In my last post I wrote about increasing tensions in Beirut. Then I mentioned that I was on the beach in Sicily. Frivolous on my part?
Before arriving to Lebanon, I might have thought so. But with a summer in and out of Beirut under my belt, I know better. Beirutis are passionate, maybe even obsessed, about going to the beach. In one of the memoirs about the city I read during my first month here, the author recounted a friend´s desperation to go to the beach when the city was under siege during the 2006 war with Israel. At the moment of a brief cease-fire, the friend leapt into her car, and drove furiously to get out of town. One highway tunnel was blocked at the end by a lone, but heavily-armed soldier. She turned back, tried another route, and another, and another, until she found a way out of town and a day on the beach.
That’s some serious dedication to the beach.
Lebanon´s coastline is 140 miles long, pebbly in parts, sandy in others, and Mediterranean waters warmly lap its shores. There is a public beach at the southern end of Beirut. It is popular with families, but women anything less than fully-clothed while bathing are rare there. Along the Corniche, locals (mostly men) cool off by jumping into the water from the rocky shore. You can spot the occasional woman, sometimes fully clothed, sometimes in modest, 1920s-style bathing suits.
There are few free public beaches, but many beach clubs, charging anywhere from US$10 to US$35 or more per person, for use of their facilities. Beach chairs and umbrellas are abundant, and many clubs also have swimming pools. In the city, the moneyed set tends to lounge poolside at one of the expensive clubs built along the rocks, muscled men and bikini-clad women hidden from gawkers by screens and awnings that line the clubs’ edges. The seashore north and south of town is similar, public beaches interspersed with private clubs that are set well away from the public eye.
For the Lebanese, where you go to the beach says something about who you are.
“You went to Al-Jisr beach?” asked my Arabic tutor with surprise. “There is another you will like better, you must try Jiyé Marina…. All the people that go to Al-Jisr come from the same village.”
¨You went to Al-Jisr beach?” questioned the stylist at the hair salon. “You must try Lazy B, it is more European, you will like it better.”
I wasn’t sure quite to make of either of those comments, but my family and I were game for trying them all.
We liked the budget-friendly prices at Al-Jisr, their gazebo-like thatch shades on the beach, and the huge swimming pool, despite the massive crowds and the pervasive smell of argileh pipes. (Argilehs are water pipes for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco, popular with many Lebanese.)
We liked the sandy cove and calm waters at Jiyé Marina.
And we did like the colorful, sleek, “European” aesthetic at Lazy B, as well as their kids pool.
Hmmm… how does that define us? Perhaps as the multinational, adventurous family that we are.
On our way to the beaches in the south we drove by The Palms Ladies Resort. An expat friend I’ve made told me about her visit to the resort with a group of Lebanese women and their children (boys under age 10 only). It´s a place where women can strip down, away from the prying eyes of men. Jetties are built out into the water to prevent anyone of the opposite gender approaching too closely by sea. My friend reported that the bikinis were shockingly itsy-bitsy (and told of a collective gasp that went up from the crowd when a male jet-skier shot by too close for comfort). Conservative and rebellious mixed together, defying any attempt to pigeonhole. Just the way I like it.