.

De Prague.jpg

A bohemian bar named De Prague, Hamra, West Beirut.

Fishing on Corniche.jpg

Fishing off the Corniche, West Beirut.

Glass Tower Beirut.jpg

New construction, West Beirut.

Starbucks West Beirut.JPG

Lots of people I know were surprised to hear Beirut has Starbucks. (Lebanon isn't Afghanistan, okay?) There are three Starbucks coffeeshops in Beirut. This one is on the shore of the Mediterranean in Rouche, West Beirut.

Vero Moda Hamra.jpg

My old neighborhood of Hamra, West Beirut.

Dependence 06.jpg

An AiZone advertisement riffs on the Independence 05 movement.

Holiday Inn 45 Degrees.jpg

A war-shattered Holiday Inn.

Holiday Inn from Balloon.JPG

A war-shattered Holiday Inn.

War Damage Beirut.jpg

War damage along the old Green Line. One of my neighbors in Oregon used to live near this building. His old house no longer exists. He does not know which militia destroyed it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 23, 2006 01:43 AM

Very nice! Can't wait to see the other 970!

Posted by: JC at May 23, 2006 04:09 AM

Beautiful, beautiful city! War is such nonsense.

Posted by: Fabian at May 23, 2006 05:06 AM

I am sorry that you couldn't stay longer in Israel. There's so much more to the Lebanon-like patchwork of the Israeli population. I hope you will come again for 6 months - after Iran. (Can't wait for that too!)

Posted by: Joao at May 23, 2006 05:09 AM

Michael, there are some pictures that really could use more explanation. "New Construction. West Beirut." is first and foremost in that category! Can you please explain who or what the Muslim lady with the purple finger is advertising on the billboard?

Beirut looks like a beautiful city. Thanks for sharing with pictures.

Posted by: DagneyT at May 23, 2006 05:41 AM

Seriously, a book with colour pictures!

(And perhaps easier to find direct links to your articles about specific countries.)

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at May 23, 2006 06:00 AM

Book with words, book with pictures, book from blog -- I want your book! (really, ebook of best blog posts could work -- but agree that a real book that is complete is much better. So now you have time to finish!)(don't you want an editor?)

Fantastic shots -- I wanted to know what the Lebanese thought about the Iraq elections, too.

I don't believe you're close to being finished with your material -- from questions your audience has. If you want to have a post or many of some ME questions and (current MJT) answers, you could have fun.
Mine would be:
What are some optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for Lebanon and Hizbollah in the next 5 years? (according to you; according to Lebanese you've talked to; I'm interested in both. In fact, perhaps most interested in areas where you disagree with natives, or which natives you agree with.)

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at May 23, 2006 07:12 AM

I saw this lovely view of the Mediterranean every single day from the balcony of my apartment above the American University of Beirut.

Wow. That is an awesome picture. What a view.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 23, 2006 07:33 AM

Beirut is truly a beautiful city, these are scenes that many Americans would never associate with the middle east and I thank you for posting them... But going back to you previous post, wouldn't it be something for Israelis and Lebanese to drive freely between Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Beirut? This has been a dream of mine for quite some time, I wonder how long it will be before it happens?

Posted by: Sam at May 23, 2006 07:40 AM

Thank you so much for sharing the beauty of Beirut and Lebanon. I can't wait till I see more. Makes me want to visit!!!!

Posted by: Laura at May 23, 2006 08:06 AM

The last few photos threw me off. About what percentage of the buildings in the aerial view do you think are still badly damaged from war?

Posted by: Tim Mathews at May 23, 2006 08:23 AM

You like Beirut better than Tel Aviv? Interesting...

It sure as hell beats Suli.

Your pictures are incredible. You're making me nostalgic for Beirut and I live here. Tears are practically filling my eyes.

The thing is, one becomes so bogged down in the difficulties of daily life that one rarely appreciates what you have highlighted.

Seeing the pictures out of context makes me appreciate everything so much more. In context, some buildings make me made because I know the owner mistreats his workers. I hate others because they illegally occupied the building kicking out tenants, etc.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 23, 2006 08:46 AM

One correction:

There are more than three Starbuck's in Beirut.

Off the top of my head I can name:
Raouche (the one pictured)
Furn ach Chebak (I'm not sure about this one)
Zalqa (in a very close suburb)

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 23, 2006 08:49 AM

Dagney T,

The new construction is of the souqs in downtown Beirut. The project was halted by Syrian-proxy Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, but was re-started once they pulled out. It is very far along now. The architect of the massive area is Rafael Monea.

The ad with the woman in the hijab with the purple finger is from an Al-Arabiya news station ad campaign. Al-Arabiya is Al-Jazeera's main competitor. It's seen as pro-Saudi (which also means pro-American). They don't use the term insurgents when talking about fighters in Iraq.

