Beirut: A Trilingual City Of Beautiful Contradictions

Talking about the language of Beirut is a tricky thing — not only because there are actually three of them, but because they’re intimately tied to the city’s diverging cultures.
Photo of downtown Beirut | Babbel

Bonjour madame, que puis-je avoir pour vous?” I’m sitting in a cozy cafe at a distressed oak table. A bunch of blooming peonies are in a vase at the center and I’m struggling to read the menu. My French isn’t very good, you see. “Can I get you an English menu?” the waitress asks, spotting my confusion.

A young couple is chattering beside me and the next table over is a family celebrating an elderly member’s birthday. A balloon with “Bon Anniversaire” written across it is attached to the cheerful lady’s chair. As I munch on ham and mushroom croquettes and sip a cafe au lait, it’s easy to forget that I’m not in Paris or Marseilles. Actually, I’m far from it — I’m right in the middle of Beirut, Lebanon.

The Language Of Beirut

Beirut is a city of contradictions: Mosques and churches stand side by side, Lebanon being one of the few countries where Islam and Catholicism live together in relative harmony. And, although it’s not a big city, the affluent and the impoverished live just blocks away from each other. Before the country’s civil war (from 1975 to 1990) it was referred to as “The Paris of the Middle East.”

To get my footing in the city, I take a walking tour of downtown Beirut with a young, angry and eloquent tour guide named Marc. He warns us up front, “This is going to get political,” and invites anyone in the group to disagree with him at any time — “It’s impossible to offend me,” he says. 

Marc was born in the Christian suburbs of Beirut. “My first language is the Lebanese dialect of Arabic,” he explains. “I went to a French school and then I attended the American University of Beirut. But I learned English before school — I used to watch the Disney Channel with Arabic subtitles.”

While I enjoyed my croquettes in the fancy French cafe, I was in a purely Francophone neighborhood. I later discovered that just meters down the road was an area comprised of slums. On reflection, it certainly seemed strange to have an English menu with no sign of Arabic — especially because Arabic is the official language of Lebanon.

Marc explains to me why this is: “Here, language is used as an indicator of the social class of a person. It’s a way of gauging your socio-economic background. I have friends who are what we call ‘Frenchies.’ This isn’t just someone who speaks French — it’s an identity. These people only speak French and they’ll speak Arabic with a French accent — sometimes intentionally. So being a Frenchie is usually associated with feeling superior.”

The Paris Of The Middle East

In certain areas, the reputation of Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East” still holds. In the hip, bustling area of Hamra, palm trees line the streets and grow almost as tall as the dusty pink and yellow Baroque houses. You can watch the waves crash against the coastline in the many downtown cafes, or visit the Souks on the weekend, crammed full of tourists keen to spend their LBP on locally sourced fabrics and spices.

When the Civil War ended, a private company called Solidere bought most of the land downtown and set to work rebuilding it. Solidere was keen to let the world know that Beirut is back, so to speak. Solidere hired modern architects and world-class designers to rebuild the city, turning downtown Beirut into a haven of luxury shops and extravagant apartment buildings. These would look perfectly at home in the cityscape of London or New York, but in Beirut there’s one glaring difference: They’re completely empty.

Only 1% of Lebanese people can afford these properties, and, behind these beautiful, yet empty, luxury flats lies another contradiction: The Holiday Inn.

Or, more accurately, what used to be a Holiday Inn. This structure was one of the tallest buildings in the city and, when war broke out, was used as a tactical point for militias to target their enemies. Today, behind the glistening luxury flats, the gutted building lies empty, peppered with bomb and bullet holes. “It’s the elephant in the city,” Marc explains. “Solidere tries to pretend the war didn’t happen — but we still have the Holiday Inn.” Solidere doesn’t own that piece of land so it hasn’t been torn down and locals have fought to preserve it as an informal monument to the war.

Beirut Today

Marc is critical of his country, but that night I experienced a side of Beirut that contradicts his cynicism in an area called Mar Mikhael. The streets here are more jungle than concrete, with dark green ivy creeping up the sides of neon-lit bars. A kiosk in the street sells cocktails for five euros and the man behind the bar makes a habit of giving free shots called “Dodos” to passersby. These are a Lebanese delicacy, apparently — a mixture of vodka, ginger and an olive in the middle. It’s an experience.

It’s a Tuesday night and Beirut is bursting with life. I wander into a bar called Radio on a bustling street to find a band playing irresistible indie covers of classic songs. A tattooed barman expertly flips two bottles at the same time as he multi-tasks drink orders. Half of the wall is covered in artwork from a local artist, while lamps and mismatched furniture make the space half bar/half your grandma’s living room.

The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists: Lebanese, German, British, Dutch, Canadian. The band is banging out songs with such energy it’s impossible not to dance. The frontman belts out a fast, punk cover of “Let’s get it on,” encouraging the crowd to get up and dance, once in Arabic and three times in English. Later I ask the drummer the name of his band. “Oh, we aren’t a band,” he laughs. “We’re just friends. We just jam here every Tuesday.”

It’s 1 a.m. and time for the bar to close, but instead, the barman shuts the door and turns up the music. Buzzed from the extra-strong cocktails and countless shots of Dodo, the entire bar erupts, dancing together on tables like they’ve known each other their whole lives rather than just a few hours. Beirut may be a city of contradictions, but it really knows how to party.

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