As I turn the corner to meet the Walk Beirut tour, there is a sweet smell of magnolias in the air. It is a sunny March day, and first whispers of spring in Beirut are everywhere. It’s Sunday, so most people are with their families for a long lunch, and the streets are nearly empty. The Western weekend schedule is just one of the things that sets this Mediterranean country apart from other countries in the Middle East, which relax on Fridays and Saturdays.
Led by Ronnie Chatah, 36, the Walk Beirut tour takes visitors, locals, and expats on a four-hour journey through the heart and history of the city. The tour is in high-demand after a long hiatus: Four years ago, Chatah took a break from his life as a self-professed storyteller after the assassination of his father, Mohamad Chatah, former finance minister and ambassador to the United States. When the son began offering his tours again in January, the first departure had over 90 guests.
Our fearless leader arrives with his wavy hair pulled back into a pony tail, making him look like a modern Romantic poet. The style conflicts with his briefcase in hand, but Chatah is a man who is at home with contradiction. He makes his way around the group, greeting everyone by name and confirming reservations with soft banter.
There are over 40 guests.“It is big group,” one tour attendee says,“but Ronnie is loud.”
When Chatah first started offering tours in 2005, they included 25 stops and lasted a total of seven hours. At the time, Lebanon was experiencing a golden age of tourism. Due to instability in the surrounding region, the country now receives far fewer visitors, and yet interest in Walk Beirut has skyrocketed.
At our first stop outside the Central Bank, Chatah dives right into the defining characteristic of life in any country: money. “Go to any ATM machine and you’re given dollars. Spend lira [the Lebanese pound] and you’ll likely get dollars back.”
He explains that, from 1975 to 1990, “Lebanon’s civil war destroyed its currency.” Since then, the lira has been pegged to the U.S. dollar in an effort to stabilize the currency. The notes are used interchangeably (US$1 equals about LBP1,500), making things easier for American travelers and expats; locals have gotten really good at doing fast math when restaurant bills arrive and $20s are thrown down with LBP50,000s.
Fuchsia bougainvillea dots entryways along the cobblestone streets we weave down en route to our next stop. We pass yellow Ottomanate buildings with ornate, triple archways that Chatah explains are a design element borrowed from Tuscany. In Lebanon, sidewalks are merely a suggestion of where to walk, owing to their disrepair and dual function as parking spots, so our group spills out onto the street.
As we walk, Chatah launches into a discussion of the country’s many sects, from Shi’a Muslims to Maronite Christians to Druze. According to the last census, taken in 1932, the diverse nation is home to 18 religious sects. Chatah jokes, “We’re really good at making religion here.”
Chatah jokes, “We’re really good at making religion here.”
For our next few stops, Chatah delves into the city’s architectural history. In many neighborhoods, the effects of the civil war are still visible in bullet-marked buildings and freestanding facades that were once homes or shops. But he makes sure to point out the rich blend of Lebanese, Turkish, and French influences, explaining that, “some parts of Beirut still look like Beirut.” Modern feats of design with straight lines and glass windows are interspersed with classic older buildings.
“I don’t know my country, I don’t know my city,” Faten Redah, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher, tells me as we walk. This tour offers a rare opportunity to hear a modern history of Lebanon for visitors and locals alike. Anything following the beginning of the disastrous civil war is studiously avoided in schools and museums. Many believe that the civil war was so destructive that to teach it would be to indoctrinate a new generation. Chatah steadfastly disagrees with this and is trying to share the story of his country both with outsiders and with his compatriots.
One imposing remnant of the war has become Lebanon’s most iconic building: a decrepit former Holiday Inn. Now standing 24 pockmarked stories tall with trees growing out of balconies, the hotel was once the largest Holiday Inn in the Middle East, replete with a turning dance floor. It was only open for a few months from 1974 to 1975 before it was taken over by militias during the infamous Battle of the Hotels. Embroiled in real estate kerfuffles, the building has remained empty. “[We] accidentally left an impressive reminder of the civil war,” Chatah says.“Twenty-eight years later, we’re reminded every day of what we did to ourselves.”
Heading through an anesthetized downtown that is home to a high-end and controversial development that turned old souks into an open-air mall, we stop at the recovered Roman baths. There are faint traces of mosaics and columns in the apparent rubble, which spreads away in grid formation from the impressive Grand Serai (the Prime Minister’s headquarters). These are just a peek at the centuries of ruins layered beneath the city, from Roman to Byzantine to Phoenician.
It is getting dark as we crowd around the statue at the heart of Martyrs Square in Beirut. Someone offers me a chocolate-covered biscuit. Sharing snacks with strangers is de rigueur here, a custom that took some adjustment for this American.
Here, Chatah takes us through Lebanon’s present, describing the current stability as a “glitch.” Even as recently as 2005, the country was in upheaval. He chronicles the spate of assassinations following the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the mood turns somber when he shares that his father was one of those killed. Later on, he will tell me that this part of the tour is never easy.
Chatah’s ability to delve unflinchingly into the nitty-gritty of the country’s history is partly what attracts many participants to his tours. Reda Dahhaoni, a 52-year-old local, says, “There is a lot of history that is taboo. . . . Generally people don’t want to speak about it.” That, perhaps, is why a tour like Walk Beirut is so rare—and so necessary. >>Next: 6 Reasons to Visit Beirut Despite the Travel Warning