It’s surprising how much you can learn about Middle Eastern politics while cruising along the Beirut shoreline in a Riva Ego yacht, sipping champagne with an exuberant blond wearing only a string bikini and a gold Rolex. Randa Missir, a Lebanese fashion retailer who owns the boat with her husband, Claude, an interior designer, has invited a group of friends for lunch at a seaside restaurant north of Byblos, and the conversation en route touches upon the fragility of Lebanon’s coalition government and the finer points of Hezbollah’s links with Syria and Iran. It’s all related to Missir’s explanation of why she and her friends like to go out every single night. “No matter what’s happening in Beirut—good or bad—people always find a way to make it social,” says Missir, 39. She recalls that during one particularly brutal stretch of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, when militias fought turf wars in the hills surrounding the city, “we would just move from mountain to mountain. There would always be a party at someone’s house, on whichever mountain had no bombs.”
The live-for-the-moment, dance-among-the-explosions cliché is one that has stuck to Beirut for years, and anyone who visits today quickly learns two things—that the image holds largely true and that it doesn’t begin to hint at the city’s mesmerizing complexity. When I arrive in my room at the sleek Le Gray hotel downtown and take my first look out the fourth-floor window, this is what I see: two mosques; a Maronite church; a military jeep packed with armed soldiers; some excavated Phoenician and Roman ruins; three women in head scarves climbing out of a Range Rover; a pedestrian shopping district, with outposts of Ladurée and Miss Sixty; and a German battleship docked in the azure Mediterranean waters. All that’s missing, it seems, is Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and rapper 50 Cent—both of whom will in fact pass through the neighborhood later in the week.
Locals will tell you that it’s impossible to sum up their city—a chaotic, sexy, shape-shifting metropolis whose population of one million (or perhaps two million; nobody knows for sure) is the most ethnically diverse in the Middle East. “The number of ways in which Beirut is perceived and experienced is infinite,” says Haig Papazian, an architect and violinist who cofounded Mashrou’ Leila, Lebanon’s young rock band of the moment. But if there’s a way to get a handle on the place, it’s by making the rounds with its artists, moguls, social figures, and other key players, as I did on a recent visit. Despite their differences, these characters tend to share telltale traits, including fluency in at least three languages and a high tolerance for blackouts and water shortages. And they all inhabit their own version of what they call “the real Beirut,” which they’re generally happy to show off.