The Rafik Hariri International Airport is a happening place. Not just because it’s named after this famous slain Sunni Prime Minister who was car-bombed on Valentine’s Day a few years ago — his death a fact you can’t escape anywhere within Lebanon because his face is on every other poster in this country – but because everybody is always coming home to this country.
It’s estimated that just 4.5 million people live within Lebanon while 20 million live outside. On the day of our arrival, it looks like nearly a third are headed home. There’s a prevalence of well-dressed women with little packages of babies, they are bringing back to show off to grandparents. Dozens of families wait outside the exit, all sporting eager smiles and helium balloons with Welcome Home signs. The first thing we spot upon stepping outside on the curb is a Krispy Kreme billboard. “Welcome to Beirut” says David Lewis, my husband, who has arranged this trip.
We’re staying at the Albergo Hotel,in the Achrafieh neighborhood of Beirut. The Albergo is part of the Relais & Chateaux chain of hotels. Achrafieh is a chic, Christian neighborhood with trendy restaurants, burger joints and boutiques. I love this hotel. Every room is unique in layout and design. Our room has bold striped curtains and rich colored wallpaper with a repeated motif of an ancient looking couple in oriental garb meandering towards a pagoda. There’s a hand-painted lidded glass jar in the bathroom filled with large crystals of bath salts and a brass spoon to scoop it all into the marble bathtub.
Our first night, we have cocktails on the rooftop bar with Nicholas Noe. Nick is one of those plucky Americans who come to Lebanon and never leave. When he’s not running MidEastWire.com and the Beirut Exchange, he’s my husband’s defacto wingman in Beirut. Nick’s arranged for us to have an audience with Alastair Crooke.
Alastair is former British Intelligence officer who Senator George Mitchell engaged to help in his Middle East peace efforts. On our first night on the rooftop at the Albergo, Alastair provided our group with a historical overview of the political strife and structure of the region that left our heads spinning. The sun is about to set, so we head out to dine at Al Balad in downtown Central Beirut to enjoy what’s to be the first of our many extraordinary meals in Lebanon. Note to self, think I’ll order Alastair’s book, “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution” to try to make sense of it all!