BEIRUT: As the old cliche goes, Beirut is a city that reinvents itself from one month to another. Trendy hot spots come and go, the political climate changes (while remaining somehow the same), heritage houses are razed and new structures rise inexorably in their place.
Cliche or not, a lot changes in four years in any capital city. This means that for travelers to Lebanon the current Lonely Planet guide, published in July 2008, is severely out-of-date.
Luckily there is Carole Corm’s recently released “Beirut: A Guide to the City,” a comprehensive and beautifully produced book – part history, part travel guide, part insider’s view of the capital. Corm’s effort is not only up-to-date, it is far more detailed, extensive and well-researched than its competitors. Then again, at 325 pages for one city, it should be.
A Beirut-based journalist, Corm has also written an insider’s guide to Lebanon and an impressive guide to Damascus, unfortunately published just a few months before the Syrian uprising began, effectively rendering it an irrelevant curio piece.
“Beirut: A Guide to the City” will hopefully have a longer shelf life. A pleasing balance of well-researched historical, cultural and practical information is supplemented by whimsical trivia and interviews or essays by local specialists on the city’s culture, history and society, providing a range of genuinely expert insights.
With a section of arty, mutedly atmospheric photos by Nadim bou Habib, beautiful matte paper and elegantly patterned section dividers from local author Sophie Skaf’s book on Mediterranean floor tiles and colorful, clearly marked maps, Corm’s guide also stands out aesthetically.
The guide provides information on basic essentials, such as visas, and explains travel to and within Beirut, clarifying the confusing local taxi system. Useful numbers, key dates and bank holidays for 2013 are listed, along with a short guide to each of Beirut’s neighborhoods and an extensive directory of shops, art galleries, hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, theaters and cinemas and ideas for amusing children.
Such material is covered by most guide books – though generally not with the same depth of knowledge and attention to detail. In addition, Corm gives a historical timeline of Beirut.
Detailed information is provided on key historical sites, grouped to form small walking trails and arranged in chronological order. Corm also includes a section called “Off the Beaten Track,” which details oft-ignored areas of the city such as Zoqaq al-Blat, Burj Hammoud, Horsh Beirut and the city’s southern suburbs.
Interspersed with these sections are short boxed essays on lesser known aspects of the city’s culture and history, including a text on Beirut’s cemeteries and one on its brothels, a brief word about Lebanon’s endangered old houses and a fascinating account of the city as a center for legal studies under the Roman Empire.
What really makes this volume stand above its rivals, however, is the unusual addition of insider points of view, which make up the last third of the book.
These consist of one-page Q&As with local celebrities, from “The Writer” Rachid el Daif to “The Fashion Designer,” Rabih Kayrouz, via “The Art Dealer” Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk, who share their unique insights on the city.
Other expert essays elucidate various topics that often prove hard for tourists to penetrate, from Lebanese food to Beirut’s art, film, literature, theater and music scenes, to Sabra and Chatila and Beirut’s migrant workers.
These additions provide an immersive experience for tourists, but also make for interesting reading, even for longtime residents.
The only possible criticism to “Beirut: A Guide to the City” is its assumption that readers are flush with cash. While this is the perfect guide for those for whom money is no object – detailing the finest hotels, restaurants and designer shops in the city – it won’t help those on a budget to find their way around.
The majority of the hotels listed charge in excess of $100 a night, while the restaurant listings provide no price guide at all. These drawbacks aside, Corm’s guide would be worth investing in for travelers of any budget, due to its exceptional wealth of cultural and historical information, sure to supplement more practically minded budget guides.
“Beirut: A Guide to the City” is not a guide book to stuff in a backpack, scribble notes on or use as a makeshift pillow on long journeys. It is a book to put in a bookshelf and treasure. If this debut title of Beirut’s Darya Press is indicative of what’s to come, than it’s a publishing house to watch.
Carole Corm’s “Beirut: A Guide to the City” is published by Darya Press, Beirut.