Al-Arabiya was popular in Lebanon, but became ever more so after 14 Feb. when Al-Jazeera went insanely pro-Syrian. The ad promotes a poll that shows Al-Arabiya is, by far, the most popular source of television news in Iraq and one of the most popular stations in the country.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 23, 2006 08:58 AM


Like Tom Grey says, I think you could easily fill up a lot of space on the blog responding to reader and donor questions.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 23, 2006 09:05 AM

The Arabs, who gave coffee to the world, need Starbucks in Beirut? Talk about bring coal to Newcastle. (And losuy coal it is, too.)

Michael, if you want a view like that not in Beirut, you will need to publish your book, get filthy rich, and buy a house in the Berkeley Hills or in Kensington, overlooking San Francisco Bay. Sitting on your couch with a brandy and looking out through your living room picture window over the Bay at SF at night is quite a treat. (I did this at someone else's house; I don't have the money for that either.)

Lebanon Profile:

Again, could either you or Micheal explain wht you mean when you say that there is no room for Arabs in the pan-Arab concpetion?

Posted by: Ephraim at May 23, 2006 10:09 AM

As a Lebanese, it makes me proud how your favorite city in the ME is Beirut.

Just to clarify, the picture titled "New Construction, West Beirut" is in fact located in the Solidere, thus downtown, area. I've read somewhere that the most expensive apartment in the building being built is $12 million.

Posted by: Omega80 at May 23, 2006 01:10 PM

As a Lebanese, it makes me proud how your favorite city in the ME is Beirut.

Just to clarify, the picture titled "New Construction, West Beirut" is in fact located in the Solidere, thus downtown, area. I've read somewhere that the most expensive apartment in the building being built is $12 million.

Posted by: Omega80 at May 23, 2006 01:10 PM

Well Mike, you have been trying to tell me for years that Beirut is a beautiful city, and now I believe you! I think the suggestion that yo use these comment postings as fuel for further blogging until you go abroad again is a good one. I for one would like you stay home for a little while, Portland needs you too! Besides, the "Cave of Winds" in Salem is gearing up for another tragic comedie affectionately reffered to as an election, wouldn't want to miss that! :)

Lebanon.profile, I wasn'nt trying to "out" Sean in my earlier post, you sneaky devil ;)


Posted by: Lindsey at May 23, 2006 02:02 PM

Sorry about the sloppy typo's above, my bad. By the way, I can't believe you missed a Starbucks Mike! ;)

Posted by: Lindsey at May 23, 2006 02:06 PM

From the view, looks like you were right on Bliss street, very close to my old neck of the woods. You know before the war, the hills in the sanine shot were basically devoid of buildings. These all sprouted up due to internal displacement, largely christians fleeing the chouf and other spots.

Posted by: hummbumm at May 23, 2006 02:17 PM

Beirut was once called "the Paris of the Middle East", and I can see why. The other city that comes to mind in a similar way is Havana, and possibly Hanoi. (Does that make any sense?) Anyway, all three are places I'd love to go.

Posted by: Matt Fausey at May 23, 2006 06:58 PM

do you have any more pictures of southern kurdistan? northern iraq? even if you're out of stories to write about, maybe you have pictures left that you didn't post the first time through...

Posted by: lovethisblog at May 23, 2006 07:20 PM

The pictures and the brief captions tell a story all their own.

Posted by: erik weems at May 24, 2006 04:48 AM

Ephraim asks: "Again, could either you or Micheal explain wht you mean when you say that there is no room for Arabs in the pan-Arab concpetion?"

Sorry, I don't remember the exact context, thus I'm not sure I'm going to answer the actual question you're trying to ask. The way I interpret what was said upon this reading is:

This question deserves a long response, which I can't provide at the moment.

Simply put -

1. Arab nationalism undermines the importance of the individual "Arab"
2. It pushes cultural uniformity, thus creating something that doesn't exist while smothering that which does
3. It is what is being smothered that is truly "Arab." Characteristics of Arabic speaking peoples should be studied to reveal similarities rather than forcing a created uniformity.
4. Pan-Arabism is dictatorial, thus the people, ie "the Arabs," have no say. The pan-Arab leader speaks on behalf of the cause to which all "Arabs" must subscribe. Speaking against the leader or the cause undermines pan-Arabism, which means there is no room for dissent. There is no room for an alternate Arabism because Arabism is not defined from bottom up, it is dictated from top down. Sudanese are Arabs, therefore we must defend their actions. To question this is to question the whole pan-Arab apparatus, which is not permitted.
5. Arabism is claimed to be "natural," ie "look at how much we have in common between each other: history, language, culture, cuisine." Responding with claims that Syrians have more in common with Turkey than with Moroccans falls on deaf ears.

