From nudist beach parties and wild bashes hosted by the likes of Paris Hilton, to gay clubs, gambling and showgirls, Beirut is rapidly earning a reputation as the sin city of the Middle East.
Clubbers don’t bat an eye in popping $1 000 for a bottle of champagne to guarantee attention at a trendy nightspot, where less is more as far as women’s wear is concerned, and fireworks displays regularly light up the skies.
Lebanon has seen it all: a bloody 1975-1990 civil war, military occupation, high-profile assassinations, and unending political instability.
Four years ago, Beirut’s seaside Riviera Hotel saw an assassination attempt targeting a leading anti-Syrian minister. Today it is keeping the neighbourhood awake as partygoers drink and dance the night away.
”We have clubs in Cairo,” said 26-year-old Wafiq, as he swayed to the beat on a hot August night holding a glass of whiskey and puffing on a Cuban cigar.
”But nothing beats this,” said the Egyptian, a finance consultant. ”I need to come here to unwind.”
A record one million-plus tourists visited Lebanon in July alone, according to the Tourism Ministry, which is expecting more than two million tourists by the end of 2009, a figure roughly equivalent to half the country’s population.
Many of those flocking to Beirut are Lebanese expatriates, but Arab nationals have also arrived en masse to take advantage of Lebanon’s glamorous nightlife and glitzy shows like ”Hot Legs” at the Casino du Liban, featuring ”striptease-style dances”, according to the casino’s website.
While Lebanon often flirts with the borderline of civil war — sectarian strife in May 2008 resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people — any sign of a political detente is quickly followed by a boom in tourism.
Sami (30) flew in from Germany for a brief reprieve this summer, which he says turned out to be more exhausting than he had anticipated.
Nursing a sunburn, he described how he had negotiated his way past scowling bouncers into Sky Bar, dubbed the hottest club in Beirut, before stopping at a 24-hour eatery for breakfast at 3am and hitting the beach a few hours later.
”I’m on three hours of sleep,” he told Agence France-Presse. ”I had barely started on my coffee when I got to the beach and my friends threw my coffee away and replaced it with vodka in a plastic cup.”
”It’s pretty much been downhill since then,” said the architect, grinning.
”This city is just so diverse,” chimed in his girlfriend Yasmine, a 24-year-old graphic designer. ”There’s something for everyone. It’s just one big non-stop party.”
Prices for a bottle of champagne at some clubs run from $200 to a staggering $15 000, but regulars at places like Palais Crystal — modelled after the famed Palais Club in Cannes — say it is worth it.
Other clubs take on a different identity: the underground B018 has now changed its decor, again gaining renown for its former macabre interior, a stark reminder of Lebanon’s gruesome past. Built on the site of the 1976 Karantina massacre of mainly Palestinian refugees, the club looks like a bunker and until recently featured coffin-like couches.
While Yasmine and Sami represent an emerging face of Beirut — a hedonists’ haven where spirits run as high as the heels — others are less enthusiastic.
”It’s really fun to go out and see all these people and enjoy the music, but I don’t understand the hassle, having to reserve months in advance to go to the same places over and over again,” said Rana (28).
”It’s as if this is some social obligation that you have to fulfill or you’ve committed the ultimate sin of not being ‘in’,” the Beirut-based stockbroker told Agence France-Presse.
Some Lebanese proudly retell the story of how during the devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the parties went on, merely relocating their venues to mainly Christian mountain suburbs such as Faraya and Brummana.
”It was the same as in Beirut but in a cooler area — I mean weather-wise,” Rania told AFP.
A doctoral candidate in New York, Rania made her reservations at her favourite clubs well before she even landed in Beirut.
But while some Lebanese believe the worst is over and their country has shed its reputation for political turbulence, 25-year-old Ziad, a Lebanese engineer based in Qatar, believes the summer of 2009 is merely a breathing space.
”I think they want us to have our summer before they get back to business,” he told AFP, referring to the country’s rival factions. — AFP