Reverse culture shock?

Yesterday, as I was driving along the autostrade, I was hemmed in by a concrete mixing truck on one side, a Porsche Cayenne on the other and a tank in front.

Anyone who has driven on Lebanese roads knows that they are blissfully free of such restrictive concepts as indicating, fixed lanes and safe stopping distances; as such you end up intimately close to the other vehicles even when you’d rather not.

EDL protests electricity Lebanon

Police calm rock-lobbing protesters outside EDL

As I was watching the beret-clad soldiers swinging their assault rifles scarcely three metres from my windscreen, I thought about how you somehow get used to Lebanon’s eclecticism over time.

Yesterday we barely looked up from our work to watch a UN helicopter land on the helipad of a local hospital. The day before I watched from the window as crowds lobbed rocks at the Electricité du Liban building and riot police poured out of trucks to quell the protest.

a peaceful coast

a peaceful coast

How am I going to cope with days of waking to the deep-throated call of a wood pigeon, miles of rolling green hills dotted with pasturing sheep and the rhythmic splash of waves on a beach (not being drowned out by club music)?

the Devonshire tank

the Devonshire tank

Playing house

No-one can say that people here don’t recycle.

park beirut

park hut

Clearly the park guardian didn’t feel his little sentry hut was spacious enough. So he built himself a new hang-out with couches and coffee. Reminds me of a Wendy house we kids would erect to play in when we were very little. Anyone else remember those? Ours was rather wobbly and second-hand, a bit like this one.

Can’t see the wood for the walls?

Horsh Beirut Pine Forest

no entry

Any Beiruti can tell you where Horsh Beirut is, a huge park slap in the southern centre of the city. But ask them if they’ve been there and they invariably say no. It’s a bit like skiing in the morning and swimming in the afternoon, but more complicated.

Horsh Beirut (or the Pine Forest) is one of those mysterious places nobody has ever been and if they have they cannot tell you quite how to get in. It has a trompe l’oeil entrance to the west, with a car park and large open gates. This leads to a seemingly promising walkway with rows of trees and stone benches and college couples in the corners. But this pleasant strolling area ends dramatically in a mass of barbed wire. Beyond the spiky barrier, steps lead temptingly to a much larger grounds, where neat paths disappear around lush green curves. This is Beirut’s secret garden.

Horsh Beirut Pine Forest

near the park

We circled the vast area, looking for an access point. On the two other sides of the triangle there were more impenetrable high walls and barbed wire with the occasional padlocked gate. We ventured in and out of passages but remained on the wrong side of the wall. We asked a gardener in a property on the same block. He looked pessimistic and told us we needed a pass to enter. Eventually we came across a large gate next to a small gatekeeper’s building on the north-east face near Tayouneh roundabout. The park looked empty. Then a gardener came to greet us. Without much hope, we asked if we could enter the park. He looked us over and in answer swung the gate open. We were free to roam.

Horsh Beirut Pine Forest

city centre

The place was a rare refuge from the jagged aspect and noise of construction as well as the traffic and pollution. Our delight at having the chance to discover the beautifully kept grounds was coupled with bemusement over their case by case entry system. It is, to all intents and purposes, closed to the general public. We crossed paths with just two joggers and a couple of French tourists in the whole of the park. Inside a plaque proudly proclaims to an invisible public that it was inaugurated by the President of the French region Ile-de-France.

If there is anything that Beirut needs it’s green spaces for the city dwellers to draw breath away from the fumes, noise and visual assault of the poor urban planning. It is the biggest green space in the whole of Beirut yet few local people have ever been able to visit it. Local authorities seem afraid it will become a hideout of sorts. The large pine forests are much smaller than in years past but Beirut’s biggest park is definitely worth a visit so see the tips below.

Horsh Beirut Pine Forest

cumulus pines

Tips for getting in to Horsh Beirut:

  • go well-dressed
  • go with tourists
  • go well before dark
  • leave your AK47 at home

For more information on Horsh Beirut and locals who want the park opened to the public, as well as a number of maps, check out Fadi Shayya’s book At the Edge of the City.

Here come the rains again

rain climate Lebanon Beirut

rain moves towards the port

After a mere sprinkling in September, this was the first real rain since April. Instead of collecting drips from the air conditioning, the buckets filled with torrents which cleansed the air and breathed colour into Beirut’s sun-fatigued, dust laden streets.

Check out the short slideshow from the downpour and aftermath.

Experts say the rain is being concentrated into shorter, heavier bursts, meaning longer, drier summers and less chance to collect the rain when it does arrive.