Free doesn't mean carefree
The last bastion of the liberal Middle East, Beirut is where the rest of the Arab world comes to let their hair down. While there is much more to the city than drinking cocktails on the beach, the fact that one can even do that legally is an important aspect of life in Beirut. More importantly, Beirut is one of the region’s only cities where people are free to embrace secularism, gay rights, and free artistic expression. Residents of Lebanon are constantly reminded that they are living in the midst of ongoing regional and political turmoil. However, this uncertainty has done little to slow Lebanese-funded construction. Nor has it impacted infrastructure, park development, or partnerships with cities like Geneva, London, and Paris aimed at making the city a better place to live. In 2014, Beirut’s startup scene thrived: Displaced Syrian artists established new studios in the city, the arrival of Uber ameliorated the city’s notorious traffic problem, and green activists proved Horsh Park could be a place for tolerance. Clinging to its outlier status in a region of uncertainty, Beirut will continue to be a beacon of possibility.
Hub for progress
Beirut Digital District (BDD) is a collection of buildings downtown that provides thousands of square meters of dedicated space for startups and high-speed Internet (an elusive find in 2MB-powered Beirut). The area also hosts major regional tech events like ArabNet, a gathering place for digital professionals and entrepreneurs. This year, Pin Pay, a tenant at BDD, won a global award for providing the most innovative payment solutions in Lebanon, allowing users to transfer funds to anyone with a mobile phone, anytime. Meanwhile, another Beirut company, Yellow, was founded this year with the goal of bringing Bitcoin to the Middle East and transforming Lebanon from a predominantly cash-in-hand society to one dealing in virtual currency.
First set up in January, the city’s innovative traffic management Twitter account was deemed a success, a place where traffic violations could be reported as they happened. Beirut’s citizens responded enthusiastically, with the account amassing more than 70,000 followers and serving as a place for residents to vent about one of the city’s most vexing problems.
Beirut’s most interesting neighborhood in 2014 was Mar Mikhael, home to the ever-expanding Plan BEY. What started as a boutique stationery store a few years ago is now a small neighborhood development with a guest house, a bed and breakfast, a temporary exhibition space, and a new restaurant called Motto—the first restaurant in Beirut to implement a "pay what you think is fair" policy with a different chef every night.
Arab ethnicities, including refugees escaping persecution, have peacefully lived side by side in Beirut for thousands of years. A strong signal that this is a future everyone wants is the re-opening of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. A five-year renovation brought this beautiful 1920s building back to active service for Beirut’s small Jewish community. Even the virulently anti-Zionist group Hezbollah has shown its respect for the building.
Lebanon’s government moves as slowly as Beirut’s rush-hour traffic. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the perennial promise of public transportation has been superseded by the arrival of Uber. The app made its way into the grateful arms of Beirut citizens in July. This might not seem radical, except when you consider that Beirut taxi drivers don’t use street names. Only expats bother to find out the actual street address of their destination, and promptly forget it when they realize how useless it is. The dropped pin function on Uber removes the pain of convoluted directions based on landmarks and luck.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 9 square meters of green space per capita to maintain public health—Beirut has only 0.8. Beirut’s largest park, the 300,000-square-meter Horsh Beirut, makes up 75 percent of all the city’s green space. It’s also closed to Lebanese passport holders on the grounds that its central position is perfect for sectarian violence. However, grassroots activists with the Beirut Green Project managed a staggering feat earlier this year, opening Horsh Beirut for a day to the Lebanese youth. For the first time, many Lebanese got to see the huge pine forest once known as “The Forest of Miracles.”
This year saw the flourishing of the Syrian contemporary art scene in Beirut, after the large majority of the art community fled Damascus in the midst of the Syrian civil war. Art Residence Aley is a nonprofit that houses new Syrian artists every two to four weeks in a facility in the hills above Beirut. This year, work from Aley’s artists was shown in May at the Contemporary Beirut Global Art Show and at Aley’s own “Art of Resilience” show months later.
Beirut citizens don’t rely upon their employers or the government when it comes to staking out a healthy work/life balance. Case in point: Workers from the government-owned Electricite du Liban utility company striked throughout the course of 2014 to protest their suspended salaries and to demand full-time employment. Despite this lack of government resources, Beirut locals do not struggle to find unofficial ways to make themselves a little happier, evidenced by the packed streets of Mar Mikhael and the Hamra hookah bars on most weeknights.
Philippa Young is a British filmmaker and writer living in Beirut. The first time she visited Beirut, the cars and concrete offended her so much she didn't want to come back. By her third visit, she wanted to move there permanently. Young also runs BLACK Coffee—part of the Plan BEY development in Mar Mikhael.