After months of wishing we were here, there, or anywhere that wasn’t our own homes, travel is back. This bi-weekly travel essay will follow the adventures of our writers as they finally make their escape from Britain and take a much-needed holiday.
Armenia Street was quiet the night Billy was set free. It was a Monday, and Beirut’s nightlife hotspot had a subdued end-of-season feel. It was drizzling – the first rain in months. We were drinking beers at an up-market Armenian restaurant in front of plates of stuffed vine leaves and baba ganoush. “It was everything you’d imagine a Lebanese jail to be,” said Billy with a tired grin.
Two days earlier, I’d been sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow. The plan was to meet my old school friend, who had moved to Lebanon two weeks earlier, at one of Beirut’s few remaining hostels and spend the week travelling around the tiny country together. Then the texts came through.
“Bad news. I’ve been arrested. They’re holding me here. (A Google Maps screenshot of the Beirut Security Office). Here’s my lawyer’s number (a screenshot of a suited Lebanese man on the TV news with a WhatsApp number underneath). I don’t know when they’re going to let me out. They’re about to take my phone.”
Christ, I thought. Here we go again.
Two years earlier, we had both been in Lebanon when simmering anger at plummeting living standards and a corrupt ruling class erupted into nationwide protests. In the northern city of Tripoli, men in balaclavas set fire to tyres on major roads. Wiry 10-year-olds with flick-knives poking out of their trousers stalked through crowds chanting “Thawra!” – revolution. Soldiers looked on with M16s clamped to their chests. Despite high hopes of a new beginning, Lebanon’s sclerotic political system remains in place, and the country has spiralled into one of the worst economic disasters in modern history.
Billy’s crime had been slipping through a half-open door and wandering around taking pictures of the site of the 2020 port explosion that killed 218 people and injured thousands. A group of soldiers spotted him as he left and, suspecting espionage, arrested him.
The site is strictly out of bounds because the question of who is responsible for the blast is still extremely sensitive. The week before we arrived, snipers had opened fire on a group of Hezbollah demonstrators in Beirut protesting against the judge’s handling of the inquest into the explosion. But after 48 hours of interrogations, form-filling and strip-searching, they correctly concluded that he was a clueless tourist, and let him go.
As my friend languished in his fetid cell (“The guards only let us go to use the toilet when they felt like it”), I spent two days rediscovering Beirut and its still-vibrant party scene. I told myself it’s what he would have wanted. After all, his as-seen-on-TV lawyer, Chawkat, told me he was handling it.
Setting off from Hostel Beirut in Mar Mikhael – a trendy neighbourhood with a southern European feel – I walked west past the stunning al-Hussein Mosque, through the bustling residential district of Hamra, and eventually reached the distinctive Raouche rock formation, where I had a dip in the Med, sipped a drink and watched the sunset.
The city’s mood had changed. Young boys rooted around in bins for food and plastic bottles – a rare sight two years ago. There were very few obvious foreigners. Mario, the young Lebanese bartender who ran the hostel, told me that people were exhausted. “I still don’t know why I haven’t left Lebanon,” he said. “Most of my friends have.”
An acute shortage of fuel means there’s only around an hour a day of state-generated electricity across the country. Private generators were breaking down and running dry. Cab drivers would fill up their tanks with fluorescent blue kerosene rather than petrol.
The hostel, which had been packed to the rafters with young travellers in 2019, was deserted when I arrived, apart from Bouba, a professional Lebanese circus clown, and Theo, a Dutch skateboarder who volunteered at the Shatila refugee camp. I had come at the right time, they said. Once in a blue moon, Beirut’s queer crowd put on a drag show and tonight was the first for three months. They’d get me on the guest list.
I hadn’t been to a drag show before. The theme was Halloween, and it was a lot to take in. A trained ballerina clad in latex wearing six-inch-long talons, a demonic mask and angel wings twisted and pranced to a sultry beat as a red strobe pulsed and preened 20-somethings sat transfixed. I wondered how Billy was doing.
The day after he got out, we headed down south to the coastal town of Tyre. We thought some sea air might wash away the memory of his ordeal. With its tranquil old town, warren-like souks, cobbled streets, cheerful fishermen and pristine beach, it turned out to be the perfect place to unwind.
Back in Beirut on our last night, we treated ourselves to an old favourite. South of Armenia Street is the restaurant, Al-Falamanki – a little oasis of calm hidden behind an understated, shuttered façade that spills out into an atmospherically lit terrace overflowing with vegetation. The menu is a four-page cornucopia of mezze dishes and the food is served against a backdrop of clacking backgammon dice and coils of shisha smoke. It was good to be back.