Letter from Beirut: The Party’s Over

When the electricity finally failed in my East Beirut neighborhood, I set up shop at a rooftop hotel bar and waited for the next Israeli bombs to fall. Almost immediately, the sky erupted with what sounded like antiaircraft fire but turned out to be red and green fireworks garishly flashing over the hot, dark city. The Shi’ite residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs, pummeled all day by the Israeli assault, were celebrating Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration of war with Israel.

That’s what passes for a party in Beirut these days. Monot Street, Beirut’s main nightclub drag, is normally throbbing with oil-rich Arab playboys and European hipsters on such a steamy summer night. But with the city under siege, the only buzz coming from Beirut’s bars is the hum of power generators. There’s not a bikini in sight on the city’s sunny shoreline or a parked Porsche in the chic shopping district. Few Lebanese saw it coming. After this country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the nation transformed itself from a byword for urban violence into the nightlife capital of the Middle East. Elites who had fled during the war poured back in, pumping billions of dollars into the redevelopment of downtown Beirut. The rebranding of the city was so successful that with every condominium high-rise and every new shopping mall, the Lebanese began to believe their own advertising and forget that they live in a fragile country in a dangerous part of the world. That illusion now lies in tatters.

The foreigners were the first to panic. At the Phoenicia Hotel, the city’s fanciest, the lobby was filled with fashionable women fleeing the country in high-heeled shoes. The embassies circulated fanciful evacuation plans involving small airplanes and ferries to Cyprus. The U.N. told its employees to stock up on a month’s worth of prescription medication and take a long weekend.

The problem is that there’s almost no place to go. Poor Beirut airport, recently rebuilt, was famously attacked in 1968, when Israeli commandos blew up 13 Lebanese civilian planes as they sat on the tarmac. This time the attack came in slow motion: first the runways, then the fuel-storage tanks, then the runways again, then the terminals.

With Israeli warships attacking ports and running blockades, the only way out of the country is by land through Syria. Fleets of taxis carried hotel guests on the three-hour trip to Damascus until an air strike knocked out a key bridge. Now cars have to take back roads through the high mountain passes or head north up the coast road toward the Syrian city of Homs. Given the conditions on the roads, staying in Beirut while the bombs fall is as good an option as trying to make a run for it. “You share your bed with a Lebanese girl?” a staff member at the Tourism Ministry asked me. “Get married, and you won’t have to leave.”

The Lebanese–who lived through far worse than this during the civil war–are determined to put up a steely front. Every time I go to a supermarket to collect quotes from supposedly terrified families stocking up on essentials, I end up being the one with the largest shopping-cart load of canned goods and batteries. But it’s hard to escape the sense of dread that looms over the country. “Twenty years of reconstruction are being destroyed in a few days,” the Tourism Minister, Joseph Sarkis, moaned to me from his nearly abandoned ministry. The owner of a subterranean nightclub called the Basement is trying to rally his patrons with a new slogan: “It’s safer underground.” Even in Beirut, that may not be enough to keep the party going.

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