After years of exposure to war and its close cousin, decadence, many of Beirut’s natives look at the world with a kind of seen-it-all fatalism, and they know better than to kid themselves about the city or its future. At the time of my visit in October, the United Nations tribunal had not yet issued the results of its investigation into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The ruling was expected to implicate Syria and its Lebanese Shiite allies, and many feared that it would spark yet another round of chaos and killings. Others theorized that Beirut’s current economic boom would prove to be its salvation—that there are too many people with too much money at stake to allow things to get as bad as they did last time, or the times before that.
How heavily these issues are weighing on the minds of the patrons at MusicHall, the raucous cabaret favored by both VIPs and birthday groups, is difficult to say. On the Thursday night I go to the club for a late dinner with owner Michel Elefteriades, he warns me that the crowd will be smaller and more subdued than usual, since Ahmadinejad is in town for his first state visit and much of downtown is closed to traffic.
By 11 p.m., however, the club is jammed as a 19-year-old Lebanese vocalist takes the stage to belt out an operatic cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” The place really gets going when Syrian crooner Hajj Issam, backed by a 12-piece band, sings a bittersweet ballad in which a suitor pleads with his beloved, using a refrain that could resonate on many levels in today’s Beirut. “Just give me an answer,” he sings in Arabic, “even if it’s bad.” Next, wild cheers greet the entrance of the Chehade Brothers, two oud-strumming Palestinians with long beards and knit skullcaps. And by 2:30 on an otherwise quiet Friday morning, most of the crowd are in the aisles, singing and dancing like crazy.