BTW, your question was the impetus for a thoughtpiece on the Arabic language on my blog.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 24, 2006 05:41 AM


Thanks. I thought it might be something like that. I know a Moroccan guy here at work, and he says that the Arabic he speaks is completely different than, say, Iraqi Arabic, and that he would be totally lost if he were plunked down in Baghdad; perhaps how I might feel if I suddenly woke up in some out-of-the-way village in the Scottish Highlands or the English countryside.

A related question is: how does the concept of a "Palestinian people" fit into "Arabism" (not neceesarily of the "pan" variety)? As an outsider, it seems to me that there is nothing in Arab history that indicates the existence of a self-aware and self-constituted corporate body known as the "Palestinian people" or that there was such a thing recognized to be such by other Arabs, at least up until very recently in historical terms. Or was what T.E. Lawrence said true, that Arabs, in general, have little or no "national feeling" and identify primarily by clan, village or town? I suppose that now with almost a century of Western-inspired political nationalism under their belts things are different, but I find the whole question fascinating, and I have a feeling that at least some of the problems the Arab world faces could be attributed to the fact that Western ideas of nationalism don't jibe well with traditional Arab ways of self-definition.

As a Lebanese, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Considering how much Arabs hate being mistaken for Iranians (and vice versa), I would imagine that a lot of Syrians would be pretty pissed off if someone said they were more like Turks than other Arabs. That's pretty funny, actually.

Posted by: Ephraim at May 24, 2006 10:10 AM


Palestinians are certainly distinct from other "Arabs." What do they have in common with people from Morrocco? They can't even talk to each other, like you said.

I have been to several Arab countries: Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and "Palestine." (Also Iraq, but I only visited the Kurdistan region.) They are all completely different places. Libya and Lebanon are practically in different solar systems.

"Palestinian" may be a historically new identity. Then again, so is "Arab." So is "Iraqi." Etc.

You can make a plausible argument that all those identities are meaningless because they are too broad. (Which is what LP is doing with "Arab.") But you can't also say Iraqis, Palestinians, Arabs, etc., are one and the same.

Visit Gaza, Beirut, Khartoum, and Yemen, and tell me if you really think everyone in all four places can be fairly lumped together as "Arabs" who don't deserve names of their own.

The Lebanese people of north Beirut (on both the "Christian" East and "Muslim" West sides) have more in common with Parisians than with Libyans or Palestinians. The nearly meaningless term "Arab" smothers that fact.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 24, 2006 10:55 AM

Thanks, Michael. Even a cursory perusal of Arab history will make most of what you say pretty clear. Thanks for fleshing it out a bit.

But I find myself somewhat perplexed by your apparent view that the term "Arab" itself is meaningless. Do I take it to mean that in your esxperience most Arabs in reality feel little or no affinity or kinship with other people who speak (at least dialects of) the same langauge?

Or is your main point that the Arabs should just give up on "Arabism" as a bad job and get on with being (insert self-definition of choice here).

And if this is so, what are the implications for the stability of the modern Arab nation-states? Pretty dire, I would say.

Posted by: Ephraim at May 24, 2006 11:13 AM

Epraim - If 'Arabs' gave up on Arabism and got on with being _________, they would have a better chance of making it through the next few decades than subscibing to some kind of pan-'national' Fascism. Most ideas of pan-anything are usually a cover for the fascistis. These clowns did not disappear after WWII as most of us Westerners had hoped, but went underground and are now populating NGO's like the UN. They are excreable but only hope to have the rest of us freedom lovers toe their jackbooted line.

The Hobo

Posted by: Robohobo at May 24, 2006 06:49 PM


There is little history of nationalism in the Middle East. Until the 19th Century, identity was constructed almost entirely around one's clan and religion. That was the same with Jews living in the Ottoman Empire. European Jews created the nationalist dream. Ottoman Jews lived according to religion and tribe. From what I know, there was little thought about creating a state. Kurdish Jews, Persian Jews, and Moroccan Jews did not feel the need to come together as one political unit.

Interestingly, Lebanon is the country that had a sense of nationalism prior to the 19th Century. Also interesting, Lebanese created Arab Nationalism as a response to Ottoman and, more importantly, Turkish oppression. Young Turk efforts to Turkify the Ottoman state greatly angered Levantine intellectuals who revived the Arabic language and began constructing an Arab identity in response to the Turks.

The Arabism helped bring about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but then continued, causing conflict in Lebanon. Lebanese identity, as it existed prior to the 19th Century, was tribe and religion based. However, because the religions were vastly different than the Sunni Ottoman religion (ie, Christian and Druze) and because the Ottomans, Arabs, Byzantines, Romans, etc. were never able to occupy and exert complete control over the Lebanese mountains, a geographic nationalism was created.

