48 Hours in Beirut: Our quick-fire guide to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’

It’s a wonder that the Lebanese capital — with its bullet-ridden buildings and back-street bars — even qualifies as Middle Eastern. (Shutterstock)
Updated 04 April 2018
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48 Hours in Beirut: Our quick-fire guide to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’

  • Home to around just 4 million citizens, the small city has so much to offer
  • A great place to stay is the cozy, boutique Albergo hotel on Monot road
Beirut is known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” and when you get to know it, it’s a wonder that the Lebanese capital — with its bullet-ridden buildings and back-street bars — even qualifies as Middle Eastern in the first place.
Although home to around just 4 million citizens, the small city has so much to offer. Start your day with breakfast in the ‘holes-in-the-wall’ — Al-Sousi Restaurant in Aisha Bakkar (voted world’s best breakfast by CNN in 2014) and Le Professeur in Mar Elias give you the most authentic, hands-on experience of a well-rounded breakfast of hummus, eggs and meat, and the knockout foul medamas. Be sure to have this early in the morning, and not too much. It will stick around your stomach for a while.
After you’re properly ‘foul’-ed up, a long walk along the sea front on the city’s Manara corniche is a great way to work off your breakfast. Start from the iconic picturesque Pigeon rocks and stroll all the way along to the recently re-opened Downtown area, filled with shops and restaurants. There, you can explore the grand and elegant Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque right beside the worn-down Martyrs’ Square statue.
Feeling peckish? Fret not! Right at the heart of Downtown’s Beirut Souks lies the ever-expanding culinary experience of Souk Al-Tayyeb, the Saturdays-only open-air farmers market, offering a wealth of snack (or more) options.
Head to the nearby gritty, narrow Gemmayzeh street for an incredible selection of restaurants, cafés and pubs, or keep walking to the buzzing Mar Mkhael street. Popular hangouts like Radio Beirut, Junkyard and Dirty Laundry Kitchen and Bar are always packed with thirsty Lebanese spilling out onto the streets.
A great place to stay is the cozy, boutique Albergo hotel on Monot road, but prices there can go as high as $225 a night. More budget-friendly options include Mar Mkhael’s Villa Clara hotel, which goes for an average of $160 a night.
Beirut during spring and summer is a treat, allowing you to enjoy its beaches and numerous rooftop lounges. Be sure to swing by the classy Four Season’s rooftop lounge in Downtown for a breathtaking view of the capital’s coast. If you’re on a budget, Coup d’etat offers a more casual setting — and also houses the loud and lively Café Em Nazih on the ground floor.
For the best beach experience, you have to head out of Beirut and head north toward Pierre and Friends in the historical coastal city of Batroun, one of the oldest cities in the world, or south toward Tyre Rest House where white sands and clean water dominate.
For shisha lovers, Beirut is filled with all kinds of places to just play cards beside your bubbling hookah. Al-Falamanki is a favorite restaurant/café that offers good Lebanese food and an assortment of shisha flavors in a lovely seating area in a courtyard hidden by trees and surrounded by three two-story, war-torn buildings.
Student-hub Hamra is a must-see. Situated in the middle of Lebanon’s two top universities, the road is always bustling — its restaurants, pubs and stores packed. Li Beirut and Mezyan are hotspots for Arabic music lovers, while Ales & Tales and Bricks are popular watering holes for students and professors alike.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.