One insider who has watched Beirut rise and fall more times than she’d care to remember is Lady Cochrane (née Yvonne Sursock), an 88-year-old grande dame who grew up in, and still inhabits, the city’s most splendid private mansion, Palais Sursock, located on rue Sursock, in the Sursock section of town. A descendant of Lebanese and Italian aristocrats who has been crusading for stricter historic preservation laws since the early Sixties, Lady Cochrane is aware of all the chatter about Beirut’s latest go-go renaissance, which dates from the end of the 2006 war with Israel. However, the buzz she’s most concerned with is coming from the construction saws on nearby lots where several new apartment towers are rising high enough to overshadow the jacaranda trees in her verdant garden. (In a perverse twist, developers have managed to name the largest new complex Sursock Tower, owing to its address.) “The old Beirut has disappeared,” she says in an accent that combines the clipped vowels of Sloane Square with the guttural r’s of the Levant. “It was one of the most beautiful towns on the Mediterranean. Everyone had a garden; even the poorest people had a little bit of green. Now look around.”
As Lady Cochrane gives me a tour of the Flemish tapestries and Italian Baroque paintings that survived the roughly 50 mortar explosions her house sustained during the civil war in the Seventies and Eighties, it becomes clearer why she is staying put, despite her conviction that the town is turning into “one enormous slum.” She’s hoping to change the city’s planning system, which often favors developers and government cronies over residents, while also trying to block new limestone quarries that are damaging the environment. “One must try to stop these things, even if one doesn’t succeed,” she says.
A few blocks down the hill from Palais Sursock, in the artsy enclaves of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, a noticeably brighter view of Beirut’s prospects holds sway. Among the city’s young creative types there are signs that Lebanon’s decades-old brain drain, which began during the civil war and never really stopped, is finally reversing itself. “There’s so much happening here now culturally, it’s like a playground,” Papazian, a bearded 23-year-old, says over dinner at the hipster-friendly dive Le Chef. Last summer he turned down a job in Paris to stay and record a second album with his six bandmates. Mashrou’ Leila—whose members are design students and recent graduates with varied Muslim and Christian backgrounds—started out as an underground curiosity but quickly earned raves for its fresh alt-rock sound and provocative, darkly humorous lyrics, written in Arabic and laced with Lebanese slang. One song is a man-to-man romantic ballad; another twists a “tick, tick, tick” lyric from a children’s tune into a brooding meditation on life during wartime. On the night I stop by a practice session in a shabby basement studio, the musicians are bantering in Arabic, English, and French; lead singer Hamed Sinno mentions that he’s pleased to hear that one of their songs has become a bootleg hit in Ramallah. But he wryly notes that their crossover potential may be limited among some conservative Arab populations, where having a female keyboardist is a big no-no. “People get sensitive about these things,” he says.