In the 16th Century, Lebanese sense of land and religion based identity was about the same as that of the Europeans. The Lebanese always had close contact with the Vatican, Italian statelets, France, and England. Their thinking was not dominated by ideas of Ottoman pluralism.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 25, 2006 07:58 AM

it was fun having you in beirut :).
you missed telling about your last day here :P.
you said you would talk about it ... hehehe.

Posted by: wissam at May 25, 2006 06:25 PM

Thanks for the memories :)

Posted by: Caveman at May 26, 2006 07:41 AM

Beautiful pictures...thank you so much for sharing. The one of the cemetery reminded me of ones that I've seen in New Orleans. And when I looked closer, I realized why...there were crosses on many of those graves. They make for an interesting pictoral comment on Lebanon's history.

Posted by: DixieDarlin' at May 31, 2006 01:06 PM

Hello, Just wanted to note that The cedars of Lebanon were used by Salomon as told in the old testament to build the Temple at Jerusalem.

"2 Chronicles 2:3 And Solomon sent to Huram the king of Tyre, saying, As thou didst deal with David my father, and didst send him cedars to build him an house to dwell therein, even so deal with me."
(Tyre is in Lebanon)

The majestic Cedars of Lebanon. Some are said to have been there during the time of the Roman Empire.

Posted by: Elie Constantine at June 5, 2006 03:59 AM

I never realized Beirut was so beautiful. I hope I can visit one day.

Posted by: Kevin at July 16, 2006 10:21 PM

P J O'Rourke's essay 'A ramble through Lebanon' in his late 1980s book Holidays in Hell seems to still apply. I read a warm affection for the place between the lines, despite the horrors.

Your pictures did remind me of my trip to Havana, Cuba. So as a contrast, I hope it's not presumptuous for me to share my pictures of the Fabulous Ruins of Cuba:

It's interesting how similar it looks to war damage, but the damage you see in the pictures is through rot and decay, not war.

Hezbollah's Lebanon makes me think of Manila where there are a lot of areas almost exactly like what you photographed. No martyr's posters, granted, but the same tottering buildings and lousy constuction. Has one of those buildings ever collapsed into its neighbor? It seems plausible ...


Posted by: David H Dennis at August 6, 2006 07:34 AM

My pre-conceived notions of the Middle East have taken a hit. Wow! That is Beirut! It is beautiful. Good Lord, the Lebanese need to throw off their oppressors (Hezbollah) and take command of their country.

Posted by: stahl-hofer at August 8, 2006 08:04 AM

My usual thought process concerning the Middle East follows something like this: Hovels, poverty, war-torn, people without direction; except for what oil can provide, and that is usually pocketed by corrupt governments who couldn't care less about the populous. State sponsored terrorists running rampant, women treated as chattel ...etc, etc. The Middle East presents itself as a cauldron of hatred without reason; dragging the rest of the World into its lunatic universe. Homegrown suicide bombers; an insane Iranian dictator espousing lunatic rantings, "Wipe Israel of the map or push them into the sea". Syria in colution with Iran. Why? Why the implacable hatred for a little country called Israel? And why on this earth would I have reason to believe anything less?

...And then, there is that little ray of sunshine, the oasis in the middle of chaos. My astonishment was complete as I viewed Beirut via Michael Totten's blog. It is lovely …and I have to admit, grudgingly, it is a place I would like to visit sometime in the future.

Posted by: Stahl-Hofer at August 9, 2006 08:48 AM

thx that u leted me to see all see wat can people creat and how they can destroy, makes bruty and lolenes feeling in same time sad that people can be so.
thx that u are and just from u i knew this beuty.

Posted by: Agne at April 11, 2007 01:30 AM


Posted by: Ari at July 28, 2007 03:17 AM

what an amazing city beirut is, with all the photgraphs you have taken they are amazing unfrotunatley isreal has ruined so much of a beautiful country i am planning to go there with my brother and 2 mates for christmas cant wait!!!!!!

Posted by: mitchel georgikakas at August 14, 2007 10:35 PM

I have a freind from Lebanon who says the Lebanese are not and never where Arabs until they had to be. What does that mean? Oh, and about the crosses in the Cemetary, Lebanon is 40% Christian and 60% Muslim and used to be 50% Christian. But heck what do I know I'm not even Lebanese. That is all from a friend of mine.

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Posted by: Jing-Xian-Wang-Luo at December 9, 2007 06:06 PM

The Lady with pink finger on billboard is an Iraqi lady . Its an advertisement for new Iraqi sat lite TV station Al-Arabiya .

Posted by: Jon at December 23, 2007 12:30 PM
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