For ages I’ve been grasping around in my head for a word to describe Beirut and the best I can settle for is ‘bipolar’. This city is a crazy bitch, the only place in the world where I’ve seen an army checkpoint metres away from a designer boutique. I can’t make my mind up about it either – sometimes I love it for its buzz and its live-for-the-day fatalism, but sometimes I loathe it for its superficiality. Today I’m happy to be here because I spent the morning near the port looking for an on-the-loose crocodile with a Cockney called Pete, and in the afternoon I found a beauty salon where you can get a full leg wax for the equivalent of £7.50. That’s the kind of city Beirut is.
But the situation can change here as quickly as my opinion. Two days ago everyone was expecting that the US would imminently launch missile attacks on Syria and that the ensuing chaos would instantly spill over Lebanon’s borders. Amid the high hemlines, the bars and the boutiques of Beirut, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that you can drive to Damascus in two hours. But millions of refugees have flocked to this tiny and already struggling country. The kids selling roses, the women in headscarves begging on the streets, and the people huddled up for the night underneath the Kola Bridge – they’re all Syrians who wish they weren’t here.
“You see how Syria disintegrated over two years?” says my Lebanese friend. “Well Lebanon could do that in two days.” Still piecing itself back together in the wake of its own sectarian civil war, Lebanon just needs one sharp jolt to make it fall apart again. The influx of refugees has already strained relations here, as has Hezbollah’s boots-on-the-ground support for Assad’s regime. Many people here believe that the strikes could provide that jolt.
But with Obama now appearing to shy away once again from launching attacks, Beirut is exhaling with relief. The clubs of Hamra and Gemmayzeh are still heaving, even if tomorrow might bring a renewed threat of chaos. It’s nothing like normal – but nothing in Beirut ever is.